In poll after poll, ex-Vice President Joe Biden has topped lists of prospective Democratic voters’ preference for who they would vote for in the 2020 Democratic Primaries, typically followed by Sen. Bernie Sanders, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, and newcomer political celebrity Rep. Beto O’Rourke. While part of this will be down to simple voter recognition, I remember the exact same comments being made by pollsters and analysts when Trump first put his hat in the ring and who expected his presence in the race to dissipate after his campaign gained media exposure. Alongside Biden’s obvious recognition as Veep under President Obama, there is a substantial amount of goodwill towards the politician among Democrats, who view him as a kind, good-hearted and somewhat dorky individual and who stood strong next to President Obama. His meme-ability and his humorous appearances at the White House Correspondents’ Association’s productions attest to his immense popularity and strong public image.
However, I believe that the Democratic Party would be making a major mistake in emphasising an establishment candidate such as Biden for the 2020 primaries. For all his decent qualities, the lesson of 2016 must be that the American people are looking for “change” candidates, and Biden, as such a substantial figure from the Obama administration, would surely have even greater difficulty in presenting himself as standing for change / reform than ex-Secretary of State and First Lady Hillary Clinton. Clinton’s own difficulties in extricating her candidacy from her husband’s controversial 1994 Crime Act during her spars with Sanders attests to the unexpected and often unwanted associations candidates attract during elections. President Trump’s recent signing of the surprisingly progressive First Step Act is a welcome development in approaches to the mass incarceration problem in the U.S, and a concession to the failures of legislation such as the 1994 Crime Act. However, as Walker Bragman argues in his critique of a prospective candidate Biden, the ex-Vice President would have an even bigger issue regarding this act than Hillary Clinton had, given that he wrote the original bill and publicly defended it in 2016. Furthermore, Biden has done little to warm himself to millennials, stating that he has “no empathy” for young Americans struggling in the current climate. As he comments, “The younger generation now tells me how tough things are. Give me a break. No, no, I have no empathy for it. Give me a break.” While Biden rests this statement awkwardly within an appeal for young Americans to get involved in social and political causes, it displays the same kind of painful disconnect that is so common among older, “Third Way” political veterans. Combine this with his record on a swathe of unpopular, intensely conservative decisions, such as his vote for the War on Iraq and his support for NAFTA and the TPP, and you begin to see the difficulty of him standing as a candidate within an increasingly left-wing Democratic membership.
Another major issue for Biden is his actual record within the increasingly grassroots-focused Democratic Party membership. With the party incentivised by Sanders and other progressives since the party’s 2016 election defeat, pitting Biden’s voting record against current developments within the Democratic Party certainly reveals evident contrasts. In the ongoing negotiations between more moderate and more left-wing factions of the party, the trauma of the party’s 2016 defeat and its aftermath has led to some consistently substantial developments within its political representation that indicates a strong push to the left on issues such as healthcare, taxation and the minimum wage. This is exemplified in the popularity of Sanders’ proposed Medicare for All bill, which, as The New Republic’s Sarah Jones argues, has become “the new litmus test for Democratic presidential hopefuls”. In addition to this, as poll mogul FiveThirtyEight states, the next House of Representatives is set to contain a far more progressive population of representatives, an increase from a previous record of 78 to 96, comprised substantially of a pool of Democratic House candidates standing on directly Sanders-influenced policies such as Medicare For All. As Perry Bacon Jr. argues:
Put another way, in 2010, there were about 1.5 progressives for every Blue Dog in the House. In 2019, progressives will have a 4-to-1 advantage. This is the biggest the Progressive Caucus has ever been, according to a spokesperson for the group.
Alongside this, recent developments, such as the Democratic National Committee, the same organisation that became a political Nosferatu among progressive Democrats for its role in obstructing Sanders’ chances of getting on the ticket in 2016, chose to ban superdelegates from voting in the first round of ballots in any future primaries. Furthermore, DNC Chairman Tom Perez’ recent declaration that any candidates in the 2020 election will have to meet a yet-to-be-decided criteria “based on polling and grassroots fundraising” is a welcome, and hopefully sustained move by the party to demand small-dollar fundraising as a necessity for any viable candidate to be considered (Michael Whitney has a good editorial on this development here). Most recently, Shane Goldmacher makes the point in The New York Times that it’s this pressure from an emboldened membership that has additionally led to demands for prospective Democratic candidates to avow any use of super PAC funding if they declare their intentions to run, and in doing so, establish themselves on a more purist political footing. On current trends, any candidate hoping to wrestle the party back towards a more establishmentarian footing will have his or her work cut out. Goldmacher also states that this group includes Biden, who to his credit, noted that he wouldn’t have used a super PAC if he had decided to run for president in 2016, “making it more difficult for him to backtrack now.” While Biden may very well stay true to his word, the culmination of a range of these pressures within a transforming Democratic Party membership may be incompatible with a candidate cut from his particular political cloth.
Tempering this however, it’s worth remembering the limited political currency policies such as Medicare-for-All has with the tested, wider electorate. While now favoured by a substantial majority of Democrats and a thin majority of Republicans, it didn’t necessarily result in wins for the majority of Democratic House candidates who supported it. As Forbes’ Sally Pipes argues, “Not counting incumbents, 111 Democratic candidates gunning for the House backed Medicare for All. Of those, only 19 won their elections.” Furthermore, as recorded once again by the meticulous FiveThirtyEight, the three leading Democratic endorsers in terms of their track record in backing candidates during the 2018 mid-term Democratic Primaries have been Joe Biden, Sen. Elizabeth Warren and official Democratic Party committees. Sen. Sanders in comparison, has only seen 56% (five out of nine) of his candidates win their place on the ballot. However, in the same analysis, it cautions against seeing these measurements as evidence that progressive Democrats are losing influence, in the same way that Sanders-influenced policies such as Medicare for All and its increasingly core position among Democratic candidates and representatives doesn’t necessarily mean a defeat for moderates. However, the Democratic Party’s recent, vocal appeals to more left-wing policies inevitably favours more progressive measures in the long-run, while activists would be right to be cautious of how much the party representation’s enthusiasm will translate into legislative action once back in power. Other trends demonstrate the current development of the party. Compare the degree of influence individuals like Sanders has had in the past two years in comparison to people like Hillary Clinton with her intense relationship with the post-election Democratic Party as a proudly more centrist figurehead. While Obama is a more complex and popular example of an establishment Democrat, the general trends seem to continually point towards the need for a change candidate above all else, and a convincing one at that.
In some ways, Joe Biden’s popular consideration for 2020 among many Democrats could be down to the slim Electoral College margin of victory / defeat in the 2016 election. Far from a McGovernesque wipe out, there seems to be a sentiment among more conservative Democrats that anyone more popular than Hillary Clinton would have routed Trump, perhaps even someone with the kind of appeal of Joe Biden, with his influence among the party and its membership, would romp it next time around? While I agree that Clinton was such an astonishingly unpopular presidential candidate that it is mind-boggling that she was even considered in the first place, it is likely that the “change” atmosphere of American politics will intensify as 2020 approaches. Though it’s possible that the Democratic Party will continue to wrangle with its membership, and may end up courting a more timid, conservative policy agenda as we draw nearer to the primaries, it’s difficult to see these forms of concession being greeted too warmly by a large proportion of the membership that is still bruised from the piecemeal, “Trudge up the Hill” mantra of the Clinton Campaign. While politics bears all kinds of strange fruit, I don’t see the centrist policies of Joe Biden being the answer to the Democratic Party’s electoral woes, and perhaps we should extend the same caution to other establishment Democrats. I feel that the same political, cultural and social arithmetic that defeated Clinton would be difficult for any dyed-in-the-wool centrist Democratic candidate to overcome, never mind one who is so closely aligned with the victories and failures of the Obama White House. For that reason, Biden surely cannot be the answer to the succinct, unignorable aspirations for change that Americans are demanding.