I’m a bit confused by this Ben Jacobs piece in the Washington Monthly. To begin with, a major theme here is that high-profile Bernie Sanders supporter Nina Turner, who is running in a contested Democratic congressional primary, is a good example of why progressives don’t want to get crosswise of President Joe Biden. The immediate problem is that the primary election is scheduled for August 3, so we don’t yet know if Turner will actually lose.
Jacobs relies on the fact that she might lose to do a lot of work for him. Supposedly, she should win in a walk and it’s only close in the polls because Turner once compared voting for Biden to eating shit. It could be true that her opponent, Cuyahoga County Councilperson Shontel Brown, is getting a political advantage out of Turner’s past anti-Biden rhetoric, but the race is still a toss-up. It’s important to realize that Turner has also been disrespectful to Rep. Jim Clyburn and the Congressional Black Caucus, so her enemies list is actually pretty sizable. And, in any case, Brown is a good candidate and there’s no particular reason other than initial name recognition to think that Turner should have been heavily favored in the first place.
It’s probably fair to say that the results of the special election will say something about the relative influence of insurgent progressives like Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who have endorsed Turner, and more establishment types who are backing Brown, but it’s a very imperfect referendum on the president.
Jacobs’ larger point is that progressives ought to be more supportive of Biden because he’s governing as a progressive, and that they should be wary of attacking him because he’s actually more popular among Democrats than Trump is among Republicans. The latter point is backed by polling data, but Biden’s relative progressivism is matter of interpretation.
To see a different point of view, I recommend this essay by Osita Nwanavu. From his perspective, Biden is governing as a moderate in much that same mold as Bill Clinton. When it comes to progressivism, a lot depends on the eyes of the beholder, and also on which issues you tend to emphasize.
Nwanevu’s argument is actually a lot broader than where Biden lies on the ideological spectrum. He’s looking at where the locus of power resides in Washington, and it pretty clearly lies with barely-Democratic brokers like senators Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona and Joe Manchin of West Virginia. As a result, it’s hard to stomach Democratic moderates who gripe about progressives having too much political influence. It’s also hard to credit Biden for making a choice about how progressive he wants to be since, at least legislatively, he’s operating within narrowly confined constraints.
Yet, he’s decided not to take radical steps like ending the legislative filibuster that might loosen his straightjacket, so it’s fair to say that he’s taking a moderate approach.
I’m not sure that’s enough to support Jacob’s summation:
The anti-establishment fervor among Democrats that pushed the party leftward in 2018 and 2020 isn’t going away, but with Trump finally out of office and progressive policies being enacted in Washington, it doesn’t seem to succeed when it turns against Biden. This year’s low-turnout off-year Democratic primary elections will likely continue to favor candidates loyal to the president. It’s Biden’s party for now.
This might be a good prediction. It’s normal for Democrats to support a Democratic president. But Nwanavu makes an important point about the political viability of the Democrats doing more of the same.
I haven’t been a moderate Democrat for some time, but I can think of a few other things that would weigh upon me if I were. It would concern me, for instance, that Democratic underperformance in 2020, which moderates have generally blamed on an ascendant left, was preceded by significant Democratic defeats in 2016, 2014, and 2010. It would concern me that the Democratic defeat in that last election, which robbed the last Democratic president of his governing majority, preceded “defund the police,” the Squad, “abolish ICE,” the Sanders campaigns, Ferguson, and even Occupy Wall Street.
It would concern me that this election represented a major backlash not to an ascendant left, but the passage of a healthcare bill crafted by party moderates and the election of one of the most eloquent evangelists for America’s national ideals since Abraham Lincoln.
It would concern me that his criticisms of contemporary identity politics and attempts to ease racial tensions didn’t prevent him from becoming one of the most polarizing presidents in American history. It would concern me that his deportation of 5 million undocumented immigrants and investments in “border security” didn’t prevent the Republican Party from running on nativism and boosting the salience of immigration policy in subsequent elections.
It would concern me that his populist rhetoric and well-justified efforts to characterize Mitt Romney as an out of touch corporate raider in 2012 didn’t actually prevent Romney from improving upon John McCain’s numbers with white working class voters.
It would concern me that every Democratic presidential campaign between 2000 and 2016, save Obama’s mid-financial crisis victory in 2008, performed worse among white working class voters than the last. And it would concern me that the Democratic Party left the Obama years with 11 fewer Senate seats, 62 fewer House seats, 12 fewer governorships, and nearly 1,000 fewer state legislative seats across the country.
It would concern me, in short, that the “vast middle” approach [Kevin] Drum and others are advocating had already shown signs by the end of the last Democratic administration that it would no longer work as reliably as it once did — that the Democratic Party’s electoral prospects have been in decline for reasons unattributable to progressive figures and ideas that arrived on the political scene practically yesterday.
Personally, I think there are errors on both sides of this argument, but the one thing that’s absolutely true is that the Democrats do not have the power, let along the will, to enact the kinds of transformative changes that would quickly convert them into the indisputable governing party of the country. This is a bigger threat and a bigger problem than progressive rhetorical overreach costing them some seats on the margins.
Biden couldn’t succeed with that project even if he were willing to try, but his project isn’t a bad backup plan. His first priority is delivering on major investments in the country’s infrastructure and future, including many things that will immediately help white working class voters in ways they haven’t been helped in a very long time. His second priority is retraining Congress to work together, at least a little bit, and thereby slowly leech some of the poison out of the system.
This is about healing the Republic. A healthy nation needs bridges that don’t fall down, but it also needs a government that can pay its bills on time and put the country’s interests first on the truly critical issues. By combining historic investment with incremental cultural change, Biden is inching the country away from the abyss and the Democrats away from their decades-long record of losing support from the middle of the country.
Progressives will push for bigger and faster change, and that’s fine. In many cases, especially climate, it’s the indisputably correct posture. But Biden can rightly be called both a moderate and the most progressive president in history, and his success or failure will be our own success or failure. Labels don’t matter, but the outcome does.