Which Joe Biden Are We Getting?

Joe Biden is the presumptive Democratic nominee, which means -- whether we like it or not -- we are entering that phase of the election where the choice becomes binary: it’s Biden or it’s Trump. I spent the last year of my life trying to prevent it from being that choice, but sorry -- with Bernie suspending his campaign and today endorsing Biden, that’s now the choice.

I’ve said before and will say again: Trump must be defeated in this election. There’s a pandemic that threatens to kill hundreds of thousands of people and a climate crisis that threatens all life on the planet. Defeating Trump is not an option — it is an imperative.

What is in question is exactly how Biden plans to pursue that goal — and the answer to that question could determine whether or not we see a powerful Never Biden movement, and ultimately, whether or not Trump gets reelected.

Are we getting the retrograde triangulating Joe Biden?

One possibility is that we get the old Joe Biden — the Joe Biden we’ve always had.

This is the Biden who for decades periodically depicted himself in opposition to the base of his own party -- which, to be fair, was a big thing in the 1990s and 2000s among many Democrats (think: Joe Lieberman). 

This is a guy who gave a speech lauding George Bush and criticizing anti-war Democrats. This is a guy who gave a Senate floor speech proudly bellowing about how he worked with Republicans to try to cut Social Security on four separate occasions, and who as recently as 2007 was bragging about wanting to put Social Security cuts on the table. This is a guy who literally put out a press release bragging about being one of the most conservative lawmakers in the Senate. 

In other words, Biden did not reluctantly or quietly help Republicans pass the bankruptcy bill and the Iraq War resolution because he represented some red state and felt he had to. On the contrary, he made those and other similar actions a part of his public brand because his political formula was based on telling voters: look at me, I am really not a progressive like others in my party, and here’s the damn proof. 

Is this the Joe Biden who will be the Democratic nominee? Does he think he needs to shit on progressives to prove that he’s a “moderate”? Does he believe he can behave that way and get away with it by simply telling Democratic voters that if they don’t vote for him, they get the monster?

Are we getting a new and evolved Joe Biden?

But, then, another possibility is a new Biden — a Biden who finally realizes that the best way to unify and energize disaffected Democratic voters is to engage them, make real policy concessions and take them seriously. Is that even possible?

I wish I knew the answer, but the signs are mixed, at best.

Biden has made a few modest policy concessions in recent days -- but on the merits they were fairly weak. For example, his sudden support for reducing the Medicare eligibility age to 60 is actually less progressive than what many Senate Democrats proposed ten years ago. 

Biden has said he wants to unify the party, but Biden has been periodically thumbing his nose at progressives -- in 2018, he basically told millenials to screw off; in May 2019, he promised only a “middle ground” climate policy during a climate emergency; in November 2019 he told a progressive critic that “you should vote for Trump”; and in March 2020 he went out of his way to continue denigrating Medicare for All, as a lethal pandemic was starting to spread across the country, causing mass layoffs and throwing millions off of their health insurance plans.

Biden has in recent days said some nice things about Bernie Sanders, but after the final debate, Biden’s top aide shat on Bernie and Bernie’s movement in really ugly terms (and, anyway, when it comes to a national election with implications for the country and the planet, we should care far less about whether he is personally nice to Bernie and far more about the actual policy).

Clearly, the politics of triangulation are reflexive for Biden and the Clinton-era dinosaurs who run his campaign. Triangulating and hippie-punching is what he and they have always done -- and that retrograde behavior is not just morally offensive, it is politically dangerous in what is likely to be a general election that will be all about motivating the base.

To defeat Trump, we need an energized Democratic Party. 

Biden and the Democratic establishment sneering at disaffected progressive voters to prove to mythical Republican swing voters that they aren’t liberal -- that’s not going to cut it. 

Telling young voters to fuck off and vote for Biden or you get Trump -- that’s not going to cut it either. 

The best hope to defeat Trump is to positively and constructively motivate a large Democratic turnout. The best way to do that is to show progressive voters they are actually valued, rather than taken for granted. And the best way to show them that they are valued is to actually embrace an agenda that they want.