Joe Biden, and the Hopes of Progressives


I was genuinely moved by this most unusual of conventions. I did not necessarily expect to be. For one thing, I am a crusty old political operative who has been involved in presidential politics since 1984, and I am very practical about politics. And Joe Biden was not my candidate in the primary; Elizabeth Warren was, and I haven't stopped mourning her loss. She would have been such an amazing president. The Biden campaign and the convention they created were all about the big tent, with lots of Republican endorsers in different roles, and I did not expect it to stir my progressive blood.

Yet it did.

Partly that is because I have known Joe and Jill Biden for a long time, since working for the first Biden presidential campaign 33 years ago. All of the convention commentary about their decency, their kindness, their devotion to each other and their family, and to the working class people they grew up with: it's all true. They are two of the kindest, most empathetic, and most thoughtful people in politics I have ever known. Donald Trump's lack of decency has made me crave that kind of decency, and has made it powerfully clear how much genuine personal kindness and empathy does really matter. While I'm not always going to agree with Biden policy prescriptions, I know he will want to do the best he knows how to do for those working families he cares about. That is a solid foundation to build on.

The convention was more about reaching out to the widest possible coalition than it was about energizing the base. I would have much preferred a convention with more Latinos and Latinas given major roles, with some of our great progressive rising star Muslim leaders given a chance to speak, with more of our great young progressive leaders given a role, and AOC getting more than a minute. But I was also impressed that Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth were given such important placement, that Congresswoman Deb Haaland was asked to give a speech, that outstanding progressive activists like Laura Packard and Kristin Urquiza got great screen time, and that the incomparable progressive Ady Barkan had one of the most powerful moments of the whole convention. Also incredibly important, this convention was the most forcefully, openly pro-labor convention at least since 1984. The videos on the gun safety, climate, and especially immigration were so well done, and really moved me. The performance of “Glory” by John Legend and Common blew me away.

I was also surprised and delighted, as someone who has written a book on the history of the American political debate, to have this be the first convention I can remember where a historian was given several minutes to make the case for our country living up to its best ideals and traditions instead of its worst.

Most importantly, the three most significant speeches -- from Michelle and Barack, and from Joe Biden himself -- all were incredibly powerful. They all spoke brilliantly and passionately to the stakes in this election, and to why we need to vote, volunteer for the campaign, and win. Joe Biden's speech on Thursday night was the best speech I have ever heard him give: quintessentially Joe, powerful, emotional, and with a good dose of working-class populism. He reminded why, as a young progressive in Iowa so many years ago, I had picked him as my candidate.

So even though I had my disappointments, I was moved by this convention. There's still so much more work to do, and we can't take anything for granted, but I think the convention sets us on a good path to victory.

So let's assume for a moment all our hard work comes to fruition, and we get Joe Biden and Kamala Harris as president and VP, and a Democratic Senate and House. The question going forward is how progressives should view the critical next few years. Progressives know that it is not enough to make the COVID crisis go away and then return to "normalcy." While I believe that Joe Biden also knows that, there is no doubt that he is going to surround himself with a wide range of policy experts and many of them will come from the more moderate wing of the party. We will have plenty to push back on, just as we have this past week in terms of some of the convention decisions, or comments from one senior transition aide that seemed to imply there might not be money for all of Biden's progressive promises. (I'm actually not sure that was the intent: the one who said it, Ted Kaufman, was a very progressive senator on economic issues, and I think he was pointing more to the need to raise taxes on the wealthy than he was to being fiscally frugal.)

Here's what progressives have got to understand about the next few years: how much we achieve our hopes and dreams depends at least as much on the progressive movement as it does on Joe Biden. As has been said over and over again, American history is at an inflection, a crossroads. And it isn't just whether Donald Trump wins re-election, although that disaster wouldn't just be a crossroads, it would be American democracy hitting a brick wall at the crossroads. But the crossroads thing goes to if we win as well as if we lose: this country is hurtling toward climate disaster, massive job loss and the destruction of millions of small businesses, control of the economy by a tiny number of massive corporations and billionaires, and a racial justice reckoning that won't be denied. If Democrats fail to meet the moment, we and our nation are in a world of hurt.

If we play small ball, if nothing transformative happens to change the path we are on, if we don't deliver, this nation won't recover from that failure, and our nation will fall prey to the fascist movement Trump has energized.

The progressive movement has to be the spark, the catalyst for this transformation. And we can be. This moment is just like the 1960s, when the civil rights movement forced two moderates with weak records on civil rights (JFK and LBJ) to do transformative things on those issues; and it's just like the 1930s, when the labor movement forced FDR (who had never been known as a radical) to deliver on labor law, the minimum wage, and Social Security.

It is the mission of the progressive movement to be strategic enough, creative enough, tough and aggressive enough to help the Biden administration be what he says he wants it to be: the boldest and most transformative president since FDR. We have ro have an inside game and an outside game. We will need to push a lot of the time, but also be strategic and realistic enough to know when we have gotten the best deal we can get and sign off on it. We need to work with our champions to bargain hard, but make the deals when the time comes. The goal for these next few years is to get big things done, because if we don't our country and world is screwed. What we won't have the time or energy to do is to worry about the slights we may get, the meetings or parties we didn't get invited to, the symbolic moments that don't happen, or the dumb comments someone on the inside says about us.

Progressives have to help win this monumentally important election, but when we do, we have to stand and deliver and get shit done. A failure to win on the big policy issues facing us right now would be just as big a failure as losing to Trump.

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