Bernie Sanders has suspended his presidential run. Now Joe Biden has the difficult task of bringing the left into his tent.
It’s clear that Biden’s camp is at least somewhat concerned about gaining the support of the more-progressive faction of the party, giving in to Elizabeth Warren’s long-standing critique of his bankruptcy reform legislation and adopting a zero-tuition college plank explicitly modeled on ideas Sanders has championed in the past.
Some people in Biden’s camp are even talking about the possibility of a Warren vice presidency, something at least some of her allies would welcome.
The real talk, however, is that Biden’s problem with the left isn’t about anything that is or isn’t in his platform, it’s about who he is.
The left doesn’t trust Joe Biden
To understand the depth and severity of Biden’s problem with the left, consider a few remarks Elizabeth Bruenig, the New York Times columnist and vocal Sanders supporter, made while watching the one-on-one debate between Biden and Sanders.
First, she dismissed his pledge to select a woman vice president as uninteresting and then under pressure escalated to call it “condescending.”
It's condescending— Elizabeth Bruenig (@ebruenig) March 16, 2020
She joked that she would refuse to serve in the role even if she were old enough.
i would not run as biden's vp even if i met the age cutoff and needed the help selling books https://t.co/vkhbz2jMh1— Elizabeth Bruenig (@ebruenig) March 16, 2020
And then, pulling out of joke mode, she said the problem with supporting Biden is that he wants to cut Social Security.
because i personally feel that offering to slash social security to get republicans to agree to whatever grand bargain is a bad idea and i do not wish to advance that sort of politics https://t.co/zdSsBtiJ1B— Elizabeth Bruenig (@ebruenig) March 16, 2020
This will be a real problem for his campaign. Biden performed poorly with younger voters, who tend to be less reliable turnout targets than the sort of older people who make up his base. Sanders voters also have low levels of institutional attachment to the Democratic Party, so they’re prone to defecting in a way that other factional support might not be even if they lost. And last but by no means least, while Sanders himself will most likely support the ticket, if Biden loses it will be seen as a semi-vindication of Sanders’s ideas about politics, and if he wins it will be a refutation of them.
Under the circumstances, having a New York Times columnist be openly hostile to his candidacy will do Biden no favors — especially since she’ll doubtless by joined by many other figures from the burgeoning Sanders alt-media universe of Jacobin, Chapo Trap House, the Young Turks, Current Affairs, and the like.
But critically, Bruenig’s critique of Biden isn’t that there’s something wrong with his position on Social Security. It’s that there’s something wrong with what his position on Social Security was years ago, during budget negotiations.
Joe Biden has been around a long time
One advantage a fresh-faced politician has is that, with a limited record, he can alter his public persona relatively rapidly with a speech or two or a few policy rollouts.
Former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, for example, was mostly perceived as progressive in the early phases of his campaign because he was talking about abolishing the Electoral College, packing the courts, and calling Trump “a symptom of larger problems.” That started to change rapidly when Buttigieg rolled out a health care plan centered on a public option and began attacking Sanders and Warren from the right. Mayor Pete briefly became the great hope of the moderate faction of the Democratic Party, as well as a hate figure in the eyes of the young left who saw him as a figure of generational betrayal.
Had Buttigieg wanted to tack back left, however, by talking more about his desire to decriminalize possession of all drugs, his plan to aggressively void the patents of expensive prescription drugs, or his criticism of the neoliberal consensus, he could probably have shifted his public image once again.
I’d say neoliberalism is the political-economic consensus that has governed the last forty years of policy in the US and UK. Its failure helped to produce the Trump moment. Now we have to replace it with something better.— Pete Buttigieg (@PeteButtigieg) September 23, 2019
In particular, precisely because Buttigieg’s public record is so thin and the mayor of South Bend’s powers so limited, we knew him primarily through his policy proposals and campaign rhetoric. Under the circumstances, new policy announcements could plausibly change how he was evaluated and by whom.
By contrast, the under-45 voters whom Biden has struggled with were literally not born when he entered the Senate in 1973. He is a known quantity who people reasonably evaluate primarily on the basis of his decades as a prominent politician. Most Democratic primary voters like what they see of him. But those who don’t aren’t going to be suddenly swayed by a student loan plan.
How hard should Biden even try?
Given that efforts to court the left are unlikely to succeed, one question worth asking is whether it’s really worth Biden’s while to try.
Overall voter turnout bounces around quite a bit (and is likely to be high in November 2020 if the coronavirus situation allows it), but the relative turnout by age group is fairly constant. Nominating young primary voters’ preference in 2008 didn’t actually lead to a different result in this regard than nominating older voters’ preference in 2016, so the turnout piece of the puzzle may not be important.
There's nothing exceptional about any of this. Relative turnout by age has been stable and unchanging for literally decades. pic.twitter.com/AoRc4gId5i— (((David Shor))) (@davidshor) March 11, 2020
The level of defections to third-party candidates, by contrast, really does change a lot from year to year and could make a big difference in November. But every voter on the margin between Democrats and Republicans is worth twice as much as every voter on the margin between Democrats and the Green Party.
To the extent that Biden can court left-wing voters by adopting progressive positions that are broadly popular, it would be smart politics to do so. The biggest example of issues like this, however, are things like full legalization of marijuana and capping credit card interest rates, neither of which are closely associated with Sanders (though he does support them both).
But these are left-wing ideas worth embracing primarily because they’re also popular with the electorate at large, rather than because they’ll earn Biden plaudits from the Berniesphere.
The problem with doing things that are explicitly designed to appeal to dedicated leftists, by contrast, is that it invites mainstream news cycles about whether it’s working, and the answer is likely to be no.
Back in 2016, Hillary Clinton’s concerted efforts to court Sanders voters contributed to the perception that she was ideologically further from the center than Donald Trump without changing the fundamental reality that leftists were sour about her.
Rather than spend time on a likely fruitless effort to court the left, Biden might want to accept that he’s going to take a lot of crap from the Berniesphere no matter what he does and just lean into his moderate brand. If he does, the left is sure to howl that he’s betraying progressive values — just as they predicted.
But realistically, he’s going to be seen as a likely betrayer no matter what he does, simply because a certain quarter of the left sees the Democratic Party establishment as a constant source of betrayal and there’s no way for Biden to get away from the reality that he is a lifelong, dyed-in-the-wool member of the establishment.