Conventions are commercials, and for the last four nights, the Democratic Party has pitched the best version of itself to voters. Vote blue for science, for compassion, for change. Democrats believe climate change is real and that masks will stop the spread of coronavirus. They won’t separate migrant families at the border. They’ll do something to make health care more affordable. Like most advertisements, this is neither entirely true nor a straightforward lie. It occupies an uncomfortable middle territory, and so does the nominee it’s trying to sell.
Joe Biden is not the candidate of revolution. Instead, he bet on nostalgia for the recent past. Throughout his primary campaign, Biden promised a return to normal, and not transformation. As he put it last year, President Trump was “an aberrant moment in time,” his excesses a symptom of individual rot rather than party-wide dysfunction. Republicans could still be partners in the business of government. Biden even said he’d consider a Republican running mate.
But the Biden who won the nomination sounds a bit different than the Biden of old. The new and improved Biden speaks of reform. He’s pledged what aides have called “an FDR-sized presidency,” a reference he revived during his acceptance speech last night. Maybe the primary pushed him. Maybe the pandemic forced his hand. Either way, normal is distant history now, and nobody wants to hear why better things aren’t possible in the middle of a recession.
On Wednesday, Kamala Harris accepted the party’s nomination for vice-president. The party dedicated the night to change. Glossy segments celebrated young climate-change activists, and protesters for gun control and women’s rights. The deeper message was clear enough: A Biden administration would be forward-thinking. It would — alas — “build back better.” In this, the former vice-president echoed a left-wing criticism of his candidacy and the Democratic Establishment that had birthed it: Normal is the problem. Normal is a risk. The low-income people and voters of color who form the party’s base can’t afford a trip back in time to 2007.
But Biden’s pivot to the future is limited by his own history. He’s running on his record, but not all of it. The story the DNC is telling about its candidate, and about itself, is one marked by omission. Biden, for instance, wrote the Violence Against Women Act two years after he failed Anita Hill in the Senate. That moment is more consequential than a footnote; it illustrates the real consequences of Biden’s bipartisan tilt. Witnesses could have corroborated Hill’s account of sexual harassment at the hands of Clarence Thomas, but Biden never called them, and in essence rewarded Thomas with an easy confirmation. The Thomas hearings still reverberate, were audible again when Brett Kavanaugh declared himself innocent in front of the Senate. Thomas, meanwhile, will be on the Supreme Court for life, and Hill is still waiting for a full apology from Biden.
Biden is so much a part of the party scaffolding that its failures indict him, too. Their records are both marked by contradiction: He served the first Black president in American history; the same administration murdered Yemeni civilians by drone and deported undocumented immigrants by the thousands. He defended the Affordable Care Act, “a big fucking deal,” but dismissed more generous visions of an equitable future for health care as so much nonsense. One of the convention’s most moving segments hailed the life and activism of Ady Barkan, who fights for Medicare for All while dying from ALS. But Biden, unlike other primary candidates, never met with Barkan during the primary. Barkan’s convention segment didn’t even mention the words Medicare for All.
Something is better than nothing, that’s true. The ACA saved lives, and so would a public option. If Biden now deems Barkan’s work worthy of tribute, it’s a signal. The intraparty debate over health care has indeed shifted to the left. Biden won’t be the Medicare for All president, but the door is open. Someone else could walk through it, and soon. They’ll do so out of necessity, thanks to realities that Biden himself can’t acknowledge.
Biden may never extricate himself from the nebulous middle territory. Even after his overtures and gestures to the left, his campaign can’t seem to really commit. “When you see what Trump’s done to the deficit,” said Ted Kaufman, who succeeded Biden in the Senate and heads the candidate’s transition team, “forget about COVID-19, all the deficits that he built with the incredible tax cuts. So we’re going to be limited.” It’s not even clear that he wants to commit, or that he fully grasps the limitations he’s imposed on himself. Biden isn’t an agent of change; he’s a reflection of the present. And right now the party is in a moment of transition, so Biden is the candidate of transition, a bridge between the way things are and a future in formation. The theory of politics that guides him is giving way to an approach shaped more by conviction and need than by precedent or personal relationships. He wants to redeem America’s soul, but for what purpose, and upon what path will he set this newly consecrated country?
The planet is warming, and inequality has reached historic levels. The solutions to both require massive spending and an activist government. That realization spurred the leftward shift in the Democratic Party, and it steers the transition that Biden will now steward. A shift, too, has occurred in the other party, one that renders bipartisanship and compromise even more useless and grotesque. The GOP is not now the party of John Kasich or even Colin Powell, the Republicans whom the Democrats have convinced themselves are assets. It is the party of Stephen Miller, Bill Barr, and many quieter enablers of the president. The Democrats can’t open their arms to Trump’s party. Not if Barack Obama is right, and Trump threatens democracy itself.
The Democratic National Convention isn’t just a sales pitch. It’s a swan song. The party of Joe Biden is on its way out.