The end of the Trump era is a good thing. As my friend and comrade David Griscom likes to put it, “This is a show whose second season you don’t want to see.” Donald Trump appointed hard-core union busters to the National Labor Relations Board and a parade of Federalist Society ghouls to the federal judiciary. He doubled the rate of drone strikes in Yemen and brought the United States to the brink of war with Iran. He banned Muslims from entering the country and separated immigrant parents from their children.
If there were ever a case where the victory of the lesser evil over the greater evil merited busting out a bottle or two of champagne, this was it. But once you’ve sobered up, remember that being less evil than Trump is fully compatible with being an implacable enemy of the working class. The incoming Joe Biden administration doesn’t deserve an ounce of credit for having the right intentions or a day of progressives patiently waiting to see how it acts before pivoting to a posture of opposition.
This might seem wildly overstated. A quick glance at the Biden/Harris campaign website shows that the president-elect wants to make community colleges tuition-free, create a public option to compete with private health insurance companies, and allow workers to unionize through a simple and easy card check process, which would boost labor’s membership and power.
Socialists have good reasons to criticize the inadequacy of these proposals. I’ve argued in previous Jacobin articles that proposals like the one on Biden’s website to create a “Medicare-like” public option amount to proposals for a two-tiered health system that would lack most of the benefits of Medicare for All and would keep most of the downsides of the status quo. Similar points could be made about providing community college tuition-free but keeping the colleges where more affluent parents send their children expensive. But there’s no denying that the reforms on Biden’s website would improve the lives of millions of working-class people.
The problem is that there’s no good reason to take any of those proposals seriously.
What the Record Shows
Joe Biden became a Delaware senator in January 1973. He stayed in this office until he became Barack Obama’s vice president in January 2009. He kept that job until January 2017, and he’s pretty much been running for president since then. That means that we have forty-seven years of evidence to draw on to see who Biden is and what interests he represents.
His campaign website includes rhetoric about the evils of mass incarceration. It says that no one should be imprisoned for drug use alone, that the prison system should be focused on “redemption and rehabilitation,” and that we should work to reduce the number of incarcerated individuals.
But anyone with even a passing familiarity with his record in the Senate knows that he was one of the loudest voices calling for a harsher and more punitive criminal justice system for decades. When Radley Balko told the story of the series of “tough on crime” measures in his 2013 book Rise of the Warrior Cop, Biden’s name came up again and again. Not so very long ago, Biden was bragging about this stuff.
Candidate Biden’s website includes a plan, adopted from Elizabeth Warren, to “make it easier for people crushed by debt to obtain relief through bankruptcy.” But Senator Biden played a major role in making it so hard in the first place! He was one of the main Democratic champions of a bankruptcy bill so harsh it was opposed even by many centrist Democrats.
It’s not hard to multiply these contradictions between Biden’s career and his campaign website. (It should also be noted that, despite ludicrous claims that circulated at the time she was picked as Biden’s running mate that Kamala Harris was one of the most progressive members of the Senate, her record isn’t all that much better.) But perhaps none of this should be too discouraging to those who share Bernie Sanders’s hope that Biden could become “the most progressive president since FDR.”
It’s technically possible that Biden has undergone some sort of Road to Damascus–style conversion experience, and that he’s now dedicated to opposing the establishment interests he’s spent his life serving. That sort of thing does happen. Wendell Potter, for example, went from being a health insurance executive who lobbied against even incremental reforms to a passionate advocate of single-payer.
One problem with this hypothesis is that he’s very recently acted like the same old Biden. If he did undergo some Potter-type transformation, had it happened yet in June 2019, when he notoriously promised a roomful of wealthy donors that he wouldn’t “demonize” the rich, no one’s “standard of living” would decline under his presidency, and “nothing would fundamentally change”? What about this March, when even in the midst of the initial chaos of the COVID-19 pandemic, he told an interviewer that if both houses of Congress passed Medicare for All while he was president, he would veto it? While not technically incompatible with the half measures he’s officially committed to on health care and higher education, these moments don’t exactly scream “changed man.”
Only two weeks ago, various outlets reported that Biden’s transition team is vetting several Republicans for prominent cabinet positions, including Charlie Dent, a former congressman turned lobbyist, and John Kasich, the former governor of Ohio. When Dent rushed to register as a lobbyist after the legally mandated one-year “cooling off” period following his resignation from Congress, the clients he disclosed were pharmaceutical companies and private health insurance providers. As governor, Kasich was a notorious union-buster.
Even if it’s an overstatement to say that “personnel is policy,” this isn’t the sort of team you’d be likely to assemble for an all-out push for reforms like card check and a public option.
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.”