If Joe Biden enters the White House on the afternoon of Jan. 20, there is reason to expect that intraparty conflicts will come racing to the fore: between the Democratic left and Democratic moderates; between multicultural, debt-laden youth and Whiter, more affluent, suburbanites; between the alternate Sanders/AOC ticket and the actual Biden/Harris ticket.
It’s also possible that Biden might succeed in having an awful lot of his political cake and eating it, too.
US politics has changed dramatically over the past four years. Persistent problems -- public investment shortfalls, soaring inequality, rural stagnation, the threat of environmental catastrophe, a burgeoning underclass not making decent wages -- remain. To many in the party, especially the Bernie Sanders/Alexandria Ocasio Cortez wing, these problems have only grown more acute.
On the moderate side of Biden’s coalition, which tends to be older (and larger), the crisis of Trumpism has superceded all others. President Donald Trump’s attacks on democracy, rule of law, decency and competence pose an existential threat to the prosperity and stability of the US. Sanders and AOC have acknowledged as much, with AOC explicitly citing the need to vote for Biden to allow democracy to “live another day.”
Repairing the federal government will be a painstaking task. It will not, however, be a highly contentious one. There is no constituency in the Democratic Party for appointing hacks or grifters to high office, or for emulating Attorney General William Barr’s transformation of the Department of Justice into a chop shop where the law is dismantled in pursuit of partisan obsessions.
A public display of honesty, proficiency and ethics will buy Biden a lot of leeway. His election alone would help restore democracy, though more will have to be done to protect it. Similarly, a competent attack on COVID-19 -- if it’s not too late -- will generate political as well as economic confidence.
If Democrats fail to take the Senate, Biden’s policy agenda is doomed -- no matter how many hosannas to bipartisanship he sings. The party that preferred a looming depression to Democratic success in 2009 will likely be more extreme and vindictive in 2021. Bipartisan progress may be possible in some areas, but not on big-ticket items such as green energy and expanded health insurance. Even with a Democratic majority it’s hard to see how transformative legislation can be passed without first eliminating the filibuster, enabling the Senate to operate with simple majorities.
A Democratic Senate majority would empower the most conservative Democrats -- Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona and some newcomers from purple states -- as the deciding votes. Manchin’s state has had double-digit unemployment much of the year; Sinema’s has regularly experienced triple-digit temperatures. Democrat Mark Kelly is leading this year’s Senate race in Arizona while calling for “massive investments” in renewable energy.
It’s unclear what precisely such moderates would oppose in a $2 trillion investment to overhaul the US energy sector, create jobs and combat climate change. Biden’s green new deal can be contrasted with AOC’s green new deal and portrayed, correctly, as the moderate option. (Manchin’s coal miners are not going back to the mines no matter what color the deal is.) Likewise, Biden’s plan for a public option for Obamacare will be the moderate alternative to Sanders’ Medicare for All.
Losses on the left will take the form of hefty half loaves; the rhetoric deployed by Sanders and AOC can make the repast easier (or more difficult) to digest. In any case, young Americans accustomed to paralysis and drift would witness action on a scale they’ve never seen. Police reform and a $15 minimum wage are policies that unite Democrats and have special salience to the Sanders/AOC ticket. And a Biden intervention in the housing market, with subsidies for first-time home buyers and new protections and supports for renters, will target the needs of a rising generation bludgeoned by debt, pandemic and Trump. How many Democrats will balk at such support?
Across a range of issues, Biden’s policies are less than the Sanders/AOC ticket demands but more than anyone previously imagined possible. Just as Lyndon Johnson’s Texas drawl helped make a lunge toward racial equality less threatening to Whites, Biden’s moderate demeanor can help sell costly investments to the financially secure.
There will be conflict, of course. And when it comes, Biden should align his administration as often as possible with the Democratic base -- the young. Much has been made of the inroads Biden has made among White seniors. But there isn’t much doubt about which demographic cohorts represent the future.
As a Pew Research Center report this month noted, voters under 30 support Biden over Trump 59 percent to 29 percent, while voters ages 30 to 49 prefer Biden to Trump by 17 points. Biden has the opportunity to fuel Democratic gains for years by solidifying his party’s appeal to younger generations.
Years of inaction on pressing issues, compounded by the corruption and incompetence of the incumbent, have given Biden an unusual opportunity. He has the potential to be a conventional politician who helps rescue democracy, a moderate who makes historic gains in progressive policy, and the oldest president in US history who also eases the path for the nation’s youngest generations. Not a bad legacy if you can get it.
Francis Wilkinson writes editorials on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg Opinion. -- Ed.