The shape-shifting Joe Biden presidential campaign has taken another lunge for the center, and this one represented a right hook straight to the face of the Bernie Bros.
Team Biden is determined to pivot away from the stridently progressive talking points that have dominated Democratic Party politics since the primary season kicked off in early 2019. This new approach was most evident when the candidate tried on his “Scranton Joe” populist persona at a CNN town hall on Sept. 17.
Biden was in Wisconsin on Sept. 21 and proceeded to drop a bomb on Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and his supporters. “I beat the socialist. That’s how I got elected. That’s how I got the nomination,” he crisply stated to a local reporter. So much for Dem progressive-establishment unity.
This is dicey. Progressive blue support for Swamp Uniparty careerist Biden has always been a decidedly unnatural phenomenon. Sanders served as the unchallenged flag-bearer for this weighty party faction in 2016 and eclipsed rivals such as Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) for that mantle in 2020. His army of backers entered the Democratic primary process in 2019 nursing a heady and often seething resentment at the way they felt they were treated by a Democratic ruling establishment that pulled every string in the whole ball of yarn to crown Hillary Clinton as the 2016 Democrat nominee.
Fired up by stout showings in early primaries in 2020, Sanders partisans had to sit back and watch the party recoil in fear at the notion of having a self-declared “democratic socialist” as its White House aspirant and flee into the seemingly “safe” arms of a lackluster Biden late in the game. It was an especially cruel blow for a movement that specifically articulated the dangers of such a scenario.
“We can’t choose a candidate we don’t believe in just because we’re too scared to do anything else,” Warren said on the campaign trail last year.
Well, now progressives have exactly such a candidate. And at the very moment when they are trying to summon the willpower to hold their noses and push that voting lever for “the lesser of two evils,” the “not as bad” choice tauntingly mashes out a victory dance atop their keenly-felt crushed hopes.
Play to the grassroots in the primary and go mainstream in the general election has long been a winning formula in American politics. If Biden indeed had this formidable slice of his blue base securely locked up, a slap at his left would be more understandable, though still not particularly wise. Yet nothing could be further from the truth. He is going to find it extremely difficult to out-populist President Trump, but it will be impossible for him to win on Nov. 3 without overwhelming Democratic turnout. And so it must be asked: How much damage did Biden do among progressives with this rollicking dunk on the Bernie Bros?
Playing With Fire
Rep. Ro Khanna (D-CA) is a leading young progressive Democrat on Capitol Hill. He immediately saw the peril in Biden’s statement. “Our party should not validate Republican talking points by falsely marginalizing @BernieSanders, his supporters and his agenda,” Khanna tweeted on Sept. 23. He included a link to an article by David Sirota, a prominent progressive journalist and activist who worked on the Sanders campaign in 2020.
“Right now, most of the progressive movement has set aside its deep policy differences with Biden in order to prioritize defeating Trump. There’s a whole #NotHimUs initiative working to mobilize former Sanders supporters behind Biden’s campaign,” Sirota wrote at The Daily Poster website. “That’s the problem with comments like the one Biden made today. When he publicly stomps on those initiatives and Sanders voters, he’s … making it more difficult for progressive groups to mobilize the voters he will need in this election. And for what purpose? To try to attract a handful of affluent Republicans who are worried about socialism?”
The lack of self-awareness displayed in that last sentence is significant. This is the dilemma shared by Biden’s campaign and the unenthusiastic progressives who are being asked to stand with it. Democrats deliberately chose the 77-year-old former vice president to be their nominee because they were aware that running an open socialist in a general election would be political suicide. Yet this sudden turn was the jarringly incongruous capstone to a lengthy, nationally spotlighted political primary that was devoted to repeated theatrical productions of highly public loyalty tests to the very tenets espoused by socialists.
Team Biden knows it has gone too far out on a lefty limb and is desperately trying to scurry back. But how can it be made believable after all those months of radical jargon? It’s a clear sign that the campaign lacks focus. That’s pretty unavoidable when you have been in the halls of political power for half a century and have nothing to run on except “I’m Not Trump.”
Trying to be all things to all people is not tenable in today’s highly partisan Democratic Party. Joe Biden must address the “Trojan Horse” argument skillfully advanced by the Trump campaign that paints him as a smiling front for extreme leftism. But doing so threatens to alienate him from those in his party who so strongly identify with that very cause. Suppressing your base to reach out to the mainstream is most undoubtedly not a way to win a presidential election.
Stephanie Quilao, a 2016 delegate for Sanders, tweets under the name “The Bern Identity.” On Sept. 22 she retweeted a video clip of a dutiful Sanders urging young progressives to head to the polls for Biden. Her response was not what Bernie had in mind:
I am a GenXer and I am very angry.
That Bernie is bending over backwards to get Biden elected while Biden's disrespecting Bernie "I beat the socialist" as a cheap shot to win votes in swing states…because Biden has no worthwhile policies to offer those people to vote FOR. https://t.co/b3S0dnuaj1
— The Bern Identity (@bern_identity) September 23, 2020
Democrats dearly hope that being the only remaining alternative to Donald Trump is reason enough to propel Biden into the White House as the 47-year political veteran trots out one persona after another to cast as wide a net as possible. But they may discover that the gaping holes in that net that come with a lack of a clear and authentic policy agenda will not only fail to catch undecided voters but will leave much of a soured and uninspired progressive blue base outside its muddled reach as well.
Read more from Joe Schaeffer.