Joe Biden and Why America Needs a Strong Progressive Movement
photo: Former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont at Sunday’s debate at a CNN studios in Washington, D.C.(Evan Vucci / Associated Press) | Los Angeles Times
By Alan Minsky, Executive Director – Progressive Democrats of America
In the second half of Sunday’s debate, Bernie Sanders delivered what would likely have been a knock-out blow to Joe Biden in any other Presidential debate when he established that Biden was lying about his record on social security. Biden insisted that he never advocated for cutting social security payments, but Sanders pointed to videos of Biden, from across his career, in which he clearly calls for making cuts to the program. Biden objected vociferously, but to no avail; it seemed that he was exposed, in trouble. However, in the midst of a truly unprecedented global crisis, which understandably has re-ordered everyone’s priorities, the moment passed without making an impact on the race.
Nevertheless, it is a moment worth revisiting, as it speaks volumes about Biden, who is now the prohibitive favorite to be the next President.
The stakes couldn’t be higher. If the Democratic nominee wins the White House, he will be tasked with re-building the country and the world in the wake of the dual disasters of the COVID-19 pandemic and Donald Trump.
Indeed, it looks like 2021 will resemble 1933 and 2009. The incoming President will have a rare opening to alter major policies, redesign government agencies, and propose transformational changes. Would Joe Biden be more New Deal or Shock Doctrine? Or would Status Quo Joe play things down the middle? What leverage would progressives have to influence his administration?
We can learn a lot from Sunday evening’s conflict over Joe Biden’s record on Social Security; about the forces that influence high-level political decision-making in America; and Joe Biden’s decision-making, in particular. It’s worth a closer look.
On the surface the details of the exchange are pretty straight forward. Social Security is exceptionally popular. Polls show that the public overwhelmingly opposes any cuts to the program. So, not surprisingly, the Sanders campaign has released ads that show Joe Biden, at various times throughout his career, saying that he is willing to make cuts to social security. In response, Biden has said that the ads are misleading: that he does not currently support making cuts to social security; and he never supported making such cuts.
When this matter was raised during the debate on Sunday, Biden reiterated his denial. Bernie responded with incredulity – explaining to viewers how easy it is to verify, simply “check it out on the youtube.” Indeed, a simple search for “Joe Biden social security” produces the damning evidence.
In that regard, it’s a pretty open and shut case. Normally, it would cause some damage to Biden – as it shows his willingness to deceive voters about his longtime support for a right-wing economic position overwhelmingly opposed by Democrats – but in a week when a pandemic is sweeping across the world; the impact was negligible.
Still, a question lingers: why did Biden lie? It seems like a risky move. Certainly, any candidate wants to avoid being exposed as dishonest. While this exchange didn’t have the impact the Sanders campaign would’ve liked, #LyingBiden was trending on Twitter afterwards; which certainly wasn’t lost on the ghouls at the Trump campaign.
So, why didn’t Biden just say that his position on the matter has evolved? Why insist that’s he’s always been a staunch defender of social security when it’s untrue? In fact, it wasn’t just on social security that Biden made this claim – he denied the reality of his past positions on a number of other issues across the debate (albeit in much shorter exchanges than the back-and-forth over social security), ranging from bankruptcy legislation, bank de-regulation, budget policy, and the Iraq War. Significantly, just as with social security, Biden not only denied his previous positions, he claimed that he supported a more progressive position than was actually the case. In other words, he was attempting to re-write his history such that his voting record was more in line with the majority of Democratic voters; and, for that matter, with Bernie Sanders.
Obviously, Biden’s gambit here is that voters will be persuaded that his beliefs line up with theirs – and not be concerned about his past record or his dissembling (“don’t all politicians lie anyway?”). If the measure of success is maintaining his momentum and winning the nomination, it’s hard to argue with the results so far. The problem is, no one who is being remotely honest with themselves can have any confidence that Biden’s beliefs have shifted. On the one hand, you don’t gain trust by dissembling. On the other, Biden’s campaign is not about policy positions, its primary selling point is the restoration of the Obama/Biden Administration.
You can probably see where this is going, but here’s a hint: When was the last time that Joe Biden was advocating for social security cuts? Was it in the 90s? The W Bush years? Nope, it was in 2013, as Vice President. And who played a leading role in blocking the cuts? Bernie Sanders.
The bigger point here is that we’re about to nominate someone with a track record much further to the right ideologically than the current center-of-gravity in the party; and, given the severity of the current crisis, Biden will have an unprecedented opportunity to re-cast the role of government for the 21st Century.
As such, we have to start thinking strategically about how we can insure that the now-powerful progressive movement is not shut out from the decision-making process of a new Democratic Administration. The stakes couldn’t be higher. The decisions made at the end of the W Bush, and the beginning of the Obama Administrations – during the height of the financial crisis – have defined the politics of the past decade. They restored Wall Street, screwed Main Street, and set us on a course for ever-greater wealth inequality. We can’t make the same mistakes again.
Which brings us to perhaps the most salient point about a Joe Biden presidency – what do we know about its braintrust? Will progressives have a voice? Frankly, it doesn’t look promising. A couple of weeks ago, the excellent investigative website Axios received what it claimed was a leaked document from the Biden camp, detailing who might fill the major positions in a Biden Administration. The list was chilling, overwhelmingly stacked with leading figures from corporate America, especially the financial industry. The Biden campaign challenged the documents authenticity; but given what we know about Biden’s career as a longtime ally of Wall Street in the Democratic Party, and about the big-money backers of his current campaign, the list was frighteningly plausible. Suffice to say, if a Biden Administration even remotely resembled the Axios document, the country and the planet would be in deep trouble – forget about progressive change, forget about progressive voices being heard.
Fortunately, we’re not there yet; but we have to act now to insure the progressive policies supported not just by the majority of Democrats, but the majority of Americans, have a determining role in any in-coming Democatic Administration in 2021.
Of course, the first, best, and easiest option remains supporting Bernie’s campaign. It ain’t over yet, and you never know what might happen in these crazy times. So, if-and-when the campaign kicks back into gear, let’s get back to the phone banks, back to persuading our fellow citizens. Let’s win some primaries, reverse the momentum and go from there. Benie’s policies are massively better for the country and the world – and, yes, it would be brilliant to have a progressive President recasting American Government for the 21st Century come January. Imagine echoing FDR by implementing Medicare for All and a Green New Deal in Bernie’s first 100 days!
The other option is tricky, to say the least; but for the sake of all that we love, we have to do what we have to do. If Biden continues on the fast track to the nomination, we progressives have to reach out – both respectfully and insistently. Our point of entry can be Biden’s re-creation as a Bernie progressive (in the last debate he even opposed fracking, one the Obama Administration’s crowning jewels). We have to let him know that we’ll be holding him to his word. We can be his allies, an army of lobbyists supporting progressive legislation; or adversaries, exposing his betrayals. Two things we won’t do: go home; or accept a retrenchment of neo-liberalism, which is what we fear Joe Biden will pursue, if left to his own devices.