Biden unites Democrats — for now
Democrats are bracing for an all-out fight over their agenda if former Vice President Joe Biden wins the White House in November.
Even as Democrats rallied behind Biden during the four-day virtual convention, his ascendancy to the nomination has only paused the deep divisions within the party — not gotten rid of them altogether.
Biden and Democratic leaders in Congress are likely to face vast disagreements in naming their top priorities, high-profile splits on key policy issues such as health care and climate change, and an emboldened progressive wing eager to push the party further to the left.
“We’re going to come together to defeat Trump, and the day after Biden is elected, we’re going to have a serious debate about the future of this country,” Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Biden’s top challenger in the 2020 primary, told “The Daily Show“ this week.
A similar message was delivered in the midst of the convention when liberal firebrand Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) endorsed Sanders as the party’s nominee. The gesture was a formality — Ocasio-Cortez is supporting Biden in November and was asked by the Democratic National Committee to endorse Sanders only to satisfy official convention protocols.
Yet in doing so, Ocasio-Cortez highlighted Sanders’s signature fight for economic justice, including efforts to install universal health care and guaranteed higher education — items opposed by many party centrists and excluded from the Democrats’ 2020 platform. Her message made crystal clear that Biden was the fallback choice in the eyes of many liberals — favored over President Trump but not favored outright — and that they’ll be fighting tooth and nail for Sanders-style policy reforms if Democrats win the White House.
Those tensions were on preview this week when Ocasio-Cortez challenged the head of Biden’s transition team, who predicted that Democrats would be “limited” in their agenda because of the debt racked up by Trump and Republicans with their 2017 tax cuts.
“This is extremely concerning. The pantry is absolutely not bare,” Ocasio-Cortez tweeted. “We need massive investment in our country or it will fall apart.”
The awkward intraparty dynamics will force Biden and congressional Democratic leaders to perform a delicate dance, constantly gauging how far left they can go to satisfy progressives without alienating a host of moderate, battleground-state Democrats.
Veterans of Capitol Hill said it’ll be no easy task.
“I can’t sugarcoat it: Sure, the party is united at this point in time, but the rubber is going to hit the road if and when we pick up the Senate and the White House as well,” said Jim Manley, a top aide to former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.).
“The legislating, the governing, is going to become a lot more difficult,” he added. “It’s almost in the category of ‘be careful of what you wish for’ because there’s a long list of pent-up demands within many in the party.”
Biden beat out a crowded field that included high-profile progressives such as Sanders and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) to win the party’s nomination. But he’s unlikely to get much of a honeymoon from his left flank, which, while focused on beating Trump, is already strategizing about policy priorities.
“There’s going to be a little bit of internal caucus battle here between moderates and progressives, and that’s going to happen in both the House and the Senate,” said Angel Padilla, national policy director for the progressive group Indivisible.
Adam Green, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, said they want Democrats to enact “big systemic reforms” that “shake up power dynamics” as well as additional items including statehood for Puerto Rico and Washington, D.C., and reforming the Supreme Court.
“What it can’t mean is lowest-common-denominator legislating,” he added on the pledges for unity.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Caif.) and Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) are promising to pursue an ambitious agenda but also one that could unite their party.
Pelosi, during an interview with David Axelrod, outlined a laundry list of issues she views as a starting point for Democrats under a Biden presidency, including ethics and election reform, infrastructure, immigration, climate change, and drug costs.
All of those proposals were passed through the House this election cycle with virtually unanimous Democratic support. But Republican opposition — combined with the power of the filibuster — means it’s highly unlikely that most of those bills could move through the Senate to Biden’s desk, even if Democrats flip the upper chamber to seize a slim majority, without the destruction of the filibuster.
Any attempt to drive Biden and congressional leaders to the left could spark backlash from moderates and swing-district lawmakers, who will have a close eye on how voting on a liberal wishlist could reverberate back home. After years of partisan bickering and legislative logjams, centrist Democrats are already calling for a new era of bipartisan cooperation.
Rep. Conor Lamb (Pa.), a Blue Dog Democrat who represents a district around Pittsburgh carried by Trump in 2016, is urging Democrats to reach across the aisle in search of compromises that can actually become law.
“That’s what people want. That’s what people have said to me for the last almost three years. Is there any way we can get past these divisions?” Lamb told CNN.
“Their advice was always ‘Look, work with the other side if you can. We don’t want to hear you talking about them like they are a different tribe or your enemy,'” he added.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) also used her convention speech to tout Biden’s broad coalition, saying that’s “how we get stuff done.”
Biden came up through the centrist wing of the party during his more than four decades in elected office, angering progressives along the way with positions such as his opposition to “Medicare for All,” his support for the Iraq War and his championing of the 1994 crime bill.
Yet he’s made clear that, to beat Trump, he needs to cobble together a coalition transcending ideology, ranging from wary progressives such as Sanders and Warren to disgruntled Republicans — including former governors, top national security officials and high-profile pundits — who are disenchanted with the direction their party has veered.
And that, liberals say, is where the cooperation should cease.
“The kumbaya should end there,” Green said. “There’s no doubt that the corporate side of the Democratic Party and Republicans themselves will be trying to get as many seats at the table as they can.”
Progressives are expected to grow their numbers in the House after knocking off Democratic incumbents such as Rep. Eliot Engel (N.Y.) and Wm. Lacy Clay (Mo.) in the primaries, which they hope will give them more influence.
“If we actually get to 15 to 20, which it looks like we will, that is a potent force. I mean, that can help set the agenda for our party,” said Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), a first vice chairman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus.
Pelosi brushed off a question about whether progressives beating incumbents was awkward for her, noting that she was a “left-wing San Francisco liberal.”
But Pelosi, a pragmatic tactician, has also been careful to protect the moderate “majority makers” who flipped GOP seats in 2018. And she’s warning that Democrats needed a “consensus message” in order to hold on to power.
“We need that vitality, all the vitalities in our party,” she said. “But the fact is, if we’re going to have the majority, there aren’t 218 San Franciscos in the country.”
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