Members Only | May 15, 2019 | Reading Time: 4 minutes
What Will Leftists Do if Biden Wins?
Nothing, probably, except vote for him in the general election.
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Bill Scher was my guest last night for a civics program in New Haven. We discussed and debated the ins and outs of impeaching Donald Trump. We disagreed, mostly, but I appreciated Bill’s take, because he works hard to see things with clear eyes.
A contributing editor to Politico Magazine, Bill argued there’s little upside for the Democrats in capitalizing on a scandal even if it speaks to the nature of our republic and the entire point of democracy. Without a clear upside, he said, don’t impeach.
I demurred, but I liked seeing Bill pour ice water over my Editorial Board pieces exploring, and even calling for, impeachment. I liked it, because I think it’s important to see what happening in our politics with clarity. People can and will project onto US politics what they want to see, not what’s there. Even if I disagreed with Bill’s realpolitik, as it were, I value his unsentimental, and bracing, view of the world.
He’s got to get passed the activist base first.
In that spirit, I’d like to talk about Bill’s latest in which he asks whether leftists and grassroots activists have misread what Democratic voters want in the run up to next year’s primaries. Specifically, he looks at Joe Biden’s thus-far growing polls numbers despite a narrative in which the left is supposed to have captured the party. Bill:
It’s too early to declare this the year of anything, whether progressive change or centrist Bidenmania. But Biden’s commanding lead has left the party’s resurgent left with a question: What to do if it never stops being Biden’s moment. Despite circulation of Biden’s 1970s opposition to school busing and Anita Hill’s rejection of his apology for his handling of the Clarence Thomas hearings, his appeal crosses nearly every demographic group, with the mild exception of voters under 35; he still leads with young voters, just not by as much as with other groups (italics mine).
It is indeed early, but that’s just Bill’s way of qualifying his argument. In fact, early candidate polling could be a reliable indicator of who the eventual nominee will be, according to Geoffrey Skelley, an elections analyst at FiveThirtyEight.
He explained last month the predictive power of early polling. “What we’ve seen is that national surveys conducted in the year before a presidential primary are relatively good indicators of which candidates will advance to the general election.” Skelley said that early polling “is a decent proxy for teasing out the strength of a candidate.”
Let’s put that in plain English. Everyone knows who Joe Biden is. He polled well before he announced a bid for the White House. His polling has grown stronger since then. For someone like a former vice president, polling history suggests strong early polling begets stronger polling later, so there’s very good reason to think he might be the nominee, in which case, as Bill asked: What if Biden’s “moment” is permanent?
Before I answer that question, I want to note that the Democratic Party’s “lurch to the left” is partly real and partly fantastical. For one thing, political parties are not monolithic. Not even today’s Republican Party is 100 percent uniform. For another, stories about intra-party spats between “moderates” and “leftists” often distort reality. There’s no space for critical shades of gray in such black-and-white news framing.
Fact is, lots of plain-vanilla Democrats beat Republicans last year because voters disliked the president and challengers talked about health care and bread-and-butter issues. If the Democratic Party is moving to the left, as it has been, it’s also—now—moving to the right. That’s what you’d expect from a GOP getting less representative of the electorate and a Democratic Party getting more so. In the Trump era, the Democratic tent got bigger. It makes sense a big tent (so far) favors Joe Biden.
That said, it is still early, meaning there’s still time to discover Biden’s polling is full of air. And anyway, early polling does not tell us about Biden’s greatest obstacle, which is the activist base. He must get beyond the most engaged members of the party, which is to say elites. So far, he’s polling poorly among them. When asked who they do not want as the nominee, Biden is third behind Bernie Sanders (second) and Tulsi Gabbard.
Bill Scher called a bunch of these elites for his latest piece in Politico Magazine. He found, unsurprisingly, that none of them is “ready to concede” to “Bidenmania.” They believe that they still have the advantage. But if they are wrong, Bill wrote, “it will take more than a good clapback tweet for them to figure out what to do next.”
Actually, I don’t think it will take even that. If party elites determine for themselves that Biden’s long and (often) illiberal record is of less concern compared to the urgent need to defeat Trump, they will have reconciled themselves to his candidacy despite concerns over his past. By the time he gets passed activists, all that needed to be done will have been done. Biden’s moment will permanent. The tent will rally around him.