The Democrats’ pundit class has a Joe Biden agenda problem. On the one hand, they are devoted to reassuring centrist voters that Biden is a soothing moderate because of things he did decades ago (say, the 1994 crime bill), because he talked down some of the most ridiculous of the left wing’s policy proposals (notably “Medicare for All”) in the primary, or because he does not speak the language of the woke “defund the police” faction. But at the same time, they are hard at work loudly telling the Bernie/Warren/AOC wing of their party: Don’t worry, Joe won’t stop you from getting what you want. He’s actually going to help you.
The problem is: We can read. This stuff is all out there. And voters who are being sold the “moderate Joe” line need to understand that the people selling it are simultaneously building support to govern with a much more radical agenda.
Let’s walk through some samples — the headlines, the arguments, the quotes from Democratic sources, some of the policy examples they cite, and the smug certainty that most voters aren’t noticing. This is all out in the open. Peter Beinart in The Atlantic, “Biden Goes Big Without Sounding Like It. Perceived as a moderate, he has embraced strikingly progressive goals without facing any political backlash”:
Despite embracing an agenda that is further to the left than that of any Democratic nominee in decades, he’s avoided the specific policy proposals and catchphrases that Republicans find easiest to attack. As a result, he appears more centrist than he actually is . . . on issue after issue, he’s adopted policies that are strikingly progressive while stopping just shy of the specific formulations that might leave him vulnerable to Republican attack.
Paul Waldman in the Washington Post, “How Joe Biden is moving left while still being seen as a moderate”:
When Sen. Bernie Sanders said recently that if Joe Biden implements his policy agenda, the presumptive Democratic nominee could be “the most progressive president since FDR,” he was probably right. In fact, something extraordinary is happening: Biden is getting more progressive in substance, yet it has done nothing to change his image as a moderate. . . . [This is] pretty clearly the product of a careful strategy on Biden’s part . . . the continuing evolution of Biden is a fascinating story, and one most of the public is probably unaware of.
Take, for instance, the climate change plan Biden released this week. . . . The average voter — who right now is paying attention to the presidential campaign on only the most superficial level — probably heard next to nothing about it. But the reaction from progressives and climate activists ranged somewhere between surprise and joy. As one co-founder of the Sunrise Movement tweeted, the plan is “a VERY BIG DEAL, and is a huge victory for the #GreenNewDeal movement.”
. . . . There’s a kind of shift we expect from presidential candidates: In the primaries they appeal to their party with pledges of ideological fealty, then when the nomination is secured, during the general election, they head back to the center. Biden, however, is doing the opposite, in substance if not in rhetoric.
Oh, that silly, superficial, “average voter,” blissfully unaware of Biden’s agenda.
Jonathan Chait in New York magazine, “Joe Biden’s Platform Is More Progressive Than You Think”:
[T]he truth is that Biden has a domestic agenda that, while nowhere near as radical as the Bernie Sanders platform, is almost certainly to the left of anything even a Democratic-run Congress would pass. . . . There is plenty more liberal meat on the bones of Biden’s program. He is proposing more generous subsidies and Medicaid funding along with a public option in order to achieve universal health care; a combination of $1.7 trillion in clean energy investment and a suite of tighter regulation to bring emissions to zero by 2050; a combined $2 trillion in new spending on early education, post-secondary education, and housing, a $1.3 trillion infrastructure plan, and a $15 minimum wage.
Matt Yglesias in Vox, “Progressives don’t love Joe Biden, but they’re learning to love his agenda”:
His platform is in many ways a surprisingly progressive approach to policy that the left sees as a triumph of their own work in trying to change the terms of debate in American politics. Biden “envisions a massive public sector role for job creation,” points out Faiz Shakir, who managed Bernie Sanders’s 2016 campaign. . . . It’s “the most progressive platform of any Democratic nominee in the modern history of the party,” [said] Waleed Shahid, communications director for Justice Democrats . . . Biden is proposing a substantial expansion of the welfare state . . . as Ezra Klein and Roge Karma wrote in December, the dynamic of the 2020 primary was that on economic policy, “by the standards of the Democratic Party in 2008, the moderates look like leftists.”
Ella Nilsen in Vox, “How the coronavirus got Joe Biden to think much bigger. Biden knows there’s no pre-Trump ‘normal’ to go back to”:
Biden’s campaign was defined early on as a return to “normalcy” — the time before President Donald Trump took office — but now he is thinking much bigger. . . . Biden’s rhetoric has shifted as well, increasingly laying out a transformational vision for the country. . . . [Many progressives] sound a lot more hopeful that he now shares their goals. . . . “Biden’s been very clear: To get back to where we were sets the bar way too low,” Biden campaign adviser Jared Bernstein, who served as Biden’s chief economic adviser in the Obama administration, told Vox. “Much like FDR faced a structural crisis of economic insecurity, we’re at a similar place. The vice president recognizes that the extent of market failure here is not something you can fix with a Band-Aid and that structural reforms are necessary.” . . .
Biden now envisions a much larger role for government in his administration if he wins than past Democratic presidents have been comfortable with . . . Biden realizes he needs the left wing of his party. And to bring in the progressives, he recognizes that collaborating with them on meaningful policy is a way to gain their support . . . “I think the compromise that they came up with, if implemented, will make Biden the most progressive president since FDR,” [Bernie] Sanders said on a recent MSNBC appearance.
More from Nilsen, “How Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders joined forces to craft a bold, progressive agenda”:
Progressives see a list of ideas “that goes beyond a status quo and goes beyond where Biden had campaigned in the primary,” Faiz Shakir, Sanders’s presidential campaign manager in 2020 and an integral member in creating the task forces, told Vox. “If you look across all these documents, you’re going to see a massive public sector investment in job creation.” Numerous people Vox interviewed said Biden’s thinking about how bold to be is being pushed by the Covid-19 pandemic, the resulting economic woes, and the national conversation around systemic racism in America.
Nilsen also notes the delight of special-interest activists:
On education, American Federation of Teachers president and task force member Randi Weingarten, a Biden pick, told Vox she thinks the task force recommendations could encourage Biden’s education plan to go much further than either the Trump or Obama administration did. “It’s a paradigm shift from the tearing down that you have right now with Trump and [Education Secretary Betsy] DeVos and their defunding, destabilizing, undermining philosophy,” Weingarten said. “But it’s also different than ‘accountability is the be-all, end-all’ of the Obama administration.”
We certainly wouldn’t want anything so moderate as accountability in education, would we?
Former Obama-era State Department speechwriter Michael A. Cohen in the Boston Globe, “Democrats are no longer a party in disarray — The party approaches its convention united behind the Biden-Harris ticket — and a progressive agenda”:
Joe Biden, who will accept the Democratic nomination for president this week, has taken a very different approach. He ran to the center to win his party’s nod and has since pivoted to the left. . . . It’s precisely because Biden is seen as a pragmatic moderate — and not a controversial liberal — that he was able to capture the nomination. But since then, Biden has moved increasingly leftward. He is pushing for $4 billion in higher taxes; has rolled out a $2 trillion plan to fight climate change; has a $700 billion plan to invest in US manufacturing; and has even hinted that he would support an effort in the Senate to scrap the filibuster. He endorsed Elizabeth Warren’s bankruptcy reform plan and worked out a compact with Sanders to back a host of progressive policy priorities. If Biden follows through on his plans he would be, as Sanders has argued, one of the most progressive presidents in American history.
Katrina vanden Heuvel in the Washington Post, “Why Biden may follow through on a bolder agenda”:
[T]he Democratic policy community has dramatically shifted left. From Paul Krugman acknowledging that he and his colleagues were wrong in discounting the misery and dislocation caused by corporate-led globalization to pro-austerity voices (temporarily) hibernating in the face of the current crises, a new generation of economists is legitimizing ideas once considered verboten in establishment debates.
Yascha Mounck in The Atlantic, “Biden’s Agenda Is Plenty Bold. There is a large constituency for a racially inclusive form of social democracy that is not democratic socialism”:
What should be heartening for Americans who want their country to be more economically just is not only the fact that Biden has won on a social-democratic-policy program that (while sharing his general view of the world) is significantly bolder than Barack Obama’s, but the kind of coalition he has been able to unite behind it.
What about staffing this agenda? Kara Voght in Mother Jones, “Joe Biden Is Promising Progressive Policies. Who’s Going to Hold Him to It? Inside the scramble to fill the Biden administration with liberal wonks”:
[T]he Progressive Change Institute—an affiliate of the [Warren-aligned Progressive Change Campaign Committee]—has set about creating a “personnel power map” of the executive branch, showing which appointed positions have the authority to enact, or thwart, various policy ideas. “The goal is to have people throughout the federal government who know how to exercise power,” says Stephanie Taylor, a PCCC co-founder.
Let that last line sink in.
Finally, it’s not just Biden, and it’s not just print outlets. Former Obama speechwriter Jon Favreau on the Pod Save America podcast:
Favreau laughed at media outlets on Thursday for calling Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) a moderate, pointing out that Harris has one of the most progressive records in the Senate. “It was hilarious to me that she is being called in all this coverage a moderate, like Joe Biden has found a fellow moderate or centrist,” Favreau said on an episode of his podcast, “Pod Save America.” “She supports something extremely close to Medicare For All, which Bernie Sanders acknowledged in his statement supporting her. She’s for the Green New Deal. She has one of the most liberal records in the U.S. Senate.” “If you want to call Kamala Harris’ record in the Senate and her policies that she’s supporting now centrist or moderate, great. If that’s where the Overton Window has moved, then congratulations to all the progressive activists because you have f***in’ moved the s*** out of that window, that supporting the Green New Deal and, basically, Medicare For All is now moderate and centrist. Fantastic, I’ll take it,” Favreau said.
His Obama-alum co-host joined the fun:
Dan Pfeiffer, another former Obama staffer and cohost of “Pod Save America,” joined Favreau on Thursday’s episode and advised progressive activists disappointed with Biden’s pick for vice president that progressives “are going to have an opportunity to have a real influence on the agenda in a Biden/Harris administration.” “He’s really the first candidate that I can ever think of that wins a primary and moves left,” Pfeiffer said, later adding, “Biden has made real, fundamental, substantive shifts on issues like climate and student debt and taxes and other issues.”
We have written plenty on the radicalism of Biden’s policy agenda, such as this editorial on what his race and gender plans explicitly promise. The quotations above, however, are not the words of the Trump campaign, or of conservative columnists, or any other critic of left-wing ideas. These are the people who like these ideas, are champing at the bit to implement them, but are also hoping that voters won’t notice until the election is over.
I just have one question for all these people: You do know we can read, don’t you?