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The Democratic Caucus Tends to its Roots

Writing by Alex Hendy. Illustration by Phoebe McGowan.

Four years of Joe Biden are understandably unappealing to those who had hoped that the post-Donald Trump era would usher in Medicare for All, the Green New Deal and the abolition of ICE. After all, Biden’s campaign was clearly oppositional in it’s narrative. Biden did not win the Democratic Primary on the strength of his policy proposals, but on who he was not - Bernie Sanders. Biden won the general election with the same strategy - he was not Donald Trump. But perhaps there is one more thing that Joe Biden is not; Joe Biden is not ideological, and this will be his saving grace. For the entirety of his career, Biden has positioned himself in the centre of the Democratic Party. He remains there now. Biden is not, and has never been, a limiting factor in how far left the Democratic Party can reach. Lost in neoliberalism for so long, it may even reach so far as to rediscover its progressive roots.

This may sound counterintuitive - Biden was, ultimately, the standard-bearer for moderates during the primaries. But this was a role that he was cast in just as much as one he chose to play. His primary opponents, eager to create political oxygen, branded him an ineffective, naive, centrist stuck in the past and ill-equipped to deal with the challenges of hyper-partisanship.

One of Biden’s most infamous political positions was on the horrendous 1994 crime bill that was to supercharge mass incarceration: an indisputably right-wing position. But, under Bill Clinton, Democrats had outflanked Republicans at the 1992 general election with a ‘tough on crime' message. Biden moved with the party, to the right. But, where Clinton pulled the Democrats right, the Progressive wing now pulls the party further left than ever before.

By being in the centre of the Democratic Caucus, Biden is actually relatively progressive. On social issues like LGBTQ+ rights and abortion access, Biden preaches to the choir. Even the most conservative Democrat, Joe Manchin III, tows the party line here.

When it comes to economic issues, there is a larger spectrum of opinions. Biden has argued strongly for both a $1.9 trillion relief package (large) and a $15/h federal minimum wage. The prevailing economic thought has swung left - growing deficits are consciously ignored whilst big social relief programmes enjoy near unanimous Democratic support. Biden’s team have (rightly) given no ground to centre-left economists like Larry Summers who worry that the relief package could overheat the economy, arguing that the risks of a too-small package are far greater than the risks of one too-large.

But there is starker evidence of Biden’s willingness to adapt. The fact that Biden didn’t immediately shoot down the idea of nuking the filibuster or packing the Supreme Court in the wake of RBG’s death surprised few pundits at the time, but would have caused a political earthquake if it had been his position when he ran on the Obama ticket in 2008.

Then, after a huge election win, the Democrats failed to follow through. The Obama administration, overconfident, settled for incrementalism rather than bold change. And they surely paid the price for their lack of ambition. Republicans, through constant bad-faith negotiation, delayed and delayed; lobbyists and conservative media hollowed out and demonised good policy. Inevitably, it was only a matter of time before the Obamacare narrative stopped being about the predatory insurance companies and more about ‘death panels’ euthanising Grandma and ‘abortion on demand’. What was eventually passed was unpopular and unambitious. The stimulus wasn’t enough to make the economic recovery feel significant to everyday Americans, leading to not only a decisive defeat at the 2010 midterms, but eventually the Trump Presidency as well. The 2008 hoodwinking of Democrats by Republicans is now seared into the minds of the 2020 Democrats.

But where some Democrats have changed their attitudes towards the GOP, some of the most conservative Senators have just been replaced altogether. The Obama and Trump years were marked by increased partisanship and nationalisation of politics. In turn, this led to a massive reduction in ticket-splitting, where a voter picks Republicans for some offices and Democrats for others. Democrats in red states found that their conservative bona fides were no longer relevant to voters, and becoming unable to distinguish themselves from national Democrats, their Senate seats fell to Republican challengers. But recently, those conservative Senators have now been, at least in part, replaced by liberal ones. The newly elected Senators from Georgia (Warnock and Ossoff) are far more reliably liberal and progressive than Mary Lanrieu (of Louisiana) and Heidi Heitkamp (of North Dakota), who lost their seats in 2014 and 2018, respectively.

Furthermore, the leftward shift of Senate Democrats has been sped up by a highly effective ‘push factor’: the threat of a challenge in the primaries. After the insurgent 2016 Sanders campaign, the progressive wing became increasingly energised, bold and ambitious in what they hoped to achieve. The Sanders Campaign was a nationwide primary challenge to Hillary Clinton, whom the DNC had intended to anoint, rather than democratically elect, as their Presidential nominee. The toppling of 10-term incumbent and 4th-ranking House Democrat Joe Crowley by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is an example scorched into the minds of many.

So how does the establishment Democrat protect themself from such a challenge? They move left. And this has been proven to be highly effective. When Ed Markey, who had been in office for more than 40 years faced a challenge from Rep. Joe Kennedy III, he triumphed in large part by touting his co-sponsorship of the Green New Deal and other progressive policies. It was the first time a ‘Kennedy’ had lost an election in Massachusetts.

And the Markey/Kennedy race was no fluke. We can see the most powerful Senate Democrat, newly crowned Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, tack hard to the left as AOC remains deafeningly non-committal about a potential challenge to his seat in 2022, when he is up for re-election. Suddenly, Schumer, previously a creature of Wall Street, has endorsed everything from banking regulation to wiping student debt to marijuana legalisation. And with a Democratic trifecta (control of the House, Senate and Presidency), his big promises have no place to hide.

Centrists do not fear the progressive wing solely due to the threat of the primaries. The tough odds facing Democrats in GOP-leaning districts are widely acknowledged, and for these candidates there is nothing more politically toxic than being tarred with the 'progressive' brush. In order to maintain harmony within the party, these centrists are forced to cede ground to the progressives. During the 2020 general election, an agreement was reached: the progressive wing would support Biden and stifle its criticism. In return, the national policy agenda became more ambitious, with progressive demands such as the $15/h federal minimum wage being included. It was a marriage of convenience, and now it is the centrists’ turn to pay up.

And the evolution of the Democratic Senate contingent is even more pronounced when one looks at who holds the levers of power, for each Senator is not created equal. Seniority - how long a Senator has served in the Senate - is the key word here, because it’s the principal factor in who chairs the committees. When Obama was trying to make healthcare policy, he had to contend with the conservative Max Bachus as Chair of the Finance Committee. Now progressive Ron Wyden holds the gavel. The powerful Budget Committee, then chaired by Chris Dodd, now is chaired by uh… Bernie Sanders?

The casualties of the decline from a filibuster-proof 60 seat Senate majority in 2008 to a knife-edge 50 seat majority in 2020 have been largely contained to the most conservative Democrats. Those who remained have largely shifted left. Senate Democrats today may have fewer votes to lose, but those votes are far more reliable than those of 2008.

And as much as the Democratic Senate Caucus has changed, Biden is a great change relative to Obama. Biden, long thought of as staunchly moderate but in reality politically flexible, is not only willing to sign progressive legislation into law but he is in fact at the forefront of the fight for its passage. When Obama fought for moderate, centre-left policy he was branded a socialist. This is not a label that will stick to Biden. In this respect, his membership of the ‘pale, male and stale’ club is an advantage. When Bernie Sanders pushes for a $15/h minimum wage, it’s ‘socialism in America’ - when Biden pushes for it, it suddenly seems not only reasonable, but common-sense. Joe Biden, or more specifically his reputation, can be a vehicle through which to launder progressive policy to the American people. In the same way, the upper chamber, previously a graveyard of so much progressive legislation, is now poised to be its champion.

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