It seems Joe Biden has changed how he talks to donors about raising their taxes. He’s gotten blunter, and a lot less apologetic.
During the primary, when he was still vying for the Democratic nomination against left-wing opponents like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, the former veep initially pitched himself as the calming moderate who wouldn’t rock anybody’s super-yacht too terribly. At a June 2019 fundraiser at New York’s Carlyle Hotel, Biden told told the crowd that, unlike his opponents, he didn’t want to “demonize” the rich. “You’re not the other,“ he said. “I need you very badly.” Biden also seemed to reassure the crowd that, while did plan to raise taxes—“you all know in your gut what has to be done”—he wasn’t exactly looking to soak anybody. “Nobody has to be punished,” he said. “No one’s standard of living would change. Nothing would fundamentally change.”
At a moment when Warren was campaigning on an unprecedented wealth tax and Sanders was inveighing daily against the billionaire class, Biden’s pleading remarks read like a parody of a Democratic establishment politician prostrating himself before his bundlers. This made the actual tax plan he released in the winter a bit of a shock. While less far-reaching than some of his opponents’ proposals, it was still extremely ambitious—raising some $4 trillion over a decade, and reducing the after-tax incomes of the top 0.1 percent by 23 percent in its first year, according to the Tax Policy Center. (Hillary Clinton’s 2016 plan, by comparison, only raised $1.4 trillion.) The plan undid much of the Trump tax cuts for the wealthy, and pushed the corporate rate back up to 28 percent from its current 21 percent. It took direct aim at the investor class by taxing capital gains as normal income for high earners and ending stepped-up basis at death, which allows rich heirs to avoid paying taxes on assets they inherit. It even slapped Social Security taxes on wages over $400,000. As Paul Waldman wrote for the Washington Post: “In fact, it’s so liberal — in very good ways — that when he was vice president it would have been considered radical, certainly too much for Barack Obama to have signed into law, or in some cases even suggested.” The ideological center of the Democratic party had moved, and Biden was shifting with it.
And so too, it seems, has his language with donors. During a digital fundraiser Monday that raised $2 million, Biden avoided his old obsequiousness and said flatly that, no malarkey, he planned to jack up his backers’ taxes. “I’m going to get rid of the bulk of Trump’s $2 trillion tax cut,” Biden said, “and a lot of you may not like that but I’m going to close loopholes like capital gains and stepped-up basis.”
This feels a bit like it’s of a piece with Biden’s broader post-primary “pivot to the left,” which my colleague Ben Mathis-Lilley wrote about in May. As is the case with his tax plan, Biden’s platform has always been more progressive than his detractors gave him credit for. But since securing the nomination, the candidate is embarking on the electoral equivalent of a reverse commute: Where most politicians try to win over partisans during the primary and moderate themselves to court swing voters before November, he won an ideologically charged primary by rhetorically presenting himself as a throwback centrist, but has spent much of the general trying to win over skeptical, young progressives. Meanwhile, the entire economy has collapsed amid a plague and as a result, Biden reportedly senses that the crisis has opened the opportunity for an FDR-sized presidency. The fact that he’s leveling with donors, rather than genuflecting to them, suggests that maybe he’s really ready to make the most of it.