Democratic voters appear to have settled on Biden. This means that the Democratic Party’s likely standard-bearer will be a man who has played a supporting role in every catastrophic mistake the party has made for the past half century. Biden is an architect of mass incarceration, a supporter of Bush’s disastrous invasion of Iraq, and one of the key legislators behind the bankruptcy bill that has contributed mightily to America’s debt crisis. Yet Biden can be moved. The former vice president has always instinctively placed himself in the center of the Democratic Party—to the right of the liberals and to the left of the centrists—for better and for worse. The party has moved left, growing more skeptical of war, the carceral state, and Wall Street, and Biden’s platform has moved with it.
Read: What Joe Biden can’t bring himself to say
Establishment Democrats believe that by preventing a self-identified democratic socialist from winning the nomination, they are in the best possible position to win back the White House from Trump. But Biden’s decades in public life not only provide the opposition with plenty of vulnerabilities to exploit, they suggest that even if he prevails, he could cripple his own presidency with an instinct to accept half a loaf on principle without even negotiating for the whole.
The failures of this approach, so popular with Democrats of Biden’s generation, are already on display with the COVID-19 pandemic. House Democrats passed a paid-sick-leave bill designed to cushion workers from the inevitable economic shocks that will result from consumers avoiding public places. In order to obtain Republican support, they included exemptions so large, they swallow the entire bill, leaving 80 percent of workers, mostly from big companies, without paid sick leave. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi defended the exemptions, saying she doesn’t “support U.S. taxpayer money subsidizing corporations to provide benefits to workers that they should already be providing.”
This is a ludicrous response; Pelosi might as well call for the abolition of Social Security on the grounds that corporations should be providing more generous pensions. If the Democratic Party cannot argue—even in the midst of an international crisis—that the state should provide for people who will otherwise be abandoned, it might as well be the Republican Party. The challenges the coronavirus poses to American economic and health infrastructure will require more competent leadership than the sycophantic, corrupt cult of personality occupying the White House is able to provide, and bolder thinking than the current Democratic leadership is apparently capable of.
Democratic centrists read the internal politics of their party far better than the left did. But getting the politics right is not the same as getting the policy right, and the Democratic establishment ignores the forces that contributed to Sanders’s rise at its peril. Even now, the robust economic recovery hides a vast affordability crisis. The Affordable Care Act really was not sufficient to fix America’s broken health-care system. The concentration of economic gains at the top really does threaten Americans’ livelihoods—but also democracy itself. The student-loan crisis really is suffocating an entire generation with debt. The inaugural conflict in America’s forever war, the war in Afghanistan, is old enough to vote. Although simply restoring the status quo ante might be a persuasive political argument to a majority of Democrats and perhaps even a majority of Americans, governing from that assumption would leave the country vulnerable to another takeover by an authoritarian demagogue, just as it was in November 2016.
Democrats may believe that they dodged a bullet by avoiding a Sanders nomination. But they should understand that Biden is just as much a roll of the dice.