Progressives are just keeping their tongue-biting promise to help Joe Biden deliver, presenting the former vice president to their supporters, once and for all, as the last chance of demolishing Donald Trump’s stronghold on Washington.
But that courtesy is not likely to extend much longer if Trump loses re-election next week, according to interviews with elected officials and prominent figures in the movement. If Democrats win the White House and lock both chambers of Congress, those who backed Biden’s bid with an asterisk are preparing to push him with speed and purpose on a number of important issues, leaving little room for the pleasantries of party unity that prevailed throughout the general election.
“The word on the street is it’s definitely going to start immediately,” a former senior adviser to Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) said in an interview on Tuesday. “Most people are putting on the good face to vote Trump out. But make no mistake, the current power structure on the Democratic side should take no comfort that the main reason why Biden may be elected president of the United States of America is mostly anti-Trump.”
Rep. Jared Huffman (D-CA) said Democrats will “breathe a sigh of relief that we saved the democratic republic” if Biden defeats Trump. “But that’s the floor. Not the ceiling,” the progressive lawmaker told The Daily Beast. “So, we’re gonna keep pushing, and I think we’re going to do it constructively. But we’ve gotta do a lot better than, ‘stitch the Affordable Care Act back together.’”
In the closing days of the campaign, Biden has seemed to downshift into his centrist comfort zone, talking about building bridges and even, at times, lambasting Sanders’ “socialism” as a losing strategy. Contemplating a post-November world, progressives have suggested that they are not going to let that stand. Their criticism, they often say, goes beyond just the former vice president and is part of a fundamental critique that the corrosive Trump administration was built on systematic problems inherited, in part, from Democrats like Biden over decades.
Mondaire Jones, a Democrat set to win a House seat in New York, is happily working overtime to elect Biden. But he said he expects to arrive on Capitol Hill next year for a “vigorous exercise of our democracy” should Democrats take unified control of government, extending some grace in his rhetoric before next Tuesday. “I am already having great conversations with people who haven’t necessarily gone public with their progressive positions on any number of stuff,” Jones told The Daily Beast, “but who are waiting to begin the process of legislating and governing.”
Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison, a prominent Sanders backer, said that the economic and public health emergencies sparked by COVID-19 have only elevated matters.
“If Biden wins, the truth is, that responsive politics to the cries of the working American, and the poor and the middle class, have gotta be met,” said Ellison. “That’s not ‘progressive.’ That’s just smart politics. You want to win in four years? You have to fix the problems of the country.”
Awaiting that, a number of individuals are already in talks about building new grassroots coalitions to start making demands early on, while others have said publicly that they’re ready to go. In an interview on Hill TV’s digital show “Rising,” Sanders told host Krystal Ball last week that he intends to unveil a “100-day” agenda to counter the expected Biden plan. While Biden soared to the Democratic nomination on a platform that denounced “Medicare for All” and instead lauded the ACA, the Vermont Independent said he will press his former Senate colleague on the matter early on.
“Some of my friends in the Democratic establishment are not aware, or I think cannot comprehend, what some of us have in mind in terms of what will happen after Biden is elected,” Sanders said. “And that is, we are not going back to business as usual.”
“If the Democrats—with a Democratic president, Democratic House, and Democratic Senate—cannot begin to address the real crises facing this country, then the future of this nation will be very, very dismal indeed,” he continued. “The people are giving us an opportunity now and if we blow it by not being bold and aggressive, the next Trump who comes along will be even worse than this one.”
Sanders is not alone. Some in his inner circle are arguing that pursuing certain reforms to restrictive Senate rules is the best, and perhaps only, course of action to get a progressive agenda turned into law. A particular target: lowering the 60-vote threshold for legislation to pass. And they hope to have Biden’s blessing.
“If we don’t get 50, plus Harris, the VP, it means nothing will pass, and I don’t think that has sunk in. Nothing will pass,” said Larry Cohen, a Sanders ally and the chairman of Our Revolution, sketching out a possible outcome in Congress. Cohen predicted that Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY), the current GOP Senate leader, would block Democrats on everything from popular items like background checks for firearms to more ambitious policies like fossil fuel reforms.
Cohen’s warnings, like others, are essentially frozen in time for the next several days, where a pro-Biden message is paramount for an electoral gain. For months, many progressives have deliberately stopped dumping on Biden and have tabled their issues to show a good-faith force against Trump. Sanders has in turn instructed his fans to support Biden in swing states like Michigan and Pennsylvania, in an attempt to go beyond what Democrats who backed Hillary Clinton said he should have done four years ago.
“We don’t do politics because we want to wear a T-shirt like it’s a sporting event for our team, we do politics only to improve our happiness,” Cohen said.
Among some progressives outside of Sanders’ orbit, several of Biden’s recent remarks have caused more than a few grimaces. Huffman, a climate hawk, is a fan of his official climate plan, but is less fond of his insistence that he will not “ban fracking.”
“We’re all trying to be diplomatic right now,” he said. “We want him to win Pennsylvania, we’d love him to win Texas, but we’re certainly appreciative of the nuances there.”
The unexpected Supreme Court fight, meanwhile, has opened up another urgent front in progressives’ planned pressure campaign on a possible President Biden. When the GOP strategically moved to occupy the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s seat before the election, Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA) immediately told Democrats that if they take power next year, they should respond by increasing the number of seats on the high court.
On Monday evening, Judge Amy Coney Barrett’s final confirmation prompted a flood of top leaders on the left to demand expansion, including Reps. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) and Rashida Tlaib (D-MI), who circulated a petition that received more than 12,000 signatures overnight. After Nov. 3, this group is set to get some reinforcements, like Jones, who has advocated for increasing the size of the court for some time. “I absolutely expect future President Biden to take a very hard look at court expansion, and of course, court reforms more broadly,” he said.
Confronted with that growing nudge in her caucus, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) has largely deferred to her party’s presidential nominee. In a recent interview on MSNBC, Pelosi said, “I think Joe Biden has given us a good path,” when asked by host Chris Hayes whether she would get behind a theoretical expansion.
Biden has recently provided incomplete answers to questions from reporters about his position on the issue, adopting a wait-and-see approach that Republicans have used as ammunition. He finally said on CBS’ 60 Minutes that he would introduce a “bipartisan commission of scholars” to examine it, a move that Pelosi agreed was adequate but was panned by many progressives. On Monday afternoon, he said that he would not embrace the idea of term limits.
That drive for more progressive impact could end up mixing with Biden’s own Hill alliances, which are strongest in the moderate wings of the party’s House and Senate caucuses. Rep. Cedric Richmond (D-LA) and House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn (D-SC) are particularly close allies who helped to steer his campaign. And several other powerful Democrats, including Reps. Karen Bass (D-CA), the current Congressional Black Caucus chairwoman, and Val Demings (D-FL) were vetted as possible Biden running mates before he selected Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA).
In the short term, however, key Hill progressives, like those who worked for or supported Sanders’ campaign, are mobilizing on Biden’s behalf. Rep. Mark Pocan (D-WI), the co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, and Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-MA), a member of the “Squad,” held a virtual rally in Wisconsin on Tuesday with Doug Emhoff, Harris’ husband.
But, the Sanders adviser warned, Biden shouldn’t get too used to unconditional support from progressives less than one week from Election Day.
“He is going to govern, unless the pressure mounts so much, the way he ran,” said the former senior Sanders adviser. “If he blows Trump out, they’re really going to think they’ve got a mandate,” the source continued, speaking about moderate Democrats. “Their hubris is going to get the best of them instead of reading the tea leaves that is was more about ‘get Trump out.’”