Veteran political journalist reflects on the leftward turn of Biden’s thinking. In this article, which appeared in The New York Review of Books, he says that Biden is no longer dreaming of restoring the Obama administration, but looking instead to FDR as a model of activism in the midst of crisis. He informs us that Biden and Sanders were communicating during the final days of the Democratic primary and preparing the way for Sanders to step aside. Biden, he writes, now embraces policies proposed by Sanders and Warren, yet protects his established credentials as a moderate. We can expect Trump to label him as corrupt, but the public is not likely to be persuaded that Biden is as corrupt as a Trump. Trump will also call Biden a “socialist,” but that charge didn’t help Republicans in the 2018 midterms and is unlikely to hurt Biden.

Bernie Sanders suspended his presidential campaign on April 8. It’s easy to forget, preoccupied as we all are now with the coronavirus and protests across the nation against police violence, what a precipitous fall this was. For a brief period after his smashing victory in the Nevada caucus on February 22, it was almost universally assumed that he would be the Democratic nominee. “Bernie Twitter” was ecstatic. Folks I know in the moderate wing of the party were beginning to make peace with the idea and preparing to support the independent Vermont senator’s bid for the White House.

Then on February 29, exactly one week after Nevada, Joe Biden crushed Sanders in South Carolina. Three days later, in the March 3 Super Tuesday primaries, Biden won ten out of fourteen contests, many by quite large margins. And that was that. I’ve been writing about Democratic primaries since the 1988 race, and I don’t recall a single one in which the apparent end result flipped so emphatically and suddenly.

It’s hard for any politician to make the mental admissions to oneself required to end a presidential campaign; for a candidate like Sanders, who called for political revolution and seemed to have victory so near that he was surely daydreaming about the list of speakers at his convention, I imagine it was particularly hard. The struggle to accept defeat extends to supporters—perhaps doubly so with some of Sanders’s strongest supporters, who vocally detest the Democratic Party, people who call themselves liberals, Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren, Barack Obama, and basically anyone who isn’t Sanders (or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez).

But even as some of his supporters were digging in their heels, scrambling to knock Biden out, Sanders himself was suing for peace. Faiz Shakir, Sanders’s well-regarded campaign manager, told me that, as the senator ended his campaign, he made clear that cooperation would be the order of the day. “Senator Sanders asked me and [longtime adviser Jeff] Weaver to reach out to our Biden friends and see what would be available if we were to bring these worlds together,” Shakir said.

The friends in question were Ron Klain and Anita Dunn, two establishment Democrats. There are actually two lefts within the Sanders orbit. One I would call the “outside left,” the hard-shell “Bernie-or-bust” contingent referred to above: younger, more New York–centered, strident, and absolutist. The “inside left,” which includes people like Shakir, who has a Washington pedigree—he has worked for Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid—sees value in urging the moderate (and elected) figures left. This group does have respect for people like Klain, a frequent and fierce critic of Donald Trump on MSNBC who, as Obama’s Ebola response coordinator, showed the world a few short years ago that the United States of America actually knew how to contain a virus.

In fact, the lines of communication between the campaigns predated Sanders’s dropping out. As the virus descended in the first half of March, the two camps negotiated the mutual canceling of events; they agreed before the last pre-lockdown debate, on March 15, to replace a handshake with an elbow bump. Through late March, as the toll of illness rose, they generally kept each other apprised of their actions. After Sanders withdrew, the discussions between the two turned more toward substance—and the extent to which Biden would be willing to adopt pieces of the Sanders agenda. Thus were formed the six task forces that the Biden campaign unveiled on May 13. These eight-member groups cover the economy, health care, immigration, criminal justice, climate, and education, and each is co-chaired by one Biden supporter and one Sanders supporter.

The left-wing presence on many of them is remarkable. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez co-chairs the climate panel with John Kerry. Representative Pramila Jayapal of Seattle, a major Sanders backer, co-chairs the health care task force with Obama surgeon general Vivek Murthy. The economist Stephanie Kelton, a top Sanders adviser and proponent of Modern Monetary Theory, which holds that the government should pay for major new investments like the Green New Deal by printing more money, is on the economic task force. The task forces, I’m told, have a threefold mission: to publicly recommend the policy positions that Biden should run on, to guide the writing of the party platform, and to inform the transition, should Biden win the election (assuming there is an election, or an uncorrupted one). It stands to reason that some of the members of these task forces might also fill important slots in a Biden administration.

Of course, it’s in both sides’ interest to cooperate to defeat Trump. But what a difference this is from 2016, when, after losing to Hillary Clinton in the primaries in early June, Sanders allowed bitterness to fester well into the summer. The difference can be credited to a few factors: Biden and Sanders get along fairly well personally, and Biden understands that he needs to take the left seriously. But easily the dominant factor is the virus. Biden, by most accounts, has been a different man since the pandemic hit. Last year, he sometimes spoke of his presidency as a return to a pre-Trump era. Now, with unemployment nearing 15 percent and calls for change from protesters becoming more urgent—and with the crisis starkly laying bare the economic precarity in which so many Americans were living even before the virus hit—he sees himself in the mold of Franklin Roosevelt, a leader who would rise to the vast challenge history has thrust upon him and introduce sweeping change. The change in Biden has sometimes been overstated. But it is real, and it makes the prospect of a Biden presidency (provided it’s combined with Democratic capture of the Senate) far more intriguing than it was just two months ago.

One of the oldest truisms of presidential politics is that candidates run to the left or right (respectively) during the primary and to the center in the general election. But since he became the presumptive nominee, Joe Biden has moved left. In mid-March, he adopted a version of Elizabeth Warren’s free-college plan. On April 9, partly in response to the pandemic, he announced that as president he would seek to lower the eligibility age for Medicare from sixty-five to sixty, which could extend Medicare to another 23 million people (including at least a million in Florida and at least 500,000 each in Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Ohio)

In neither of these cases did Biden fully embrace the Warren or Sanders position. His free-college plan would stop once a family’s income hit $125,000, whereas Warren’s had no income limits (the liberal-left critique of all such “free college for everyone” plans is that they constitute an unnecessary subsidy for well-off children, a critique Biden’s approach avoids). And on Medicare, Biden didn’t get close to Sanders’s version of Medicare for All, with its elimination of private insurance. Even so, these were, for a number of elected Democratic officials and liberal activists I spoke with, head-turning moves—testament both to the left’s increased strength within the Democratic Party, and to a surprising willingness on Biden’s part to play ball with a party faction that for most of his almost half-century in politics has been weak and easy to take for granted.

The rhetorical change has been even more striking. In an interview with Biden on April 7, the day before Sanders ended his campaign (which Biden must have known he was about to do), CNN’s Chris Cuomo asked Biden what kind of economic situation he thought he would face if elected. The former vice-president said:

“I think it may not dwarf, but eclipse what FDR faced…. We have an opportunity, Chris, to do so many things now to change some of the structural things that are wrong, some of the structural things we couldn’t get anybody’s attention on.”

That seemed a signal that Biden’s moves had been more than the usual placating of a constituency whose support he needed—that his very thinking had changed, and in major part thanks to Covid-19. It’s not so much that the virus has moved Biden to the left. Rather, it has nudged reality leftward, and Biden has followed.

More recently, the May 25 murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police and the subsequent protests in cities across America have led Biden to speak with force and eloquence about racial injustice. In a June 2 speech at Philadelphia’s City Hall, he said “the moment has come to deal with systemic racism” and spoke of the need for “long-overdue changes” like a congressional law against chokeholds, ending the provision of military weaponry to police forces, and creating a National Police Oversight Commission. These may not sound dramatic in the abstract, but each would be enormously controversial.

Officially, his campaign denies a dramatic change. “We feel we never got enough credit for being progressive in the first place,” a Biden aide told me, before pointing me to a McClatchy newspaper story from last fall that compared Biden’s and Hillary Clinton’s platforms and found Biden’s “more ambitious and liberal” on health care, climate, criminal justice, and more. “On nearly every major issue,” the article said, “Biden has either exponentially increased the scope of what Clinton proposed or advocated for new ideas that most Democrats would have up until recently considered fringe.”2

That may be. But to many people, and young people in particular, the Biden program didn’t look very progressive compared to Sanders and Warren. And it must be said that Biden is not on his way to capturing the Democratic nomination because of his program. He is the putative nominee because he seemed to the greatest number of Democratic voters to be the safest bet. His ideology, meaning his non-leftism, had something to do with that—there was an undeniable panic among Democratic voters in South Carolina and the Super Tuesday states about sending someone with Sanders’s platform into battle against Trump. But other factors were also important: voters’ familiarity with Biden, his relationship to the beloved Obama, and, let’s face it, his gender and race (it is perhaps inevitable that a primary that started with several women and people of color came down to the two best-known white men).

Democratic voters, pre-pandemic, were content with restoration: trying to clean up Trump’s wreckage and making incremental improvements on Obama’s achievements. But they, and their presumed candidate, appear to see things differently now. Biden’s remark to Chris Cuomo suggests a recognition that history has thrust him into a new role: that his job is not simply to defeat Trump and restore America to pre-Trumpian normality, but to make the case to America that that normality was never good enough.

What’s really important is what this reconsideration implies. Biden might now be willing to depart from the economic principles that have governed policy-making in this country over the last forty years: the so-called neoliberal principles of free markets, little government intervention or investment, wariness about deficits, and more. He might be willing, that is, to cast off the values and policies that have given us our era’s raging inequality, this uber-class of billionaires, this ethos of the deserving versus the undeserving. Republican administrations have embraced those principles fully—except when it comes to deficits, on which the GOP is completely unprincipled and hypocritical3—but our two recent Democratic administrations have also at times done so, as when Obama began talking about deficit reduction in early 2010. The Obama experience was a bitter one for a lot of people who hoped for more public investment in infrastructure, health care, and climate initiatives. “Obama and his team’s acquiescence in—indeed, public endorsement of—the turn to austerity in 2010 was absolutely fucking disastrous,” the UC Berkeley economist J. Bradford DeLong, who served in the Clinton administration, told me.

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