A few days ago, author Marianne Williamson announced her candidacy for the 2024 Democratic presidential nomination. At a White House briefing, a reporter asked Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre if President Biden was “annoyed” or “frustrated” at the news. Did he want a “clear field to run against the Republican nominee in 2024?”
Her response was to crack a series of obviously rehearsed “off the cuff” jokes about auras and crystal balls — a reference to Wiliamson’s long-standing interests in spirituality and self-help. The White House press core, which thrives on proximity to power and despises “unserious” people, thought it was hilarious.
The whole inane interaction was the latest in a series of signs that the White House is hoping it can get away with dismissing or ignoring Williamson and any other primary challengers who may emerge. The administration doesn’t want Joe Biden to have to stand on a debate stage defending his record against progressive critiques. It’s tried very hard to make this an uncontested nomination, and if other candidates insist on putting themselves forward anyway, it’s going to pretend this is an uncontested nomination.
That’s bad news for anyone who cares about democracy.
Clearing the Field
Williamson announced her run for president late last week in a speech hitting a series of policy points familiar from Bernie Sanders’s two presidential bids in 2016 and 2020. (Williamson briefly ran for the 2020 nomination before dropping out to endorse Sanders.) “Why,” she asked, “do one in four Americans — one in four Americans! — carry medical debt?” Why is it that “eighteen million Americans cannot fulfill the prescriptions that are given to them by their doctors” and “sixty-eight thousand Americans die in this country every year for lack of health care”?
Because we don’t have universal healthcare. . . . [in] every other advanced democracy these positions, [such as] universal health care, such as . . . free college, higher education, and tech school, such as free childcare, such as paid family leave and sick pay, such as a guaranteed living wage and such as a twenty-first century economic Bill of Rights . . . those are moderate positions in every other country.
I’d very much like to see Williamson make these points in 2024 primary debates with Joe Biden. In 2020, Biden said that his only objection to Bernie Sanders’s proposal for a single-payer “Medicare for All” system was that it would replace the private insurance industry. Instead, he claimed to support a “public option” that would compete with the private insurers. But when’s the last time he so much as mentioned a public option? It hasn’t been in any of his three State of the Union speeches, and it wasn’t in the even most optimistic early versions of the Build Back Better package. He published an op-ed in the New York Times a few days ago about his plans to reform the Medicare system, and once again the public option was MIA.
I’d love to see Williamson stand on a debate stage and press the president: first, on why he wants to stop at a public option — which would mean two-tiered health care with preferential treatment for those who could afford private plans — and second, why he never seems to talk about it in between presidential elections. Similarly, Williamson hit Biden — who likes to claim to be a uniquely “prolabor” president — for his grotesque decision last year to use the Railway Labor Act to force a bad contract down railworkers’ throats. Shouldn’t Democratic voters have a chance to hear that issue hashed out in debates so they can decide how they feel about renominating a president who sided with rail bosses over workers?
The president says he had to side with the railroad companies to get the problem solved before the xmas rush.
But he could have decided to side with labor to get the problem solved before the xmas rush!
— Marianne Williamson (@marwilliamson) November 29, 2022
Instead of welcoming the challenge and preparing to defend Biden’s record in a real campaign, the White House and the Democratic National Committee (DNC) have been working overtime to make sure Biden’s re-coronation comes together without any surprises. Even though the overwhelming majority of Democratic voters tell pollsters they would prefer that Biden not run in 2024, the DNC recently approved a resolution offering “full and complete support” for his reelection. As Current Affairs editor Nathan Robinson points out, all the headlines about “Democrats” being unified behind Biden start making a lot more sense when you realize the headline-writers aren’t talking about Democratic voters.
The party has been blatantly rigging the primary schedule to make sure Biden has a smooth path to the nomination. New Hampshire, where Bernie Sanders won in both 2016 and 2020, is being pushed back further in the schedule. Meanwhile, South Carolina, which has a relatively conservative Democratic electorate — it was the only state during the contested phase of the 2020 primaries where a majority of Democratic voters didn’t support Medicare for All in exit polls — will go first. And if Jean-Pierre’s lame jokes about crystal balls and auras are any indication, Biden’s likely strategy will be to argue that no “serious” candidates are in the race and thus there’s no need to hold debates.
Give the Voters a Choice
Marianne Williamson has, for the record, never written a word about crystal balls or auras. Even so, you may roll your eyes at her spiritual interests. I get it. I’m an atheist and a Marxist materialist, and much of what she says about those topics is not particularly to my taste. I can understand wishing that the platform she’s campaigning on was being represented by a different candidate with different political “branding” (like, say, Bernie Sanders).
But whatever you think about Williamson, she’s advocating vitally important policy positions. If you believe that the voting public should get to make an informed decision about the issues — if in other words, you believe in democracy — then you shouldn’t want to see a candidate most Democrats wish would sit this one out renominated without even making him defend his record in debates.
“Serious” politicians gave us twenty years of war after 9/11. “Serious” Bill Clinton ended the federal welfare system. “Serious” Obama expanded the drone program. And “serious” Joe Biden broke the rail strike. All of these very serious people have given us decade upon miserable decade of miserable neoliberal economics. It should take more than an eyerolling reference to Williamson’s alleged unseriousness to get Biden off the hook. Reporters should stop asking whether he’s “annoyed” by the possibility of a democratic election and start asking him when he’ll agree to a series of debates.
Is Williamson an unserious person? Then making her look ridiculous on a debate stage should be easy. One way or the other, Biden should be willing to defend his record and let the voters decide.