If Joe Biden wins the presidency, he’ll do it with a one-off coalition of liberal Democrats, moderates of both parties, Independents and one-time Trump voters. That coalition will be under severe stress from the moment a Biden victory becomes apparent.
The overwhelming desire to send President Trump packing has unified Biden’s Democratic party far more cohesively than in 2016, when liberals and moderates feuded right up to Election Day and 12% of Bernie Sanders supporters voted for Trump. Hillary Clinton lost in part because of tepid support and weak turnout from within her own party.
Democrats don’t want to make that mistake again, with Sanders and other so-called progressives actively campaigning for Biden. But if Biden wins, the Democratic party could quickly fracture and become the divided house it was during the primary elections, with leftists demanding revolution and moderates pushing for incremental improvements to the status quo.
The first battle would be over Biden’s cabinet, with progressives such as Reps. Ilhan Omar and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez pushing for a full slate of progressives. They’d like to see Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who favors tough new regulations on banks, as Treasury Secretary and Bernie Sanders as Labor Secretary. Progressives feel nobody with substantive business experience should lead a Cabinet department that regulates the industry they came from, even if that eliminates candidates with direct experience.
Biden won in the primaries by casting himself as a moderate who wouldn’t pillory the wealthy with punitive new taxes or regulate businesses into oblivion. But since then, he has wooed the left by adopting some of their policies, such as Elizabeth Warren’s minimum tax on large corporations and an aggressive target for eliminating carbon energy, similar to the goal of the Green New Deal. In June, a group known as the Biden-Sanders Unity Task Force outlined a long list of common goals liberals and moderates in the Democratic party supposedly share, including police reform, universal health care, better working class jobs and a muscular approach to controlling global warming.
This “unity” has worked for Biden as a candidate, allowing him to court Independents and pragmatic Republicans who blanch at big government programs such as Medicare for all or government control of the power sector. During the first presidential debate on Sept. 29, for instance, Trump called Biden a “radical” and a “socialist,” and Biden pointed out that Trump’s adjectives were more apt for Bernie Sanders. “I beat Bernie Sanders,” Biden swatted back. “I am the Democratic Party.” Biden also told viewers, “I don’t support the Green New Deal,” establishing clear distance between himself and the liberal Sanders wing of the party.
Passing Democratic legislation
But if Biden wins, the most powerful unifying force of all—the desire to vanquish Trump—will no longer bind the party. And passing Democratic legislation will be a lot harder than agreeing on principles during a campaign. “You don’t have to dig very deep to expose the Democrats’ fissures,” Democratic strategist Stanley Greenburg wrote recently in the Atlantic. “They are split fairly evenly between liberals to one side and moderates and conservatives to the other.”
Democrats will need to win control of the Senate to have any chance of passing favored legislation, but even then, sharp differences will remain among Democrats on the top issues that dominated the primary elections, including:
Health care. Biden backs incremental improvements to the Affordable Care Act and a new public plan people can buy into if they still can’t find affordable coverage. Progressives seem likely to keep pushing for an option like Medicare for all that would eliminate much of the private-sector profit motive from the health care system—but risk replacing it with bloated, inefficient government systems.
Climate policy. The Green New Deal drafted by Ocasio-Cortez would eliminate carbon pollution within 10 years and essentially require a ban on the drilling process known as fracking, to reach its pollution target. Biden’s target for eliminating carbon pollution is 15 years, and he has danced around the fracking issue, saying in the second presidential debate on Oct. 22 that he wants to transition away from oil, without banning fracking except on federal land. The distinction is crucial because of thousands of fracking jobs in battleground states such as Pennsylvania and Ohio and, perhaps this year, Texas. Democrats will still need votes in fracking states after Biden becomes president, leaving progressives and moderates split on the issue.
Tax hikes. Sanders and Warren both favor new wealth taxes to extract more money from the richest Americans, while Biden wants to make subtler changes within the existing tax system, such as simply pushing some rates up. The two sides differ on scale, and also intent. Progressives want more money for more social programs, and they also want to knock the wealthy down a notch or two in an age of grotesque wealth inequality. Biden, by contrast, limits his tax hikes to those needed to pay for programs that are generally smaller than progressives favor.
The Supreme Court is a new landmine for Democrats as well, since the Republicans’ hasty appointment of Amy Coney Barrett in October has led some Democrats to call for adding 4 more justices and reclaiming a liberal majority. Biden, once again, has tried to please both sides by refusing to endorse the expansion of the court but saying he’d appoint a commission to study the idea.
The best Democrats can hope for is a Biden win and a takeover of the Senate with a slim majority there. That alone will make it hard to pass liberal legislation, which all Republicans are likely to oppose and a few centrist Democrats senators may, as well. The challenge will fall to Democratic leaders in the House and Senate—presumably, Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer—to manage their majorities in a way that placates the fringe while getting something done.
Every party elder in Washington knows Democrats lost control of the House in the 2010 midterms, after Democrats under President Obama rammed through the Affordable Care Act with no Republican support. Republicans then lost control of the House in 2018, after their partisan effort to kill the ACA and a tax-cut law that passed with no Democratic support. Biden, if he’s president, will no doubt be thinking of the 2022 midterms as he pitches new legislation and new executive actions, keeping in mind that voters tend to punish single-party action that strays too far from the center. Progressives, for their part, will try to draw the center in their direction. The tug-of-war could start any day now.
Rick Newman is the author of four books, including “Rebounders: How Winners Pivot from Setback to Success.” Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman. Confidential tip line: firstname.lastname@example.org. Encrypted communication available. Click here to get Rick’s stories by email.