Two of the three guys in the prime risk category who want to be President of the United States next year debated in a largely empty studio Sunday night. Both Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders proved themselves to be preferable alternatives to the angry talking yam presently in the White House. In that sense, they were both “presidential,” if that word means anything any more. Biden kept trying to pivot to the current emergency, and largely was successful in doing so, especially in his close. On the other hand, Sanders, who seems to be on his way to another severe nationwide hiding this Tuesday, kept trying to pin Biden on his past record on issues like Social Security and (especially) the calamitous war in Iraq. Absent the cheering crowds, these points seemed sharper and more interesting.
There seems to be only one question left for Democratic primary voters. In recent weeks, Biden has made a pronounced lurch to the left. He has adopted some of Sanders’s plan for free college and, most spectacularly, Elizabeth Warren’s plan for essentially repealing the strictures of the bankruptcy bill over which they first clashed over 20 years ago in what was SPW’s first move into the national spotlight.
On Sunday, Biden essentially adopted a targeted version of Medicare For All as a response to the COVID-19 outbreak and he committed flatly to naming a woman as his running mate and to putting an African-American woman on the Supreme Court. (Yes, it would be the make-up call of all time if he named Professor Anita Hill to that seat, but I wouldn’t count on it.) The question for reluctant Democratic voters is whether or not they believe that Biden is sincerely following the prevailing winds within the party that appear to be blowing in a progressive direction. Oddly enough, his blatantly unsatisfactory answers on some of his older votes can lead you to believe that he is.
One major reason Joe Biden voted to authorize George W. Bush’s catastrophic decision to invade Iraq was that he thought it was the smart play to make if he was going to run for president again one day. (This also was true of John Kerry, John Edwards, and Hillary Rodham Clinton.) Biden’s excuse now—that he was bamboozled by fast-talkers in the Bush White House—hardly passes the laugh test. He promoted the bankruptcy bill in large part because of all those credit card companies in Delaware. (I suspect that, when SPW heard him tell Sanders that he had been primarily interested in improving the bill, she may have launched a running shoe at the TV.)
Biden’s career has spanned the entire stretch of the Democratic Party’s nearly 50-year retrenchment. Already scared away from progressive policies by the destruction of George McGovern in 1972, the Democrats saw Jimmy Carter, hardly a progressive champion, lose to Ronald Reagan in large part because huge pieces of the old New Deal coalition fled to him. This scared Democrats for another three decades. The party committed itself to half-measures, and to a little discreet whoring after corporate cash. Only now, with the proof staring them in the face that the policies that began with old Dutch lead only to the abyss, have substantial parts of the Democratic Party returned to the party’s post-FDR roots.
Biden has been an influential Democrat through all of this. He has been a loyal party man. This led him, as it did all loyal party folk, into some rather skeevy alliances with some more-than-skeevy people, and it has led him to adopt positions that have come back to bite him as a revived progressive wing asserted itself. That’s the way it’s supposed to happen, and Biden knows that as well as anybody. The main question going forward, especially for those progressive voters who are not necessarily Bernie-or-Bust people, is how sincere do you believe Joe Biden is in his newfound adoption of positions that would have been unthinkable 20 years—or 20 months—before. If he thinks that’s where the party’s headed, he will go along. His history proves that he will, and that he likely will do it with gusto. Not for nothing does “malleability” share a root with “mallet.”
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