At every social gathering I’ve been to recently, conversation eventually turns to who the 2020 Democratic presidential nominee should be. So far I don’t have a candidate, but I do have criteria. The Democratic Party today is both a coalition and a movement, and the presidential nominee has to lead the movement while holding the coalition together.
That candidate could come from different directions: a movement candidate who appreciated the demands of the coalition; a coalition candidate who convincingly embraced the movement; or someone in between, who artfully bridged the party’s various tendencies.
So how does that apply to Joe Biden? As I see it, for Biden not only to win the election but also to be a successful president at this moment in history, he has to show that he could take up the banner of the movement that the Democratic Party has become, not just manage the coalition.
To be sure, many Democrats, especially on the left, don’t trust Biden to be able to do that because of a record that stretches back to the 1970s, but they have to take Biden’s candidacy seriously. At least for the moment, national polls show him 20 points or more ahead of Bernie Sanders, who runs second. During Biden’s first two weeks of campaigning, he received as much cable news coverage as all the other candidates combined.
This early success may persuade Biden to stick to a cautious path and avoid laying out bold initiatives. While that approach has a political logic, I doubt that it would serve Biden’s interest, as it would only confirm the views of the many skeptics who see him as too much a prisoner of his past to be the Democrats’ leader today.
But unlike some on the left, I don’t assume that Biden is necessarily wedded to the views he’s previously defended. Because of the confidence he enjoys among older and more moderate Democrats, he is free to take positions on critical issues more in line with younger and more progressive elements in the party. And precisely because Biden is a familiar and reassuring figure, he could be an effective spokesman for those policies.
The speech that Biden gave to union members in Pittsburgh shortly after his announcement was an encouraging sign. As pro-labor a speech as any Democrat will give, it included support for a $15 national minimum wage and passages that could easily have been mistaken for things that Sanders or Elizabeth Warren has said.
But the early verdict among many observers has been severe. Biden, they have said, is the candidate of nostalgia, calling for a return to normality after the aberration of Donald Trump’s presidency. This passage from Biden’s announcement video may have seemed to confirm that assessment:
I believe history will look back on four years of this president and all he embraces as an aberrant moment in time. But if we give Donald Trump eight years in the White House, he will forever and fundamentally alter the character of this nation—who we are—and I cannot stand by and watch that happen.
That framing of the 2020 election, however, seems to me only to highlight its historic stakes. Although I have no reason to believe I had any influence on Biden, an article of mine that came out in The Atlantic the week before Biden’s announcement began: “Of all the questions that will be answered by the 2020 election, one matters above the others: Is Trumpism a temporary aberration or a long-term phenomenon?" Much of what Trump has done in his first term, I wrote, “can probably be offset or entirely undone in the future. The effects of a full eight years of Trump will be much more difficult, if not impossible, to undo.”
I went on to highlight three areas where a second term for Trump would have effects that will be hard to reverse. If we do nothing about climate change until the second half of the 2020s, it will become much more costly and politically difficult to bring about the necessary reforms. Trump’s America-first stance and unilateral withdrawal from arms-control treaties may unleash a new nuclear-arms race and increase the dangers of war and instability. And, with the likely opportunity to replace both Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer, Trump could leave behind a Supreme Court with a 7-2 conservative majority that would be even more radically conservative than the current Court.
Trump’s re-election would also validate all the reactionary forces that have gathered behind him. So I don’t see anything wrong with Biden’s pitch that another term for Trump would “forever and fundamentally alter the character of this nation.”
But Biden has to be clearer about the new direction in which he’d take the country. He ought to spell out a plan for climate reform and put it front and center. And while he doesn’t have to use the term “Green New Deal,” the plan he lays out ought to combine an infrastructure program, decarbonization, and progressive economic policies.
Biden also ought to be willing to say that in light of the experience of recent decades, his thinking has evolved on some key issues such as antitrust, finance, and trade. He ought to be willing to go further on issues of family security than he has in the past, for example, by endorsing the American Family Act that Democrats in Congress have introduced.
Biden is not going to match Warren in policy initiatives, nor is he going to win over those who believe it is time for a new generation of leadership in the Democratic Party. But if he moves far enough in a progressive direction, he could allay the concerns that he is a throwback to another era. I’m not convinced he will make enough of a shift, but I’m also not persuaded that it’s impossible for him to carry it off.