A couple of weeks ago, I noted that one way to look at the 2020 Democratic primary contest was to think of it as a battle between those candidates who wanted a ‘revolution’ versus those who want to see more of a ‘restoration.’ The leaders of the ‘revolution’ wing, Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, aren’t running to simply replace President Trump, but to bring serious, structural change to the country. This week, the leader of the ‘restoration’ wing — Vice President Joe Biden— announced his candidacy. To Biden, it’s not the system that’s broken as much as it is the person in charge of the system who is broken. "I believe history will look back on four years of this president and all he embraces as an aberrant moment in time," Biden says in his opening video. Biden is only running because of Trump. Sanders and Warren would be running even if another Republican were in the White House.
What compelled Biden to run was President Trump’s response to the white supremacy march in Charlottesville in 2017 — an event that Biden called "a defining moment for this nation in the last few years." It was in the aftermath of that event, "when we heard the words from the president of the United States that stunned the world and shocked the conscience of this nation,” said Biden. “He said there were 'some very fine people on both sides.’' Very fine people on both sides? With those words, the president of the United States assigned a moral equivalence between those spreading hate and those with the courage to stand against it. And in that moment, I knew the threat to this nation was unlike any I had ever seen in my lifetime.”
In this way, Biden is a lot like the many Democratic candidates who flooded into congressional races in the 2018 cycle. They were much less politically seasoned than Biden, but were similarly propelled into action by the Trump presidency. And, like Biden, most of those Democratic congressional candidates emphasized not a radical change but a check; a check on Trump’s presidency and his policies. But, most of those candidates were also running in suburban, swing districts where a message of moderation was a winning strategy. Biden is running to win in a much more diverse and ideologically fragmented primary contest.
Meanwhile, it is highly likely that Warren and Sanders would be running for president, even if it were President Ted Cruz or President Marco Rubio running for re-election. In his February presidential announcement video, Sanders says that his campaign is not only "about defeating President Trump, the most dangerous president in history...It is about transforming our country and creating a government based on principles of economic, social, racial and environmental justice. Our campaign is about taking on the powerful special interests that dominate our economic life.”
At her presidential kick-off in Lawrence, Massachusetts in February, Warren makes clear that she’s not just running against Trump, she’s running against the system.
"Because the man in the White House is not the cause of what’s broken, he’s just the latest — and most extreme — symptom of what’s gone wrong in America. A product of a rigged system that props up the rich and the powerful and kicks dirt on everyone else. And so, once he’s gone, we can’t pretend that all of this never happened. It won’t be enough to just undo the terrible acts of this administration. We can’t afford to just tinker around the edges — a tax credit here, a regulation there. Our fight is for big, structural change."
There are a bunch of other candidates in the race, of course. But, most fall closer to the ‘restoration’ wing than the ‘revolutionary’ one. For example, while Sens. Kamala Harris and Cory Booker are running as agents of change, they are still coloring within the lines and with a caution that Warren and Sanders do not display.
To me, the big question for these next few months is if Biden will take the fight directly to the "revolutionaries" in a way the other candidates have not.
Biden gave us some hints as to his thinking back in early April. Asked by a reporter to explain why he called himself the most progressive candidate in the race, Biden took a not-so-veiled swipe at Sanders.
"..But my point is, is the definition of 'progressive' now seems to be changing. That is, “Are you a socialist? Well, that’s a real progressive.” Or you believe in, whatever. So I was talking about up until this last time around the traditional judgments of whether or not you were, quote, a 'liberal,' was whether or not — what your positions on race were; on women; what’s your position on LGBT community; what’s your positions on civil liberties, you know. I’ll stack my record on those things against anybody whose even run, who’s running now, or who will run.”
To be sure, there are plenty of Democrats who’d be happy to stack up their records on women and race with Biden. After all, Biden’s forty-year track record on these issues is littered with inconsistencies. Just this week, those inconsistencies came into stark relief at the "She the People" presidential forum in Houston. Interviews with women of color attending the event by the AP, found a lot of ambivalence to a Biden candidacy, as "black women repeatedly pointed to a singular issue plaguing Biden's candidacy: his handling of the 1991 Supreme Court confirmation hearing of Clarence Thomas and the Senate Judiciary Committee's treatment of Anita Hill.." They also balked at the early conventional wisdom of Biden as a 'safe' and 'electable' choice. "I know that we have been cultured to feel that only the white man can save us," the LaMarque, Texas organizer said Wednesday. "I just don't feel like Biden is our answer."
Before today, Biden has spent most of his pre-candidacy apologizing for and explaining; his work on the 1994 Crime Bill, his handling of the Anita Hill hearings and his (literally) hands-on style of personal interaction. Now, he has a chance to pivot to the offense. And, to reset the rules and terrain of the game that have, until this point, been set by Bernie Sanders. Let’s see if — and how — he does it.