The Democrats Haven't Earned Anyone's Trust

The party, led by Joe Biden, has supposedly seen the light. Pardon my skepticism.

There is intriguing news on the front page of Monday’s New York Times: Democrats, led by Joe Biden, have apparently decided that the time has come to abandon their moderate ways and be politically Bold and Aggressive.

Biden’s team has said publicly in recent weeks that the nightmare of the coronavirus pandemic has convinced him that he has to become the next FDR, but the Times’ Alexander Burns reports that the sentiment extends deep into the heart of the Democratic Party.

From the story:

Democratic leaders say that if they hold power next January, they must be prepared to move to pump trillions more into the economy; enact infrastructure and climate legislation far larger than they previously envisioned; pass a raft of aggressive worker-protection laws; expand government-backed health insurance and create enormous new investments in public-health jobs, health care facilities and child care programs.

According to Burns, this posturing is being echoed by a flurry of policy meetings with unions, think tanks, and politicians that are intended to sketch out this brave new direction. And he quotes center-right Democrats like Virginia Sen. Mark Warner and Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet as evidence of the widespread call for change—and of the recognition that the party wasn’t ambitious enough when it held power after the 2008 crash. Here’s Bennet:

“I think there was not the same recognition, 10 years ago, that there is today, that we’ve had 50 years of an economy that only works for people at the very top,” Mr. Bennet said, adding with blunt impatience: “I think a decade of not achieving the stuff we need to achieve is probably enough.”

It would be great to believe that Democrats are preparing to embrace their party’s left flank and usher in a glorious new era of change (domestically, at least—as some have noted, there is no discussion of a shift in America’s poisonous foreign policy to be found in the Times story) if they get power in November.

But one could be forgiven for having, shall we say, a healthy dose of skepticism about the depth of the conversion we are being told has taken place up and down the ranks of the party.

Apart from anything else, it’s kind of infuriating to read that policy list in the context of an article premised on the idea that Democrats have seen a new light (well, if you don’t count little things like Medicare for All or American empire). I don’t wish to re-litigate the Democratic presidential primary, but the same forces that are now telling the Times that they’re ready to shake the system up just spent a year destroying the campaign that was trying to do just that.

I’m supposed to be impressed that they’ve suddenly discovered a need for widespread systemic change? This need existed before the pandemic, and a lot of smart and decent people were attacked and dismissed for saying so. For instance, the Michael Bennet who told the Times that Democrats need to finally achieve some “stuff” in Washington is the same Michael Bennet who went after Bernie Sanders so much during his own presidential run that conservative columnists singled him out for praise. The entire Democratic establishment lined up en masse behind Biden’s barely-there platform just a couple of months ago rather than throw even a whiff of support to Sanders’ more expansive vision, and now these people want us to believe that their eyes have been opened?

Ah, but someone might say, that was before. The pandemic has changed everything.

This is true: The pandemic has thrown the glaring inadequacies of American life into harsh relief and created an economic and human crisis the likes of which we haven’t seen for 90 years. But there are opportunities right now for the Democrats to signal their understanding of this and to act accordingly. Instead, they have…not done that.

Democrats do actually control one chamber of Congress. That is a not-insubstantial amount of power, especially during a pandemic in which the need for expansive solutions is self-evident. What did leading Democrats do with this power? First, they negotiated with Republicans behind closed doors to produce deeply inadequate relief legislation centered around trillions of dollars in corporate welfare and rammed the bills through Congress with virtually no debate or accountability.

Ah, but someone might say, that’s what happens when you need Republicans for something to pass.

This is true: Republicans suck. But House Democrats just passed their own coronavirus bill without any Republican input. It was explicitly framed as a “messaging bill” that would show what Democrats would do if they had power, not as a piece of legislation they seriously thought would become law. And what happened there? Nancy Pelosi and her fellow Democratic leaders openly rejected provisions from the party’s progressive wing and watered down some of the boldest pieces of the legislation in order to please centrists and moderates. They did this because they wanted to, and because they knew that the Congressional Progressive Caucus wouldn’t raise much of a fuss, which it didn’t. (There is a whole other blog to be written about the ways the CPC constantly enables and supports the machinations of the right wing of the party, but one thing at a time.) Why should anyone seriously think a similar dynamic won’t play out if Democrats actually get full control of Washington?

Meanwhile, Joe Biden has brought Larry Summers back into the fold, his wife is being told by rich people that he better not move too far to the left, and leading Democrats like Andrew Cuomo are turning to tech billionaires to help reshape their states. Truly a bright future ahead.

It would be great to have my cynicism proven totally wrong, but all I have to go on is everything that the Democratic Party has stood for and done for decades. So yeah, I’m waiting for some more proof.

Screenshot: MSNBC