Joe Biden Is Pivoting to the Left. What? Why?

The conciliatory nominee-in-waiting has a grandiose belief in his own strengths and his place in the historical moment.

AOC and Bernie Sanders stand next to each other onstage in an arena and wave to the crowd as an illustrated version of Biden sidles up beside them.
Two big-time Bidenheads with their favorite presidential candidate. Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Joe Raedle/Getty Images, Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images

Joe Biden ran as the most centrist candidate in the Democratic primary. Ultimately, despite the egghead objections of out-of-touch left-liberal bloggers, this strategy worked, and he recovered from a strong early push by Bernie Sanders to (presumptively) win the nomination.

Four years ago, Hillary Clinton likewise ran a successful nominating campaign as the centrist alternative to Sanders. When Clinton won, she took the same positions she’d held during the primary into the general election. She proposed “incremental” improvements to Obamacare rather than single-payer health care, and emphasized her reliability and commitment to social tolerance more than her plans for legislation. She agreed to some platform concessions in order to secure Sanders’ July endorsement, but only after fraught negotiations. She chose Tim Kaine, who is pictured in the dictionary next to the entry for inoffensive conventional Democrat, as her running mate. (It’s a specialized dictionary.)

Biden is doing things differently. He secured Sanders’ endorsement in April in exchange for a promise to form “unity task forces” that would work on his platform. Those teams were announced this week, and regardless of how much they end up contributing to the text of bills that might be signed in an actual Biden administration, as symbolism alone they mark a huge departure from the last establishment nominee’s approach. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the most famous advocate of a Green New Deal, is the co-chair of the climate committee along with John Kerry, whom she will presumably have to teach to schedule Zoom meetings. Rep. Pramila Jayapal, one of the co-chairs of the Congressional Progressive Caucus and a leading advocate of “Medicare for All,” will be working on health care. Sara Nelson, who is the president of a flight attendants’ union and a prominent figure in the next-generation labor-activist community, is on the economic committee.

The candidate has also started using more progressive talking points in his own rhetoric. He gave an angry populist interview to Politico in which he used the word hell five times (and asses once!) while complaining about banks and tax cuts, then told New York magazine that he believes our moment calls for an FDR-style presidency. According to an American Prospect piece, Biden has also made the FDR comparison repeatedly on his campaign podcast. He’s even said he supports rent and mortgage forgiveness for individuals who’ve lost income due to the coronavirus: “Not paid later. Forgiveness.” Radical stuff!

Joe Biden has been part of the Democratic establishment even longer than Hillary Clinton has been, his record is more conservative than hers was, and he was even more emphatic than she was during their respective primaries about limiting public spending and uniting rather than dividing; while other candidates tried to slip a little Bernie-ism into their platforms here and there, Biden was firm that he would not do any of that angry anti-billionaire stuff. So what’s the deal? Since when do you win the more leftward party’s primary and then move to the left?

There are a few things at work here, according to me, a politics expert who thought Biden was toast in early February.

Biden is less of an us vs. them guy than Clinton. Hillary Clinton was portrayed, over decades as a public figure, as a feminazi she-demon who had people murdered. Her husband, who against all odds has remained her top political ally, was the subject of a lengthy right-wing takedown campaign that culminated in his impeachment. Just when she thought she’d lined herself up to win the Democratic Party nomination in 2008, the party instead coalesced around a hotshot new senator from Illinois. Perhaps understandably, she reacted to all of this by placing a high premium on lasting personal connections and loyalty, keeping the counsel of advisers like Philippe Reines, Huma Abedin, and Sidney Blumenthal who’d worked for and with her for decades. Reines and Blumenthal are no-rules attack dogs; Abedin is not, but has demonstrated in other contexts that she will honor a commitment far, far longer than is justified. (She was married to Anthony Weiner. That’s the reference. As of July 2019 they were reportedly in the process of finalizing a divorce.) Clinton did not have the instinct to reach out genially to the campaign she’d defeated; in fact, some of her staffers scheduled a videoconference to celebrate when Sanders announced he was dropping out this year. (It was canceled after BuzzFeed reported on it.)

Biden by contrast is a politician who ran in the 2008 primary as a social moderate with a statesman’s gravitas, lost, and responded by becoming the goofy, LGBT-friendly sidekick to the first black president. Relatedly:

Biden has fewer fixed beliefs than Clinton does. Clinton practiced politics with the stage-managed, by-the-numbers style of someone who did not necessarily love running for office, but that’s not to say that she didn’t care about government. Rather than electoral strategy and fundraising, her own early career in politics involved legal work for children’s advocacy groups and indigent defendants, and she led the team that developed a comprehensive plan to reform the health insurance system in the United States during Bill Clinton’s first term. As her infamous paid-speech transcripts demonstrated, she had a sense of how the public and private sectors would interact in an ideal society that, however it may have ended up hurting her in the Rust Belt, was internally coherent.

Biden, as demonstrated by his recent embrace of a bankruptcy reform proposal that would essentially reverse the bankruptcy reform bill he pushed through the Senate only 15 years ago, does not necessarily have the same kind of model in his head as Hillary does about what the world should look like. After graduating from law school he spent about five minutes as a public defender before running for office at age 27. He just wants to be where the people are!

Only Nixon can go to China. Clinton operated as if under the constant imperative to prove that she was not a shrill nanny-state liberal elitist. Seemingly half the speakers at the 2016 Democratic convention were military guys brought in to assure the country that she was a true-blue American tough cookie who’d be just as happy to accidentally rocket-attack a Middle Eastern wedding as a man would be. This strategy was justified as a matter of politics, if not on the merits: 2016 voters on the whole perceived Clinton to be more liberal than Donald Trump was conservative, and a plurality of male voters said Trump understood their concerns more than Clinton did. Biden, meanwhile, has absolute confidence in his appeal to culturally conservative, older, and male Americans. That confidence isn’t always justified—it didn’t help him finish any higher than fifth place in Iowa or New Hampshire, for example—but it’s how he sees himself. Scranton Joe, in his mind, doesn’t need to prove his bona fides to the retirement-age white swing voters of Waukesha County.

All of this, though, only explains why Biden thinks he can go left, not why he thinks he should. After all, he drew plenty of distinctions between himself and Sanders during the primary. But:

• At the same time that he secured the nomination, the economy fell into a toilet. See above: Biden has always changed with the times. Look out the window: It’s the same thing you’ve been looking at for the past two months while possibly losing some or all of your income. The Republican White House is signaling that it will support a second round of stimulus checks, aka free money for all but the most well-to-do Americans. Why should a Democrat who’s confident that he won’t be perceived as a socialist let himself get outflanked on social welfare spending by a Republican? The coronavirus, in Biden’s own words, has exposed “many of the biggest cracks in the social safety net,” including those that affect the kinds of white-collar, higher-income voters who are typically skittish about tax- or borrow-and-spend policies.

Joe Biden is old. He is older than Hillary Clinton or her husband. When Biden was born, FDR was the actual president. He grew up in a middle-class Democratic family while the party still held most of FDR’s Solid South coalition—a coalition that Biden has on occasion gotten himself in trouble for being a little too fond of. In the words of his chief economist, he has the traits of a “retail politician.” Having solidified his hold over his party, he is offering something to the younger and more economically insecure voters who were skeptical of him during the primary under the cover of associating himself, during a historic crisis, with the president who won WWII and pulled the country out of the Great Depression. It’s a win-win, except for the superrich, but they’ll get plenty of chances to talk Biden out of all this communist stuff if he actually gets elected. This is still America, after all.