The Slatest

The Premise of Joe Biden’s Campaign Is That Every Left-Wing Criticism of the Democratic Party Since 2008 Has Been Wrong

Biden, wearing a button-down shirt without a jacket, points to his right while smiling.
Joe Biden at a rally on Saturday in Philadelphia.
Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Joe Biden has been officially running for president for about a month now, and on Saturday, he held a rally in Philadelphia at which he articulated his vision for the country and his campaign. The most revealing lines in his speech might have been these: “Folks, I know some of the really smart folks say Democrats don’t want to hear about unity. They say Democrats are so angry, that the angrier a candidate can be, the better chance he or she has to win the Democratic nomination. Well, I don’t believe it.”

Biden’s words were a shot at Democrats who think the party needs to more explicitly sell itself as a vehicle for aggressively confronting a range of people, institutions, and problems on behalf of marginalized and mistreated middle- and working-class Americans. His speech instead emphasized concepts like reconciliation and cooperation, portraying a country that would essentially be happily united in its ideals and goals across lines of both party and class were it not for the singular figure of Donald Trump.

Biden’s campaign isn’t just pitching itself as an alternative to the Democratic Party’s left-leaning, aggression-demanding internal critics on a rhetorical level; the campaign also rejects those critics’ beliefs about strategy and their reading of recent history. Biden’s candidacy is, in one sense, a proposition that everything that’s been said by an unhappy progressive Democrat over the course of the past decade or so should be ignored. Consider:

The critics say there’s no point in trying to work with Republicans in Congress anymore.

While consensus government was possible on some issues in the not-so-distant past, this critique goes, circumstances have changed: The Tea Party backlash against Barack Obama and the Fox News–Breitbart media ecosystem have created an extremist base that puts Republican incumbents in perpetual fear of being primaried from the right at the same time that general-election voters have proved unwilling or unable to punish the party for Mitch McConnell’s Senate blockade strategy. This dynamic means almost no remaining GOP legislators will cross the aisle, which will be an obstacle to any future Democratic presidency. Biden rivals like Pete Buttigieg and Elizabeth Warren have said the party needs to be prepared to work around the problem by expanding voting rights, reforming the Supreme Court, preparing plans for using the administrative powers of the executive branch, and more.

Biden, meanwhile, asserts that he is going to advance his agenda by working with Republicans in Congress. They will, he predicts, have an “epiphany” about bipartisanship when Trump leaves office. “I know how to make government work,” he said on Saturday. “Not because I’ve talked or tweeted about it, but because I’ve done it. I’ve worked across the aisle to reach consensus, to help make government work in the past. I can do that again with your help.”

The critics say that appealing to white working-class swing voters is not as essential as it once was because of demographics and geography—and may be self-defeating because it turns off other voters.

The Democratic coalition used to be heavily dependent on the Rust Belt. In 2018 House elections, though, the party expanded its dominance of coastal suburbs and flipped Republican seats in increasingly diverse states like Arizona, Texas, and Georgia—but didn’t win any flips in, for example, Ohio.* Left-leaning analysts like Data for Progress’ Sean McElwee argue, meanwhile, that a fixation on winning back white working-class Obama-to-Trump voters in the Midwest—who tend to be conservative on “issues relating to race and gender”—ignores the potential value of appealing to young people and people of color who otherwise might not vote and who, as a group, tend to be more liberal on cultural issues.

When it comes to race and gender, Biden is … old-fashioned. He co-sponsored the 1994 federal crime bill that’s considered a symbol of mass incarceration by contemporary activists, worked to roll back school-integrating busing plans in the 1970s, and has been scrutinized for his habit of touching women in public in ways that many people perceive as inappropriately intimate. Nevada politician Lucy Flores, for example, wrote in a piece published this spring that Biden made her uncomfortable by smelling her hair and kissing her head at a campaign event. And he’s not apologizing for any of it—making a case at a recent New Hampshire appearance, for example, that the crime bill “did not generate mass incarceration” and responding to Flores’ piece by saying he’s “not sorry for any of [his] intentions” regarding his alleged over-affectionateness.

He’s also made his intention to target white working-class voters quite clear by, for example, holding his first campaign event at a union hall in Pittsburgh, and he is expected to mention that he’s from Scranton, Pennsylvania, at least 10 million times before primary voting begins.

The critics say that the Democratic party is too heavily influenced by big donors and corporations, and that this influence holds Democrats back from pursuing popular economic policies.

The idea that the Democratic establishment is too influenced by the policy views of wealthy “donor class” campaign contributors and big-money lobbyists was a point made often by the establishment’s most prominent critic, Bernie Sanders, during his 2016 campaign. Sanders attacked Hillary Clinton for giving paid speeches to Goldman Sachs, raised his own money almost entirely from small donors, complained about the influence that “Wall Street, the drug companies, the fossil fuel industry and other powerful special interests” have over the party, and promised to fund paradigm-shiftingly large social programs by taxing the rich. Clinton won the primary—but then lost the general election to a Republican candidate who deployed disingenuous but effective rhetoric about taking on big corporations and special interests.

In 2018, a number of Democrats running for Congress across the country made a point of refusing to take corporate money. “I watched the Hillary Clinton campaign, and recognized that it was so predicated on spending time with wealthy donors and not spending time in middle-class neighborhoods and rural areas,” one such candidate, Dean Phillips, told the New York Times. Phillips went on to win his race, in suburban Minneapolis.

Joe Biden doesn’t give a rat’s crap about any of that stuff! He launched his campaign with a fundraiser at the home of a union-busting Comcast executive and is being advised by a former lobbyist for Shell, British Petroleum, Raytheon, and the “security” company formerly known as Blackwater. Sorry, Bernie!

Critics say that trying to vote for the primary candidate who will be more “electable” in the general election is a fool’s game that results in nominating boring losers.

The New York Times’ Michelle Goldberg just published a column, set at Biden’s Saturday rally, which made this very point. Goldberg spoke to a number of rally attendees who said their main reason for supporting the former VP is that he is the Dem best suited to defeat Donald Trump next November—then cited similar comments about mass appeal that were made in past years by supporters of candidates like John Kerry and Mitt Romney. Kerry and Romney seemed in theory like the kinds of people who get elected president in the United States but turned out, in practice, to be wet paper bags. Romney, moreover, lost to Barack Obama, a candidate who definitely didn’t fit the silver-haired-white-man presidential archetype and who ran in his own primary in 2008 as a grassroots, antiwar alternative to the center-left establishment candidacy of Hillary Clinton.

The theme of Biden’s Saturday speech, meanwhile, was that you should vote for him because he will defeat Donald Trump. Literally: “The single most important thing we have to accomplish is defeat Donald Trump,” he said. Later, he added that “If you want to know what the first and most important plank in my climate proposal is, [it’s] beat Trump.”

In sum, Joe Biden’s campaign is about as perfect of a test case as possible for the left. He’s doing everything that they say the Democratic Party should avoid. And right now he’s leading the race by 20 points!

Correction, May 22, 2019: This post originally misstated that Democrats defeated Republican incumbents in Arizona, Texas, and Georgia. The seat Democrats flipped in Arizona was left vacant by Martha McSally because she was running for Senate.