Joe Biden, who was elected on a promise not to be Donald Trump, needs to push back hard against members of his own party who are using radical language and pushing radical ideas. Failing to do so could have repercussions in January’s Georgia runoff elections—and then in the midterms. More importantly, it could prolong the partisan divisiveness that has pervaded American politics for years now.
Even as Biden is settling in as president-elect (and still having to contend with a defeated incumbent president who refuses to concede), a battle is taking place within the Democratic Party over Biden’s transition, as well as his administration’s agenda.
How Biden responds to that battle will determine whether or not he can reunite the nation as he’s vowed to do. That is his real mandate, and, ironically, unifying the nation will require him to fight hard against the left wing of his own party to suppress and control its more radical ideas and rhetoric.
In one corner are Biden’s fellow centrists who care about winning competitive elections. Even with a Biden victory, they have seen first hand how damaging progressive rhetoric can be to their goals. When The New York Times asked what went wrong for House Democrats, Pennsylvania Rep. Conor Lamb said his constituents “are extremely frustrated by the message of defunding the police and banning fracking.” Likewise, House Majority Whip James Clyburn, the man who probably did more than anybody to help Biden win the presidency, blamed the Defund the Police rhetoric for costing Democrats seats, saying on CNN’s State of the Union that “these headlines can kill a political effort.”
In the other corner are progressives from safe Democratic districts. Their interest in pushing Democrats leftward was evidenced when Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez came out swinging, attacking the aforementioned Conor Lamb. AOC also warned that putting Rahm Emaneul in the cabinet “would be a pretty divisive pick,” and poo-pooed a possible John Kasich cabinet pick, saying, “If the party believes after 94 percent of Detroit went to Biden, after Black organizers just doubled and tripled turnout down in Georgia, after so many people organized Philadelphia, the signal from the Democratic Party is the John Kasichs won us this election? I mean, I can’t even describe how dangerous that is.”
If Biden’s goal is to extend a symbolic olive branch to Republicans, then this would be one way to do it. As AOC said, “These transition appointments, they send a signal.” Presumably, her signal is the opposite of bipartisanship.
For now, Biden seems to be attempting to appease both corners of his party. He ran as a centrist, and wants to restore decency and focus on the economy and COVID. But in recent days, he has also talked about rooting out systemic racism and saving the planet from climate change as part of his mandate. Both sound great, of course. But they mean different things to different people.
To progressives, the phrase systemic racism means that subtle/unconscious racism affects systems at the macro level, not that every person in a system is an overt racist. But in the Iowa Senate race, Republican Sen. Joni Ernst suggested that, by using the term, her Democratic opponent was saying police are racist. Likewise, Sen. Susan Collins rejected the notion that systemic racism is a problem in Maine. (Both Republican incumbents, of course, won.)
It’s obviously very early, but the fact that Biden—having just been declared the president-elect—is already having to worry about keeping his coalition together is noteworthy. I think part of this might be that the left bit their tongue, for once, until the results were in. And now that they're speaking again, it's critical for his moderate ambitions that Biden push back and do some “tone-policing” here. This is important, both for setting a tone for his administration, and for setting up the party for the hugely-important January runoffs in Georgia—and then, 2022. Likewise, Biden must watch out for alienating rhetorical overreach himself, especially when it's just rhetoric he has no intent to pursue.
Having watched the “adults” in the GOP be overwhelmed first by the Tea Party and later by the Trumpers, I am keenly aware of the power that radicals hold on the right and left. The Democratic Party, for various reasons, has proven less susceptible to their siren song than has the GOP, but I’m skeptical the center will hold indefinitely. Biden must take this threat seriously.
When Republicans attempted to co-opt the radicals in their party, the plan failed miserably. Remember Marco Rubio’s efforts to get talk radio on board with comprehensive immigration reform? A fool’s errand, as it turns out. Likewise, Speakers John Boehner and Paul Ryan rarely deployed what little sticks and carrots they retained to whip their recalcitrant members in line. Only Mitch McConnell, who headed off the trend and eviscerated his own GOP primary challenger in Kentucky, understood Churchill’s metaphor about an appeaser being someone who feeds a crocodile—hoping it will eat him last.
It’s a lesson Joe Biden should learn, and fast. Elections have consequences. He won—he beat a socialist in the primary. No, that doesn’t mean he should be a jerk about it. But what he should not do is show any weakness to the left. If he gives them an inch, they will take a foot. He’s the president-elect. He’s the adult. He should act like it.
The good news is that Democrats have a speaker of the House who has proven capable of maintaining order, and now they have elected a centrist president who won his party’s nomination by refusing to pander to the woke left. There’s no reason to blow it, now.
If Biden wants to keep his winning streak alive, he will keep running the same winning play that got him this far: He will run right down the middle.