With the Democratic field now crystalizing as a battle between moderate and progressive wings, we’re seeing something we haven’t seen since the 2008 Democratic primary: a real battle for the soul of the Democratic Party. In 2012, of course, Barack Obama was the incumbent President, no need for a primary. In 2016, Hillary Clinton was the “presumptive” nominee and while she and Bernie had their battles, missing was a long drawn-out fight between multiple candidates over which progressive positions to embrace on the national stage, and which ones to dial back.
That’s not to discount the Bernie-Hillary battle in 2016, it was getting brutal in the Spring with primary voting in full force. Hillary was trying her best to embrace some of Bernie’s democratic socialism while also arguing that many of his policies simply made him unelectable as a national candidate, and, she would argue, Bernie was not a “true” Democrat since he ran as an Independent for the U.S. Senate in Vermont. It was very nasty, at times, but it lasted perhaps only four to five months until Hillary secured the necessary delegates to take the nomination.
In 2020, the same battle lines are being drawn, but there are a whole lot more soldiers on the field this time, and the infighting is beginning much, much earlier.
Almost immediately following Vice President Joe Biden’s announcement of his intention to seek the 2020 Democratic nomination, a group calling itself Justice Democrats released a statement assailing Biden as being part of the “old guard” that failed to stop Trump:
The group, which has buoyed high-profile lawmakers like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and presidential hopeful Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), slammed Biden as a relic of the Democratic Party’s “old guard” who opposes policies favored by the progressive base.
“The old guard of the Democratic Party failed to stop Trump, and they can’t be counted on to lead the fight against his divide-and-conquer politics today. The party needs new leadership with a bold vision capable of energizing voters in the Democratic base who stayed home in 2016,” the group said in a statement.
“Democrats are increasingly uniting around progressive populist policies like Medicare for All, a Green New Deal, free college, rejecting corporate money, and ending mass incarceration and deportation. We don’t need someone who voted for the Iraq War, for mass incarceration, and for the Bankruptcy Reform Act while voting against gay marriage, reproductive rights, and school desegregation.”
Biden’s greatest asset – and liability – is his political experience over the past four decades. He’s seen it all, he’s done it all, he’s served in the White House, he’s someone who knows Washington inside and out. In this day and age, perhaps in the age of the political outsider, that could be a very bad thing to hang your hat on. Donald Trump was able to capitalize on the anti-establishment sentiment because a good chunk of the Republican Party was ready to jump on it.
There is now a good chunk of the Democratic Party ready to do the same, but they also want to balance those ambitions with an ability to win in 2020.
The Justice Democrats also released a tweet which highlights some of the specific reasons why Biden, they say, is not going to cut it:
Joe Biden is out-of-touch with the center of energy in the Democratic Party today. pic.twitter.com/CC1RcNIhqU
— Justice Democrats (@justicedems) April 25, 2019
Each of those items under Biden’s picture is an actual vote that Biden will have to account for and defend. The Iraq War is probably the least of his issues with regard to the social justice strand of politics which now dominates the Democratic Party. The issue of bankruptcy reform, which benefitted credit card companies, or the issue of mass incarceration, which speaks to the #BlackLivesMatter crowd, are the Biden sins which will need the most atonement among progressive circles.
There is no hiding from Biden’s legislative baggage, and he has already started to work out his positions and answers for these questions, as this CNN story from January explains:
Former Vice President Joe Biden said in remarks at a Martin Luther King Jr. breakfast Monday that he has made mistakes when it comes to criminal justice issues, an area of his career that could be scrutinized if he launches a 2020 presidential bid in a competitive Democratic field.
“You know I’ve been in this fight for a long time. It goes not just to voting rights. It goes to the criminal justice system,” Biden said at the National Action Network’s Martin Luther King Jr. breakfast in Washington. “I haven’t always been right. I know we haven’t always gotten things right, but I’ve always tried.”
Biden made no mention of his support for a 1994 crime bill that set strict sentencing standards and, critics have argued, led to an era of mass incarceration. But he highlighted his later work with President Barack Obama to address the sentencing disparity for crack versus powder cocaine.
“It was a big mistake when it was made,” he said. “We thought, we were told by the experts, that crack you never go back, it was somehow fundamentally different. It’s not different. But it’s trapped an entire generation.”
Will that kind of answer be enough to satisfy the most ardent progressive activists? Probably not. Nothing will truly make up for some of his prior positions, but it may be enough to satisfy voters in the Democratic primary coupled with a case of electability that Biden has learned from the past and wants to improve his positions and atone for these things in the future.
The secret weapon in Biden’s back pocket could be President Barack Obama. Having the blessing of the first African-American president, who Biden served admirably under for eight years, should bring resolution for some of these issues. Or so you’d think.
Biden said he asked President Obama not to endorse him. That… makes no sense, and I would imagine it’s more of a face-saving effort. The truth is that Obama probably won’t be endorsing anyone – not even his pal Joe – until after the nominee is chosen or the party is painted into a corner and Obama needs to play kingmaker in the primary.
Either way, some factions of the party, like those associated with the Justice Democrats, don’t really care what Obama says, anyway. For example, when asked about Biden and asked about what an Obama endorsement would mean, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez said she wants to “go forward,” not back:
Ocascio-Cortez made clear that she “will support whoever the Democratic nominee is,” but was less than excited by a potential Biden run.
“That does not particularly animate me right now,” Ocasio-Cortez said, adding that she can “understand why people would be excited by that, this idea that we can go back to the good old days with Obama, with Obama’s vice president.” She continued: “There’s an emotional element to that, but I don’t want to go back. I want to go forward.”
She’ll support the nominee, of course, but how many bombs would she lob along the way if her preferred candidate is locked in a tight race with someone like Biden?
AOC was decidedly more enthusiastic about the possible presidential nominations of more progressive candidates Sen. Bernie Sanders and Sen. Elizabeth Warren.
“I’m very supportive of Bernie’s run,” AOC said, adding “I haven’t endorsed anybody, but I’m very supportive of Bernie.” She then added “I also think what Elizabeth Warren has been bringing to the table,” calling it “truly remarkable, truly remarkable and transformational.”
Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren are decidedly the two most activist progressive candidates in the field. They go seeking for ways to advance the causes near and dear to AOC’s heart, so they’re a natural fit.
The battle is already brewing, and the Bernie/Biden divide is taking shape. During the 2016 cycle, Republicans battled back and forth over how much longer the GOP should be the party of George W. Bush, and when was it time to drop that mantle and push forward. Jeb Bush’s candidacy basically hinged on that question.
Donald Trump, with the repeated bashing of the Bush legacy, namely over the Iraq War, blazed new trails for Republicans and put that era in the rearview mirror, along with Jeb’s ambitions.
Democrats must now decide whether the party heading into 2020 will look more like the party of Obama/Biden circa 2008 and 2012, or the party of Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez circa 2019.