In the famous scene from Casablanca, the corrupt local prefect of police, Captain Louis Renault, suddenly demands that the Café Américain, owned and operated by Humphrey Bogart’s Rick Blaine, be closed. “I’m shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here!” barks Renault, before a croupier hands him a pile of his own winnings.
Earlier this week, Politico revealed the shocking news that both Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren are set to be frozen out of Joe Biden’s cabinet. Realistically speaking, there were never particularly great odds on either Sanders or Warren becoming part of any administration led by Biden — a lifelong centrist who visibly prefers Republicans to anyone from the Left, the president-elect would probably have carried out a similar transition even if the Democrats had secured the landslide many had until recently expected.
Though the summer months elicited a flurry of frenzied speculation about an ambitious liberal agenda on the near horizon, one only needed to take a cursory glance at Biden’s Wall Street donors, senior advisers, and public rhetoric to see what the character of his administration would almost certainly be. The appointment of figures from the likes of Uber, Lyft, Amazon, and JPMorgan to his transition team certainly does little to alter the general impression. An incoming Democratic administration headed by Joe Biden? It’s simply shocking to find gambling going on in such a place.
Even so, the purported justification for the freezing out of Sanders and Warren looks calculated to mask Biden’s conservative preferences with the logic of regrettable necessity. Here, for example, is how Britain’s Independent opted to frame the news:
Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders are reportedly set to be frozen out of president-elect Joe Biden’s cabinet amid concerns the Democrats could lose more seats in upcoming elections . . . those sitting in the upper chamber privately acknowledge that Mr Sanders, Vermont senator, who is registered as an Independent, and left-wing Democrat Elizabeth Warren, Massachusetts senator, have been ruled out of filling top cabinet spots, according to Politico. “The Biden administration has to be a lot more sensitive of where you come from if you’re looking at members of Congress,” Gerry Connolly, representative for Virginia’s 11th congressional district told [Politico]. “We cannot afford to put any seats in jeopardy.”
In addition to this, Politico’s report suggests Democrats are worried about the prospect of non-centrist nominees passing the vetting process in what is likely to be a Republican-controlled Senate.
Suffice it to say, these are pretty flimsy explanations. If Biden were determined to push an ambitious legislative agenda during his first one hundred days, he could bypass the Senate and make appointments using the Vacancies Act — which permits presidents to fill cabinet posts temporarily without the need for Senate vetting (for altogether different reasons, it’s something Donald Trump did quite regularly). Elizabeth Warren won her 2018 reelection race with more than 60 percent of the vote, and Democrats would have to mess up pretty badly to lose a Senate election in Vermont. True, Massachusetts governor Charlie Baker might opt to fill Warren’s seat with a Republican, but here, too, the Democrats are less constrained than they appear. This very week, the state’s heavily Democratic legislature will consider a budget amendment put forward by Amherst representative Mindy Domb which would restrict Baker to appointing an interim senator from “the same political party as the person vacating the office” (though the state’s conservatively inclined House leadership appears strangely indifferent to the proposal).
Needless to say, the emerging character of the Democratic administration that will take office next year continues to give lie to the fable of a transformative, FDR-like agenda primary-fatigued liberals were so reassuringly offered throughout the late spring and summer. At this early stage, Biden could be using his transition to set the stage for a bullish one hundred days beginning in January. Instead, he’s surrounding himself with corporate operatives and freezing the Left out of his cabinet.