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The Left Has Given Joe Biden Space. They Won’t If He Wins.

Amanda Terkel
·Washington Bureau Chief, HuffPost
·10-min read
Joe Biden has assembled a large, ideologically diverse coalition in his run for president. (Photo: Carolyn Kaster/Associated Press)
Joe Biden has assembled a large, ideologically diverse coalition in his run for president. (Photo: Carolyn Kaster/Associated Press)

Joe Biden was the target of fierce criticism from the party’s left wing in the Democratic presidential primary. He opposed “Medicare for All.” He relied on big fundraisers and bundlers to fund his campaign. He preached the gospel of moderation and bipartisanship, seeming to truly believe that Republicans were sensible and would work with Democrats once President Donald Trump was gone.

Zephyr Teachout, an associate professor at Fordham Law School who supported Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), said in a January op-ed that Biden represented “the transactional, grossly corrupt culture in Washington that long precedes Trump.”

But the left has been far less vocally critical of Biden in the general election. Even Teachout tweeted out praise for Biden’s final debate performance.

Progressives say part of the show of unity is strategic, since the No. 1 priority is defeating Trump. But they also acknowledge that Biden has made real and meaningful overtures in his policies and the people he’s consulting.

Still, if Biden wins, it will be with a large, ideologically divergent coalition. He’s getting the backing of progressives, as well as Republicans who are fed up with Trump. Young voters seem like they’re being drawn to him, but so are voters older than 65.

Right now, Biden is keeping everyone happy. But that’s likely to change if he becomes president, when he has to start making decisions on personnel and policy priorities. And the left is ready.

“We and our allies are actively preparing ourselves and the broader left to, if needed, orient towards a more confrontational posture and fight fights over Cabinet secretaries and encourage Chuck Schumer and other Democratic senators to oppose particular people for confirmation, if they’re put forth,” said David Segal, executive director of the group Demand Progress.

Teachout said she is “all in for Biden,” but once he’s elected, she’s “all in for making sure workers and small businesses who are suffering so badly are the constituents he serves.”

“The left is going to fight like hell to elect Biden, and then we’re going to fight like hell to push Biden on the kind of big structural change Americans need right now,” progressive strategist Rebecca Katz said.

Ready To Fight For Biden

On April 13, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) endorsed Joe Biden for president in a streaming broadcast.  (Photo: Handout via Getty Images)
On April 13, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) endorsed Joe Biden for president in a streaming broadcast. (Photo: Handout via Getty Images)

The left wants to defeat Trump just as much as the rest of the Democratic Party does. It’s not rocket science to figure that giving Biden some breathing room and showing party unity helps in that goal.

“The left is pushing forward because they realized that when they stepped out in 2016 and they just threw up their hands and said, ‘Screw all of this,’ that we were dealt the consequences. We were dealt the Trump administration,” said Austin Fisher, the spokesman for the progressive group Southpaw Michigan. Southpaw was started by Abdul El-Sayed, who ran for the Democratic nomination for governor in 2018 and was a prominent supporter of Sanders in the presidential primary.

Derek Cataldi, 39, a politically active member of the Carpenters union Local 167 outside of Philadelphia, supported both of Sanders’ runs. But the prospect of a second term for Trump is enough to get him enthusiastically behind Biden ― and Cataldi thinks his fellow Berniecrats have a similar attitude.

“Last election cycle, the Bernie supporters were anti-Hillary and now they’re like, ‘Eh’ ― it’s just whoever against Trump,” Cataldi said. “It could be a mannequin with no dialogue and they would vote for that over Trump.”

Another progressive operative who requested anonymity to speak freely emphasized that the danger of Trump is no longer theoretical, and no one can make the argument that the two parties are the same as an excuse to not vote.

“The existential danger of a second Trump term has just relegated that rationalization to not voting for Biden to a small desk drawer,” they said.

But even just beyond pure necessity, every progressive who spoke with HuffPost agreed that Biden is doing better listening to the left than Hillary Clinton did after she defeated Sanders in 2016.

“Biden’s doing a good job of making people feel listened-to, which did not occur in 2016,” said Jeff Hauser, director of the Revolving Door Project, a progressive group that focuses on executive branch personnel. “I think the Clinton team was sort of averse to the left, in a way that Biden is not of the left but is not adversarial toward it.”

On Friday, the Biden campaign hosted a “Progressives for Biden Unity Town Hall” featuring prominent progressive lawmakers including Sanders and the co-chairs of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, Reps. Pramila Jayapal (Wash.) and Mark Pocan (Wis.).

And on Tuesday, the campaign held a fundraiser on Big Tech featuring some of the sector’s biggest critics, including Sen. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.) and New York Attorney General Tish James.

An early, and significant, step toward bringing the party together were joint task forces put together by the Biden and Sanders campaigns after the primary, where the two sides came up with policy recommendations for Biden. The 100-page document formed the basis for the Democratic Party platform and endorsed a number of progressive policies, including a ban on for-profit charter schools and a mandate for net-zero emissions for all buildings by 2030.

El-Sayed, a doctor, was a Sanders representative on the health care task force. He praised the process for doing “a lot of work to bring people together and hash out a conversation about how we move forward.”

“I’ve been working to move things forward on the campaign, even if there’s still space between how far I think we need to go on health care and where the vice president is,” he added. “But this is the time to move forward.”

A progressive activist also said that they have received some pushback when they’ve criticized people close to Biden ― “even people who are obviously deserving of critique” ― because the entire party is so nervous about hurting his chances against Trump.

Biden’s exact positions ― and what he would do if he is inaugurated in January ― remain a bit unclear. Some of that is by necessity. The country is still in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic, and it’s difficult to predict what will be happening in three months. Having a concrete plan for January may not make sense right now.

But by listening to everyone, Biden is pleasing everyone — for now. The issue of “court-packing,” or adding more justices to the Supreme Court, is a prime example. Biden was not one of the presidential candidates who endorsed court-packing during the primary. But facing a party incensed at Republicans ramming Amy Coney Barrett into place as a new justice just a week out from the election, Biden has not ruled it out. If elected, he said last week, he will convene a commission to study the court system.

It’s not a “no,” but it’s also far from a “yes.” For now, however, it keeps both sides content.

Ready To Fight Against Biden

The left is already gearing up to make the case to the Biden team that tilting conservative once in office is a bad idea. And if it doesn’t get that message, progressives are ready to fight.

For as much outreach that Biden has done to progressives, he’s done the same with disaffected Republicans.

“For those of you who are Republicans, I promise, I’m not going to embarrass you,” he said at a recent fundraiser.

Politico recently reported that the Biden transition team is looking at Republicans as potential Cabinet picks. Meg Whitman, the former CEO of eBay, former Ohio Gov. John Kasich and former Rep. Charlie Dent (Pa.) ― who is now a lobbyist ― are among the names being mentioned.

There are live fights around basically all of his top several Cabinet picks and chief of staff and so on. It’s by no means definitive that progressives are going to win a single one of those. David Segal, Demand Progress

Warren declined to comment on the possibility of GOP Cabinet picks last week, telling HuffPost, “I’m just not focused on anything that happens after Nov. 3. For me it’s all about what happens in the next 14 days.”

Many progressives weren’t entirely surprised that Biden is considering some Republicans. He is running with a large, ideologically diverse coalition, hoping to heal the country after a radically far-right president. But that doesn’t mean he will get a pass if he chooses someone ― whether a Republican or more conservative Democrat ― who is anathema to the values of progressives.

The American Prospect reported Tuesday that Biden is considering centrist Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo (D) as treasury secretary, a selection that immediately set off alarm bells with progressives. Raimondo is a former venture capitalist who angered unions when she cut pension benefits for public employees as state treasurer.

Segal, a former member of the Providence city council and state representative in Rhode Island, said her selection would be “an affront to organized labor.”

“There are live fights around basically all of his top several Cabinet picks and chief of staff and so on,” Segal told HuffPost. “It’s by no means definitive that progressives are going to win a single one of those. So people need to not be seduced by the fact that the campaign has been willing to talk to them.”

The Revolving Door Project has already been putting together research on some of the names that have been floated, arguing, for example, that Dent “voted with Trump 93% of the time on key issues such as corporate tax cuts and Wall St. deregulation” despite his reputation as an anti-Trump Republican and retired from Congress early “so that he would finish his mandatory one-year lobbying ban just ahead of his Republican colleagues and beat them to the most lucrative lobbying gigs.”

Hauser and other progressives who spoke for this piece said that Biden will face far more scrutiny than Obama did when he took office.

“Progressives are much better educated about how power works in Washington in November 2020 than they were in November 2008,” he said. “As a result ... the transition process will be monitored extremely closely. That did not occur in 2008. Progressives weren’t really even necessarily super familiar with who Tim Geithner was, let alone worry he might become treasury secretary. Whereas now, I think there is the potential for controversy at several levels below the treasury secretary, in terms of prominence.”

“It is going to be so important after a Biden win that he immediately let the country know he understands the magnitude of the crisis and that he will be the opposite of Trump,” Teachout added. “That means no corporate lobbyists in his administration, not even a whiff of revolving door corporate coziness that has been so gross and destructive during the Trump years.”

Maegan Llerena, executive director of Make the Road Action Pennsylvania, the political arm of an immigrant rights group that endorsed Sanders in the presidential primary, said that the organization is working energetically to mobilize the state’s Latino voters to the polls for Biden.

Make the Road Action is clear-eyed about its disagreements with Biden. The organization wants to abolish the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, defund the police and cancel Puerto Rico’s debt, whereas Biden favors much more moderate approaches on those issues.

But rather than downplay those differences, Make the Road Action hopes that by helping win Pennsylvania for Biden, it can hold him accountable more effectively once he is in office.

Llerena said the group plans to tell Biden, “We are your voting base. We are the ones who voted for you. We’re the reason you won ― so that means you have to listen to us.”

As logical as that pitch sounds, Llerena concedes that it might not be easy to prevail on Biden.

“It may take a significant amount of time,” she said. “But we want to start holding folks accountable on Day 1 ― on Nov. 4.”

Igor Bobic contributed reporting from Washington, D.C., and Daniel Marans contributed reporting from Pennsylvania.

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This article originally appeared on HuffPost and has been updated.