The Protests Haven’t Changed Joe Biden Yet. They Will Change the Democratic Party.

Schumer is seen frowning from below against the gold backdrop of the Capitol dome.
Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer. Alex Wong/Getty Images

On Wednesday morning Joe Biden published an op-ed in USA Today about police violence that reiterated the relatively modest proposals that were already part of his platform before George Floyd was killed, like reinstating Obama-era Department of Justice supervision of rogue departments and spending $300 million (a very small amount, by federal government standards) on “community policing.” Advocates of reform were unimpressed.

This is not necessarily a problem for Biden, who leads Donald Trump by an average of 8 points in recent polls and doesn’t yet have any incentive to jeopardize that lead by embracing as-of-now radical ideas about dissolving the NYPD. But that doesn’t mean the protests across the country are not exerting any leverage over elected Democrats, and a low-key but contextually dramatic moment in the Capitol basement Tuesday night showed how.

The setting was a press conference given by Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer and Hawaii Sen. Mazie Hirono. The official content of the event was apparently so perfunctory that I can’t find any articles about it on Google News; the real action took place when Schumer was asked about the Democratic primary in New York’s 16th District, which includes parts of the Bronx and some New York suburbs.

The incumbent in the 16th is Rep. Eliot Engel, who’s been in Congress since 1989. Engel, who is of Ukrainian Jewish ancestry, grew up in New York City, attended New York public schools, and began his political career in the New York State Assembly in 1977. He is relatively liberal, though he has taken “hawkish” positions on the Israel-Palestine conflict and the Iraq war. He’s also a 73-year-old white man in a district that is more than half black and Hispanic; his challenger, Jamaal Bowman, is a former middle school principal in his mid-30s who said on a candidate survey that his top priority is pursuing racial and economic equality and who has discussed the way his own interactions with police officers as a black American have informed his candidacy.

Engel has caused problems for himself by being largely absent from his own district during the coronavirus crisis and by getting caught on a live microphone telling another elected official that he wouldn’t need to speak at an event in the Bronx if he weren’t facing a primary challenge. Whether because of those events, Bowman’s strengths as a candidate, or the intersection of both with an increased public focus on criminal justice, Bowman has in recent weeks gotten a surge of endorsements—from Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, most prominently—and media buzz.

This is the context in which a reporter asked Schumer whether he was endorsing Engel for reelection, as Eliot’s website claimed. Schumer, a graduate of New York City public schools with Ukrainian Jewish ancestry, began his political career in the New York Assembly two years before Engel, in 1975; they have been working together for 43 years. And when Schumer was asked about Engel on Tuesday, his response was, essentially, “who?”

Welp! Engel has taken Schumer’s name off his website but not after accidentally creating another news cycle about how shaky his own campaign is.

There’s no public polling on the NY-16 race, but if Jamaal Bowman does get elected to Congress, he will do so not just as one of 200-some Democrats in the House, but as an AOC-style figure with the potential to have outsize influence on public debate and voter expectations. He’d be part of a next-generation group that includes presumptive incoming Illinois Rep. Marie Newman, a progressive who also beat a longtime member of the Democratic caucus, and potentially a number of new state legislators who won similar races. This class of Democrats would be in position to push a hypothetical President Joe Biden to the left on criminal justice and education the way representatives like Ocasio-Cortez and Washington Rep. Pramila Jayapal have pushed candidate Biden left on health care and environmental policy.

Joe Biden is not yet, despite what Donald Trump would like you to believe, an antifa foot soldier. But that doesn’t mean individual districts won’t be pushed past crucial tipping points by viral brutality videos, protests, demographic changes, and the increasing race consciousness of white liberals. The winds of change may blow in unpredictable gusts, but even Chuck Schumer believes that right now they’re at Jamaal Bowman’s back rather than Eliot Engel’s.

For more of Slate’s news coverage, subscribe to What Next on Apple Podcasts or listen below.