The lightning speed of Joe Biden’s ascent from political near-death to an overwhelming lead in the 2020 presidential nominating process (with 99-1 odds of being the nominee, according to FiveThirtyEight) has left everyone a bit disoriented. But my colleague Eric Levitz is right in urging Team Biden to think quickly and creatively about how it can inspire the millennials and zoomers who so heavily gravitated to Bernie Sanders’s banner to support the Democratic ticket. The winners in this year’s intra-party battle aren’t the only ones who need to adjust to a new reality, though. Progressives in and near the Democratic Party need to figure out their own future, and what that means for their relationship with soon-to-be party leader Joe Biden.
Biden is best understood as a transitional figure for Democrats. For one thing, he’s 77 years old, which means the odds of him running for a second term if he wins a first are, at best, mixed. For another, his entire campaign message suggests an interregnum — a period in which the country recovers from the ongoing riot of the Trump administration and regains its equilibrium and some of the norms that the 45th president has recklessly discarded. Thanks to Hillary Clinton’s defeat in 2016, Biden is not continuing some dominant Democratic Party tradition, much less forging a new one. He is arguably sui generis — a short-term circuit breaker who will leave the future of his party in other, younger hands.
Understood in that manner, Biden as the 2020 nominee doesn’t represent the triumph of the center or a revival of the Clinton-Obama heritage, but rather the least damaging to progressive aspirations of any of the moderate candidates who withdrew and endorsed him. A Cory Booker or Kamala Harris or Amy Klobuchar or Beto O’Rourke or (most definitely) Pete Buttigieg nomination might have set back Democratic progressivism for a good long time. Joe Biden? Not so much. His very lack of policy ambition makes him at most an intermission in the drama of Democratic politics. And if he loses to Trump without Bernie Sanders’s constituencies sharing any blame, then obviously two consecutive “centrist” losses to Donald Trump would have their own implications.
Perhaps Sanders himself presents as big a challenge for the left as does Biden. Is he to remain the leader of the “political revolution” he has so doggedly pursued for so long on into his 80s? Or will he be his movement’s Moses, destined never to enter the promised land of the White House? This matters a great deal right now because Biden’s running mate could well be in a strong position to succeed him as Democratic nominee if they win, and maybe even if they lose. If the left envisions some Joshua figure to replace Sanders as its leader, it would be handy to have her or him join the Biden ticket. That could require some sustained public and private persuasion — certainly as much as some crusade to force Biden to bend the knee by insincerely embracing Medicare for All, which isn’t going to be enacted in the next four years anyway. And if progressives are divided on their future leadership, there’s the possibility of promoting Elizabeth Warren — who has more of a future than Uncle Joe, but faces a relatively short horizon of her own — as a Biden running mate.
So, if seized quickly and immediately, the Biden nomination could represent a signal opportunity for any Democrats focused on the party’s future to claim the high ground for the coming intra- and inter-party ideological battles. Certainly for the Bernie-loving left, it’s no time for expending much leverage on the fool’s gold of the party platform or pointless retroactive complaints about this or that slight to the determined old man from Burlington. Before long, both Biden and Sanders will retire from the fray. The donkey will soon reach a crossroads with multiple paths ahead.