Biden the Chameleon?
A more superficially realistic way of making the case that the proposals buried on the Biden/Harris should be taken seriously goes like this:
“Sure, Biden isn’t a changed man. He’s a cynical opportunist, just like he’s been his whole career. But the winds have shifted. He was tough on crime back when that was popular, and he’s against mass incarceration now that that’s popular. He was all for getting tough on poor people trying to declare bankruptcy in 2005 when that kind of personal responsibility rhetoric played well, but now that the party’s moved left, he’s moved with it. Since he doesn’t have any principles of his own, he’ll go with the flow — and right now, that means he’ll govern as a progressive.”
This is more or less what the Trump/Pence campaign has spent most of the year trying to scare conservative suburbanites into believing: that despite Biden’s long career as a business-friendly centrist, he was now little more than a front for Bernie and the Squad. Most leftists rolled their eyes when Trump said things like that, but maybe we shouldn’t have. Maybe Biden really will govern as at least Bernie Lite.
There are at least three reasons not to buy this argument. The first is that when a politician spends decades acting one way and then he claims in an election year that he’ll suddenly start acting in a very different way, it’s rational to suspect that he’s not a pure chameleon — that he really does have policy preferences, and that they really were reflected over the course of his long career in public life.
The second is that, while the rise of Bernie’s movement and the popularity of its policy proposals really is an exciting development, saying that “the party” has moved to the left severely overstates the case. Out of hundreds of Democrats in Congress, the members of the informal “democratic socialist caucus” can still be counted on one hand.
The third and most significant is that we don’t have to speculate about what someone from the centrist wing of the Democratic Party making left-populist promises while running for president would do in office. We’ve seen this movie before. When what Biden likes to call “the Obama/Biden administration” came to power, Obama’s campaign platform included both card check and a public option.
The story that was fed to the Democratic base was that Obama tried to get a public option until very late in the process of passing the Affordable Care Act, but it just wasn’t possible to get sixty votes for one in the Senate. The awkward fact that the ACA ended up being passed via a reconciliation process that only required fifty votes was always a problem for this narrative, but in any case, it was later revealed that the idea of including “a public plan” was taken off the table as early as the summer of 2009 in negotiations with the insurance companies and the hospital association.
Card check was dropped much more quietly. After what could only very generously be described as a “push” from the Obama administration, it never even made it to a vote. The administration’s point man for that “push” was . . . Vice President Biden. Bad memories of that episode lingered last year when Biden was working to line up union endorsements for his run for president.
Was Obama insincere in his support for these reforms? Maybe, maybe not. The structural problem is that even if he truly had a mild but genuine preference for card check over the current process for recognizing unions and for a version of the ACA that included a public option to one that didn’t, it wouldn’t have mattered. Serious attempts to push for such reforms would inevitably run into stiff resistance from moneyed interests, and it would be absurd to expect centrists like Obama or Biden to expend the political capital they would have had to expend and burn the bridges they would have had to burn to overcome that resistance.
It’s even possible that Obama meant it when he promised to protect whistleblowers, and he said over and over during the 2008 election that as president he would “close Guantanamo and restore habeus corpus.” But structurally, similar problems would have arisen with any attempt to confront the national security establishment over those issues — and there was never any reason to think that Obama would go all in on such a fight.
Even a hypothetical President Sanders could only have overcome capital’s resistance to his agenda by means of a massive mobilization at the grassroots. The chances of President-Elect Biden calling such a movement into being and leading it to victory are less than zero.
We know how the movie ended last time. The Obama/Biden administration bombed weddings in Pakistan, pursued Edward Snowden around the world, and presided over a steady expansion of economic inequality at home. It coordinated with local officials to repress Occupy Wall Street, and it waged a quiet but effective war against teachers’ unions.
Maybe the sequel will be different. I’d love to be proven wrong about all of this, and I’d spend the next four years fighting with liberals about issues like whether Biden’s newly enacted public option is good enough or we need to press on to Medicare for All. But we can’t operate on that assumption. We certainly can’t afford to hold off on attacking the incoming administration on the belief that Biden wants the things we want and he’s trying his best.
As George W. Bush famously didn’t quite manage to say, “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.”