Lost in our all-pandemic, all-the-time new reality was a joint statement released last week by five of Pennsylvania’s elected officials: City Councilmembers Helen Gym and Kendra Brooks, and state representatives Elizabeth Fiedler, Sara Innamorato, and Summer Lee. It was released just after Bernie Sanders ended his presidential campaign—and before his endorsement of Joe Biden this week.
The statement included praise for Sanders, and a warning for Biden. The five elected officials called on Biden to “commit to the policies that energize the base,” which they identified as Medicare for All, the Green New Deal, ending the mass detention and deportation of immigrants, and embracing Sanders’ long-term economic restructuring plan in the aftermath of Covid-19.
And there was also a warning: “We are united in a mission to defeat the gross incompetence and authoritarianism of this current President and his enablers,” they wrote. “But we want to be clear: Support must be earned.”
That’s a helluva lotta chutzpah right there.
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We’ve just completed a primary season that, unlike four years ago, was not even close at the ballot box. In fact, it was a rout. And that wasn’t the result of some establishment conspiracy. Across the country, voters—particularly African-American ones—selected their nominee. In three states—Florida, Michigan and Mississippi—Sanders didn’t even win a single county. Yet now some Sanders supporters seem intent on a type of voter nullification.
Indeed, the PA Five are not alone. Ideologically driven progressives across the nation are making similar demands, seeming to withhold support in pursuit of commitments the electorate has already denied them.
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, for example, says she’ll support her party’s nominee, on the one hand, but notes, on the other, that the “whole process of coming together should be uncomfortable…if Biden is only doing things he’s comfortable with, then it’s not enough.”
An Associated Press survey across 17 states found that 54 percent of Sanders backers said they’d be dissatisfied if Biden were the nominee. A stunning 13 percent of Sanders supporters in Florida, Arizona and Illinois said they would definitely not vote for Biden.
Given that 12 percent of his supporters voted for Donald Trump four years ago, Sanders understands what Gym et al seem to not: The stakes are too high for these politics-as-usual games of chicken.
“I believe that it’s irresponsible for anybody to say, ‘Well, I disagree with Joe Biden—I disagree with Joe Biden!—and therefore I’m not going to be involved,’” he told the Associated Press, distancing himself from his own campaign’s press secretary, Briahna Joy Gray, who caused quite a stir on Twitter when she announced that she wouldn’t follow her now-erstwhile boss: “I supported Bernie Sanders because he supported ideas like Medicare for All, canceling ALL student debt, & a wealth tax. Biden supports none of those.”
I take Gym et al at their collective word—they’re committed to defeating Trump and Trumpism. Well, maybe it’s time to start acting like it.
I reached out to Gym this week to find out if Sanders’ public pronouncements had persuaded her to rethink the “our way or the highway” stance she and the other legislators seem to imply in their joint statement; she didn’t respond. Had she, I would have probed the strikingly restrictive definition of “progressive” being advanced by the likes of Gym and Gray.
Fact is, though the words “Biden” and “moderate” often appear side-by-side in press accounts, if President Joe Biden’s platform were enacted, it would arguably make him the most progressive president in our nation’s history. (It would also be an agenda likely too far left for even a Democrat-controlled Congress to pass).
A Tax Policy Center dissection of Biden’s economic policies finds that his plan to raise taxes on the ultra-rich generates $4 trillion—arguably the largest transfer of wealth in American history. Biden, it turns out, is more of a redistributionist than moderates ought to like.
In a recent New York magazine piece, Jonathan Chait runs through Biden’s other progressive bona fides: “He is proposing more generous subsidies and Medicaid funding along with a public option in order to achieve universal health care; a combination of $17 trillion in clean energy investment and a suite of tighter regulation to bring emissions to zero by 2050; a combined $2 trillion in new spending on early education, post-secondary education, and housing, a $1.3 trillion infrastructure plan, and a $15 minimum wage.”
Be careful what you wish for, progressives. The more Biden accedes to your demands in pursuit of party unity, the more it’s likely to play to Trump’s strength and hurt the former vice president’s chances come November.
As Barack Obama conceded in his endorsement of his former VP, the Biden agenda is to the left of his own when he was in office. But in Moscow on the Delaware, that’s not progressive enough for the Bolsheviks.
Biden, seeking to unify his party, has lately adopted Elizabeth Warren’s bankruptcy reform proposal and Sanders’ plan to make public college tuition-free for families who make under $125,000. He’s also come around on forgiving the student debt of those who earn less than $125,000 and attended public college, and he’s now advocating lowering the Medicare age to 60. But Biden’s, uh, “evolution” could come with a hefty price tag.
At the presidential level, at least, general elections are still won in the center of American politics. Which means that Biden has to forge together a naturally fractious coalition of interests. If he’s seen as kowtowing to the far left of his party, as happened in 1988 when Michael Dukakis acceded to Jesse Jackson’s platform demands (and even gave Jackson a private general election plane!), it could dilute a strength Biden demonstrated in the primary: He overwhelmingly won suburban voters, older voters and working-class voters—groups that went for Trump in 2016.
Expect the Trump campaign to seize on any fissure on the Democratic side—even imagined or doctored ones—not to garner votes for their candidate so much as to suppress turnout for the other guy.
But that’s not the biggest risk run by the airing of (contrived) political grievances by Gym, et al. No, the real threat lay in aiding and abetting the coming Trump attacks on the Democratic nominee.
You want to fear for the future of Democracy? Check out reports from inside the Trump disinformation campaign.
Expect the Trump campaign to seize on any fissure on the Democratic side—even imagined or doctored ones—not to garner votes for their candidate so much as to suppress turnout for the other guy. Already, Trump’s amoral team has plastered ads all over Facebook portraying Biden as a Democratic Socialist.
While Democratic socialism may have some cache in Philly politics, (where Democrats outnumber Republicans by 8 to 1), it doesn’t fly nationally. Virtually every recent poll finds a solid majority of Americans with a negative opinion of socialism.
I’m reminded again of that 1988 campaign. I was a Jackson supporter and was outraged when an unnamed, exasperated Dukakis aide was quoted wishing for that era’s Democratic Socialists to just “shut up” until after the election, when they’d be taken care of. Well, they didn’t shut up. And George Herbert Walker Bush—after a spate of race-baiting TV ads that not even Donald Trump would attempt to pull off today—was sworn in on inauguration day.
The moral: Be careful what you wish for, progressives. The more Biden accedes to your demands in pursuit of party unity, the more it’s likely to play to Trump’s strength and hurt the former vice president’s chances come November.
Or maybe you don’t care? I shudder at the thought, but could it be that someone like Gym wouldn’t mind seeing Trump reelected, given that her chances of becoming mayor in 2023 would be greatly enhanced if she had a second Trump term to run against?
Of course, I don’t really believe that anyone reaches that level of Trump-like political sociopathy. But it’s also true that intentions don’t matter. I take Gym et al at their collective word—they’re committed to defeating Trump and Trumpism. Well, maybe it’s time to start acting like it.Photo courtesy Jared Piper