Now that Bernie Sanders has dropped out of the Democratic primary and endorsed Joe Biden, the choice facing voters in November will almost certainly be between the former vice president and Donald Trump, barring any unforeseen developments (incapacity, a rebellion at the Democratic convention, etc.).
This is not a great choice. Biden is a steadfastly centrist politician, who has shown a marked inclination to collaborate with – indeed, appease – white supremacists, Christofascists, and conservatives. Remember that he publicly mused about the possibility of choosing a Republican running mate, and has said that bipartisanship is an essential part of his political persona.
The former vice president is praised as a “unifier” who seeks compromise to smooth-over divisions. While, in theory, that sounds great (we are all sick of conflict), in practice that means that he is willing to compromise with uncompromisingly ultra-right-wing political leaders. Thus, his compromise is appeasement. What compromise can there be with the KKK, neo-Nazis, and their Congressional proxies? What does a “compromise” on reproductive rights or transgender rights look like?
This is not an idle question; the best argument that centrist Democrats can make to progressives in their own party, or to the socialist left which had rallied around Sanders is that at least one, and possibly two Supreme Court seats will become vacant between 2021 and 2025, and “you don’t want Trump filling those!” That might be true – and it is a compelling point – but it is worth asking how much better Biden’s choice would be. One thing that his career in the Senate made abundantly clear is that the former vice president’s instinct and impulse will be to find a “compromise” candidate that is palatable to the Republicans. That means a jurist who is considerably to the right of Ruth Bader Ginsburg and the other liberal justices, and almost certainly a man.
Moreover, unless the Democrats gain control of the Senate, Biden will have to appoint a jurist not only acceptable to moderate Republicans, but to extreme conservatives and, in particular to Mitch McConnell, in order to have even a faint hope of confirmation. Remember that McConnell successfully blocked Barack Obama’s appointment of Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court. Although widely regarded as a “brilliant” jurist, Garland is a liberal in name only. His no-nonsense, hard-nosed, law-and-order credentials might have recommended himself to conservative Republicans of a couple of decades ago, but even Garland was too liberal to McConnell.
So, even if Biden does have the opportunity to successfully appoint Bader Ginsburg’s replacement, the odds that this will be a jurist of even slightly liberal – let alone progressive – inclination are virtually nil.
Pundits have invariably described Biden as a “status quo” candidate, and this is fair. He has opposed progressive social change at every step in his political career. He was an opponent of desegregation and busing until the late-1970s. He presided over the character assassination of Anita Hill in the confirmation of Clarence Thomas in 1987. He spearheaded the Violent Crime Act of 1994, which vastly increased mass incarceration in the United States and expanded the federal death penalty to an unprecedented extent. He was, in fact, one of the architects of the racist, carceral state that we often blame on the Republicans. His embrace of LGBTQ rights and reproductive justice came late in his career. He publicly endorsed marriage equality only in 2012, four years after explicitly rejecting it in 2008.
It was gratifying to see Biden take a stand in defense of Roe v. Wade and reproductive rights on the stage of a primary debate three months ago. “It’s a woman’s right to do that,” he said of access to abortion. “Period.” Yet, the former vice president publicly supported the Hyde Amendment, the federal law that prohibits the use of federal funds to pay for abortion services, as late as last summer. He said in 1974 that Roe v. Wade had gone too far, and as recently as 2006, opined that “I do not view abortion as a choice and a right.”
It is, of course, entirely possible that Biden, a devout Roman Catholic, has had a “come to Jesus” moment about reproductive rights after 46 years of staunchly opposing a woman’s right to choose. But it does not seem likely. Biden’s active resistance to change until the very last minute, and then only grudgingly, has been a defining characteristic of his career. His “evolution” on reproductive rights – as with LGBTQ rights – without any actual evidence of evolution seems too convenient, too calculated.
Biden has an unerring instinct for which way the political winds are blowing, and this led him to six Senate election victories during almost four decades of vast social change. He has the genius of a political chameleon who can adapt his message and follow, rather than lead, whatever voting preferences he might find.
The former vice president is a status-quo politician par excellence, but it is well-worth remembering that Trumpism is now our status-quo. We should be seriously concerned about what that means. How confident are we that this man, who has been resistant to change for his entire political career – indeed, his entire adult life – will be disposed to change the despotic and authoritarian presidential tools that Trump will have bequeathed him. How confident are we that this man who once regarded Southern racist demagogues as his closest political friends and allies will be disinclined to work with the crypto-fascists whom Trump will leave behind in what remains of the machinery of government?
Even without the rape allegations that liberals wish to sweep under the carpet, even without considering that, in the midst of the deadliest global pandemic in a century which has exposed the ghastly failures of this country’s for-profit healthcare system, he flatly refuses to even consider universal healthcare, the prospect of a Biden presidency is worrying. Without a doubt, he will bring an avuncular charm to an office which has been degraded by vulgarity and petulant narcissism. The optics will be better, and we will all doubtless feel less enervated. But is that enough?
Right now the choice for voters seems to be aesthetic rather than one of real substance. It is not a choice between the status quo and change, but two versions of the status quo; not so much Coke or Pepsi, but Coke or New Coke. And that is not nearly enough.
Yet, although the primary is all but over, the Democratic Convention in Milwaukee is four months off, and It is more than six months before the federal election. The Biden Campaign has not yet fully enunciated its policies and goals and, as evidenced by a token (and as yet inadequate) gesture toward Sanders’ policies last week, the former vice president’s advisors seem to have some flexibility. The former vice president himself has shown flexibility when the winds – of LBGTQ and reproductive rights, for example – change. That is why it is still too early for progressives and the left to come out in support of Biden, despite Sanders’ declaration that it is “irresponsible” not to.
The former vice president is a less-than-ideal candidate, to put it mildly. There is ample room for improvement, and the very nature of American democracy – as deeply flawed as it is – provides us with the means to seek it: our support and our votes. Despite current polls showing that Biden would defeat Trump by a narrow margin were the election to be held today, even he and his advisors must be aware of two things: The election is not being held today, and Hillary Clinton led Trump by an even wider margin at this time four years ago.
A great deal can happen between now and November 3; the White House and its proxies and allies have not yet even begun to deploy the full range of their vote suppression plans, foreign powers have not yet implemented the whole menu of propaganda, fake news, and misinformation tactics. Anything can change in the next six months and, despite the blithe confidence of geriatric Democrat apparatchiks like James Carville, even the Democratic Party knows that Biden cannot win if progressives and the left are mostly indifferent to him.
The question is not whether we will vote for him – given a choice, we’ll take the New Coke – but rather whether we are excited enough to vote for Biden in the face of systematic vote suppression, bad weather, and the inevitable persistence of the coronavirus pandemic. We need to be mobilized, and even Carville knows that.
So, despite the Sanders endorsement, the leading voices of the Democratic Party’s progressive wing are withholding their support. And so should we. Rashida Tlaib, Ilhan Omar, even Ayanna Pressley, who endorsed Elizabeth Warren in the primary, are biding their time. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez even has a list of issues that she wants the presumptive nominee to address.
“There are very real, tangible areas where Democrats even fell short perhaps during the Obama administration that I think I would like for us to have a plan to improve,” Rep. Ocasio-Cortez told POLITICO last week. I hope the Biden campaign is listening, because there is always room for improvement, and the future depends on it.
No politician is automatically entitled to anyone’s vote; true democracy demands that they make their case, and we make our choice. By declining the invitation to prematurely throw our support behind a manifestly inadequate candidate, we can hope to make him better. This is how we can hope to build a better Biden.