Sep 28, 2020 - Politics & Policy

Progressives bide time for a Biden victory

Illustration of a fist wearing a watch with hands in the shape of a check mark

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Progressive Democrats want to beat President Trump so badly that they're tabling their apathy about Joe Biden — organizing hard to get him into office, only to fight him once elected.

Why it matters: That's a big difference from 2016, when progressives’ displeasure with Hillary Clinton depressed turnout and helped deliver the White House to Trump.

  • Democrats don't want to make the same mistake twice.
  • “Now is not the time to be petty; now is the time to defeat Donald Trump and his dangerous agenda,” says the introduction to a popular Instagram account called Settle for Biden, a manifesto that encapsulates young progressives’ rallying cry this election.

Progressives will be pushing Biden to move in their direction on a range of issues, including Medicare for All, adding justices to the Supreme Court, abolishing the Senate filibuster, cutting defense spending, decriminalizing border crossings and reallocating federal dollars for police reform.

What they're saying: "In 2016, everyone thought Hillary was going to win, so it was kind of a free runway,” said Jesse Lee, a senior adviser at the Center for American Progress. “That's obviously not the case in this cycle.”

  • “We are all setting our disagreements aside in order to make sure that Joe Biden's the next President of the United States,” Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez told Axios' Alayna Treene.
  • When endorsing Biden in the summer, social justice activist Angela Davis said she was doing so because he "can be most effectively pressured by" the left.
  • Jeff Hauser, president of the Revolving Door Project, said Biden isn‘t paying a price yet for his resistance to progressive ideas like Medicare for All because “having a full-throated argument about these topics is probably deemed secondary to actually winning the election...there are groups that are biding their time until after a Biden victory is declared."

The state of play: The Progressive Change Campaign Committee (PCCC), which endorsed Sen. Elizabeth Warren for president, often trashed Biden during the primary, calling him "the least electable Democrat that we could possibly nominate."

  • Now, PCCC and the Biden campaign host weekly events together such as phone banks and virtual rallies, around policy issues including Social Security, climate change and health care. The event feature progressive darlings like Warren and Rep. Pramila Jayapal.

Progressives know they can’t work with Trump — and they detest him. They have accepted Biden as an imperfect vessel, and they've already started seeing some progress.

  • They like what he's proposed on climate and say there are signs he's moved to the left thanks to the Unity Task Force he set up with Sanders after the primary.
  • Sanders himself heralded the compromises from the task force, telling MSNBC that if implemented they "will make Biden the most progressive president since FDR.”

While Biden has renewed his message around health care after Ruth Bader Ginsburg's death, progressives are zeroing in on packing the court as the appropriate response to Republicans jamming through a replacement.

  • "Progressives are galvanized on this issue like never before," Nan Aron, president of the Alliance for Justice, told Axios. The dream, Democrats say, is to expand the court from nine justice to 13 to establish a liberal 7-6 majority.
  • Biden does not endorse the idea of expanding the courts. But if he's elected, he will likely face pressure from influential progressives in the House (like AOC) and Senate (Sen. Ed Markey) who have both publicly supported it.
  • Even Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer — who held a joint press conference with AOC after RBG's death to talk about Democrats' way forward — said "nothing is off the table."

The bottom line: No one knows how long the truce between the progressive wing of the party will last.

What’s next: Waleed Shahid of Justice Democrats, the progressive group that recruited AOC to run, hinted about progressives’ long-game strategy during the Democratic National Convention.

  • Progressives were furious that AOC only had 60 seconds allotted for her remarks, and several other voices from their wing of the party were left out in place of more moderate Democrats like Rep. Conor Lamb of Pennsylvania.
  • “It is a sign of the fight you can anticipate happening post November if Biden wins,” Shahid said.
  • “The people who were not featured there are going to use their leverage in Congress to fight for a progressive agenda and make sure Joe Biden is not only compromising with people like Sen. Joe Manchin and Rep. Henry Cuellar, but forced to collaborate with Reps. Ro Khanna and Pramila Jayapal.”
  • Progressives hope that "The Squad" will grow in the next Congress after Democrats like Cori Bush in Missouri and Jamaal Bowman in New York won their primaries.
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