Democrats’ Dilemma

Joe Biden was near the bottom of my preferences for a Democratic nominee for 2020. But my preferences are not really relevant now that Democratic voters around the country have spoken. It seems clear that Biden, barring some unforeseen calamity, will be the Democratic nominee in 2020. However, it says something about our sclerotic, gerontocratic political and electoral systems that the election that may very well determine whether democracy survives in this country will be a contest between two men in their mid to late 70s who are both experiencing visible cognitive decline. Be that as it may, the contrast between these two men can not be clearer, creating a contest between democracy and autocracy, competence and chaos, service and selfishness, commonweal and corruption, compassion and contempt, stability and uncertainty, decency and division. For all those reasons, every Democrat must put their preferences aside and rally to support the Biden campaign.

Biden’s rout of Sanders in Bernie’s supposed midwestern strongholds seems to be far more indicative of an aversion to Clinton in 2016 than to any particular Sanders’ strength back then. How much of that was simply Clinton hatred and fatigue, (and that includes Bill), and/or outright misogyny we will never really know. But it does appear that Biden has been able to rebuild major parts of the so-called Obama coalition of blacks, suburban voters, and disaffected working-class whites.

Biden is basically running on a campaign of “stability”, a “return to normalcy” that echoes Warren Harding’s 1920 campaign in the aftermath of World War I. Biden is promising a return to status quo ante Trump, where the President doesn’t make news every day and spends most of the time trying to build consensus, to unite us and not divide us. It is, in its own way, a nostlagia campaign. That return to normalcy is echoed by Biden’s seemingly fanciful assertions that congressional Republicans will have some kind of “epiphany” after Trump is gone and be willing to work with Biden and Democrats in addressing the country’s problems. His promise to wealthier suburban voters is the same one he delivered to the donor class, “No one’s standard of living would change. Nothing would fundamentally change”. In that regard, his policy proposals are primarily focused on incremental changes to existing policies, with the public option probably being his most progressive position.

In many ways, this appeal to stability and unwillingness to rock the boat applies to the Democratic House leadership since gaining control of that body in 2018. House leaders always knew that nothing they passed would get through the Senate, so they primarily focused on passing messaging bills that were designed to boost those new swing seat Representatives that provided the margin for their majority. While Pelosi often mentioned oversight, she was far more focused on making sure Democrats would get the business of government done and showing voters that Democrats could govern effectively. Democratic leaders have largely passed on opportunities to extract major concessions from Trump, with the decisions to raise the debt ceiling and fund the government through most of next year being prime examples. And Pelosi’s handling of the emergency bills in response to the COVID-19 pandemic follows that pattern.

When it came to investigating and exposing the corruption and abuses of Trump and his administration, Democratic leaders were always more reticent. Despite Bill Barr’s misrepresentations and redactions, the Mueller report provided House leaders with a roadmap for impeachment. Pelosi was not interested in impeachment, apparently overriding the objections of both Nadler and Schiff, preferring to stay focused on defeating Trump at the ballot box in 2020. Similarly, when confronted by the clear evidence that Trump was extorting Ukraine to interfere on his behalf in the 2020 election, Pelosi only moved toward impeachment after enormous pressure from the Democratic grass roots and those within her own caucus. The impeachment itself was incredibly narrowly focused and was considered with remarkable haste with the express intent of not interfering in the 2020 nomination process.

In the aftermath of Trump’s acquittal, and perhaps as a response to Trump’s rising poll numbers during impeachment, the House has basically stood down. There has been no subpoena of say, John Bolton, nor of the myriad of officials who have resigned in protest or been fired as part of Trump’s efforts to cover-up his prior crimes. (My own personal pet peeve is the refusal to even inquire how and why the Trump administration managed to lie for weeks about the number of soldiers seriously wounded in the Iranian rocket attack in the wake of Soleimani’s assassination. This is especially galling in light of the four years, multiple investigations, and millions of dollars spent on BENGHAZI!). Pelosi has eschewed using the House’s power of the purse and inherent contempt to force testimony from administration officials and ordinary citizens who now routinely ignore House subpoenas. Instead, Pelosi has once again tried to pivot back to health care and providing cover for those more vulnerable freshmen members in preparation for November’s election.

I have no doubt that both Biden and the Democratic congressional leaders have polling or other such data that indicate that this campaign of stability is the path to winning in 2020. Biden’s primary victories are seemingly indicative of that. And, as the Trump administration implodes over its utter incompetence in dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting economic collapse, it appears that the strategy may be more successful in November than could be imagined. It seems increasingly possible that Biden could become President with both the House and Senate controlled by Democrats.

Of course, Biden’s campaign of return to normalcy contrasts sharply with the progressive message of fundamental structural change espoused by Sanders and Warren and the myriad of plans they have offered to get there. While Biden has been winning the votes and the battle for the nomination, it appears that progressives are winning the war of ideas. Exit polling has shown that Medicare for All, a supposedly deathly albatross for any candidate according to the media, has been popular with voters in every Democratic primary and caucus this cycle, with some states showing support of greater than 60%. Some form of wealth tax is favored by the majority of Americans, including Republicans. Biden opposes both of these core progressive measures, preferring instead to raise taxes by rolling back some of Trump’s tax cuts while raising the capital gains tax rate and expanding on the ACA while offering the public option. Unsurprisingly, Democratic voters who oppose Medicare for All overwhelmingly supported Biden. When it comes to climate change, Democratic voters overwhelmingly support some kind of infrastructure investment focused on renewable technologies, if not the full extent of the Green New Deal. All this means that Biden will be far more moderate than the party he represents and the Democratic platform which will probably end up being the most progressive in the post-Reagan era.

But a bigger concern for the return to normalcy campaign is that is uniformly rejected by voters under 40. Despite the media reports to the contrary, which focused on the percentage of the electorate, younger voters actually increased their participation from 2016 and they overwhelmingly supported Sanders or the progressive candidates. As Jeet Heer notes, “One way to look at this is that in response to young people mobilizing on behalf of needed change (Green New Deal, M4A, college debt relief) there was a larger counter-mobilization of old people on behalf of the status quo”. It is that older cohort that has been the key to Biden’s victories.

For voters who have entered the labor market since the turn of the century, the status quo that Biden seemingly represents has been a disaster. The bursting of the dot-com bubble and the offshoring of jobs in the early 2000s limited opportunities. That was followed by the Great Recession which erased whatever stability and progress younger workers might have achieved and made building a career almost impossible. And now they are facing another recession brought on by a global pandemic. Wages have been stagnant and the overhang of student loan debt and historically low interest rates have made capital formation virtually impossible. Access to health care has been tenuous at best, depending on a job or the emergence of the ACA. And they see global warming as an existential threat to their future. For these younger voters, the return to normalcy is not acceptable.

Regardless of how badly the Trump administration has botched its response, the COVID-19 pandemic also highlights just how inadequate the status quo is and was even before Trump. Even after the ACA, nearly 30 million Americans are still uninsured. Most companies do not offer paid sick leave. Income support for unemployed workers is woefully insufficient. Providing these things on an emergency basis for every new crisis is absurd. And, in the case of a pandemic, which is increasingly likely with climate change, not having these basics in place already eliminates an important layer of prevention.

Biden’s stability campaign, combined with Trump’s historic weakness and a nasty recession, may be enough to get him elected with just enough younger voters willing to simply get rid of Trump. But it would be far better for Biden to give those younger voters something to vote for. Perhaps the easiest way to accomplish that without disturbing his normalcy campaign is to select a progressive as his Vice President. In addition, he could look to make permanent some of the items included in the COVID-19 relief package, such as paid sick leave. Biden will probably give us some kind of indication of just how much he will offer progressives in the one-on-one debate with Sanders on Sunday night.

Because of the anti-democratic nature of the Electoral College and the US Senate, Democrats have only held the House, Senate, and Presidency twice in the post-Reagan era — Clinton in 1993–94 and Obama in 2009–2010. Both times it came about because of pre-election recessions and both times it only lasted for two years. Biden and the Democrats may have a third opportunity after November and an opportunity to advance the core of the Democratic agenda. History tells us that period of control will probably only last for two years so Democrats need to be prepared to hit the ground running and maximize their power in that initial window. In order to do that, Democrats need to think long and hard about eliminating the filibuster, a move which Biden currently opposes, or expanding what can get passed under budget reconciliation.

It is amazing to see Democrats still dithering over whether to eliminate the filibuster and perhaps pack certain courts, considering that those obstacles have already been eliminated for Republicans when considering their own priorities. The GOP filibustered Obama’s judges for years until Harry Reid eliminated the filibuster for judicial appointments excluding the Supreme Court in 2013. After that, Republicans still blocked Obama’s appointments using the blue slip rule. When Republicans won the White House, the GOP not only dropped the blue slip rule but also eliminated the filibuster for the Supreme Court, allowing two hard right conservatives to fill the slots. One of those slots was only available because the Republican Senate refused to even give Merrick Garland a hearing, much less a vote.

Similarly, it wasn’t until the 1974 Budget Act that budget bills were allowed to pass via reconciliation, bypassing the filibuster, making it far easier for taxes to be both raised and lowered. But, again, because of the small state bias of the Senate, Republicans have a far better chance to have the total control needed to pass the tax cuts they desire than Democrats do to raise them via reconciliation. In addition, the so-called Byrd rule, which requires budget reconciliation to only involve items that directly effect government revenues and outlays, makes it almost impossible for Democrats to pass non-budget related policies without overcoming a filibuster. This is exactly the problem Democrats had with dealing with private insurance in the ACA. And it will continue to be a problem for Democrats trying to enact the more complex policies needed to address the problems of the 21st century.

Joe Biden has always occupied the center or even center-right of wherever the Democratic party is. As the party has moved leftward, so has Biden. That may allow him to finally become President, but it will result in a failed presidency if he maintains that position. There is nothing in Biden’s history that would indicate he would be willing or able to abandon desire for centrism and consensus. But the prospect of being a one-term president, simply because of his age, and the possibility to implement the fundamental changes that the majority of the Democratic party clearly desires gives some hope that he can change. Biden may have an historic opportunity to bridge the three great divides our country faces — rural vs. urban, old vs. young, and rich vs. poor. He can do it of he moves beyond a return to the past.

Originally published at on March 14, 2020.

Thoughtful discussions on politics and economics with some sidelights in photography and astronomy.

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