Joe Biden Refuses To Get Woke. Will the Democratic Base Still Embrace Him?June 26, 2020
At a megachurch in Phoenix this week, Donald Trump regaled a crowd of mostly maskless students with a story about the moment he said he knew he would win a second term.
The president explained that he was in the White House recently and passed by a TV screen and saw the words “defund and abolish.”
“What are they going to defund and abolish?” Trump said he asked.
“The police,” he was told.
“Oh, great, I just won the election!”
The data suggest otherwise. In fact, since the killing of George Floyd at the hands of a white police officer on May 25 and the rise of protests against police brutality and systemic racism, including activist calls to defund the police, Joe Biden’s average polling lead over Trump has doubled from five to 10 points. The day after Trumps’s Arizona event, the New York Times published a poll showing Trump down by a staggering 14 points.
Trump might be forgiven for his misreading of the political situation. Some of Biden’s advisers had the same initial view of the politics of the protests. Biden’s campaign is led by an older and whiter group of operatives who came of age during a political era when many Democrats saw large-scale protests for racial equality as inherently alienating to many white voters. In some quarters of the party, street protest brought back the traumas of 1968 and Nixon’s 32-state landslide.
“The first thought of someone my age is Nixon and law and order,” said an adviser to Biden, who is white and in his late 60s and admitted concern early on that the protests could benefit Trump. The person was granted anonymity in order to speak candidly. “But as long as we don’t have a reversion to looting and lawlessness, as long as it’s peaceful and about the inequality of society and the treatment of African Americans, this has seen a shift in Biden’s direction — and more than we thought it would be.”
Biden did not endorse the controversial activist slogan, steering clear of Trump’s attacks. On June 10, he wrote an oped for USA Today laying out his views on police reform and stated unequivocally, “I do not support defunding police.”
The spasms of vandalism and theft that marked some of the early protests have diminished, replaced by the targeted toppling of statues memorializing the Confederacy. Mitt Romney marched in Washington and said, “Black Lives Matter.” Polls reflected a seismic shift in the electorate’s attitudes: 76 percent of the public say racism and discrimination is a major problem, up from 68 percent in 2016. Seventy-one percent of white people agree. The Black Lives Matter movement now has majority support.
The expected revolt of white suburbanites against the protests hasn’t materialized. Instead, they’ve joined them.
“This is no longer a traditional wedge issue because all of a sudden white Americans, particularly college educated whites, understand that racism is real,” said Cornell Belcher, the veteran Democratic pollster who worked for Barack Obama. “Those white suburban women now understand that they have skin in the racism game as well. And that changes everything.”
But the question remains: What is Biden’s role, as the Democratic nominee, as America reckons with racism?
Despite his consistent edge in polls, there are risks for Biden. Though he has endorsed banning chokeholds and ending qualified immunity, his promotion of community policing has left activists and organizers in key states angry and concerned that he’s missing a moment to be bolder. Internally, Biden’s campaign is balancing how to best respond to the transformational demands of protesters while maintaining his commanding lead over Trump. Biden gained the lead by staying largely out of the spotlight as Trump has praised the “beautiful heritage” of the Confederacy and called protesters “thugs.”
If elected president, Biden must force a “frank, truthful, painstaking conversation” about America’s racism, said Rep. Bobby Rush (D-Ill.).
“I’m not sure if he has the understanding, but he has to become a transcendental president,” Rush said. “Can Biden be greater than any of these past presidents? The opportunity is here; the question is, can he rise up to it?”
Dismissing the social media left
Biden’s advisers point out that racial justice is at the heart of why he’s running for president. He has often said that Trump’s 2017 comment praising “very fine people” at a pro-Nazi rally in Charlottesville is what pushed him into the 2020 race.
“He’s been very clear he wouldn’t be running unless Donald Trump were president,” said Symone Sanders, a senior adviser to Biden.
During the primaries Biden bet everything on winning overwhelming support from African-American voters, who eventually reversed the near-collapse of his campaign in the first three states.
Biden’s advisers were often less attentive — and sometimes downright dismissive — of certain obsessions of the social media left. Biden did not discuss white privilege the way Kirsten Gillibrand did. He didn’t endorse reparations or the legalization of marijuana when some of his chief rivals did. He stubbornly insisted that the two most important primary constituencies were political moderates and older working class African-Americans, two groups without much influence online. The Biden campaign’s unspoken primary slogan could have been, “Twitter isn’t real life.”
This cautiousness and skepticism has spilled into the general election. One way to think of the Biden campaign’s navigation of racial issues is that he and his advisers care a lot more about addressing policy demands than they do about addressing cultural issues.
“There is a conversation that’s going on on Twitter that they don’t care about,” one Democratic strategist observed. “They won the primary by ignoring all of that. The Biden campaign does not care about the critical race theory-intersectional left that has taken over places like the New York Times. You can be against chokeholds and not believe in white fragility. You can be for reforming police departments and don’t necessarily have to believe that the United States is irredeemably racist.”
Sanders offered a slightly more nuanced view. “It’s not that we’re dismissing anyone’s voice, because we hear the voices, we hear the feedback,” she said. “We are, though, laser-focused on making sure that we’re not running a campaign that only caters to the internet.”
Twitter is one thing. But what happens when the largest racial movement in 50 years — in response to the killings of Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor — collides with the campaign of a politician best known for hammering out cloakroom deals in the Senate?
One view of how Biden sees his role is that he is self-aware enough to understand what an unlikely leader he is of a Democatic Party that has been characterized in the Trump era by the women’s movement that greeted his inauguration, the antiracism movement that is defining the final year of his term, and the millennial left that has risen in the years in between.
“It’s important to remember what Vice President Biden said in the last couple of months: that he intended to be a transition figure for the Democratic Party,” said Sen. Brian Schatz, the 47-year-old Democrat from Hawaii who is a favorite of progressives. Schatz argued that unlike Obama, who was a singular personality who “blocked out the sun” when it came to other Democratic leaders, Biden’s goal — as contradictory as it may seem — is to help raise up the new generation of Democrats, many of whom are to his left.
“He’s certainly at the helm as our nominee and as our party leader,” Schatz said. “But I think he understands that there is a movement that undergirds the left right now which is deeper and wider and more likely to last into the future regardless of who’s the titular head of the party.”
A similar view comes from some activists, who often have the most clear-eyed view of politicians, seeing them not as heroic shapers of history but merely as instruments who respond to pressure.
“I think Democrats didn’t know what to do at this moment and that’s typical,” said Maurice Mitchell, the national director of the Working Families Party and a social movement strategist. “Movements operate with different prerogatives than traditional electoral politics. Mass movements always lead — they come up with new ideas and surface problems that aren’t new but the surfacing of the problem makes visible something that had been invisible because we’ve tolerated it for so long and the problem has become woven into the fabric of the country.”
From this perspective, the fact that Biden is a relatively non-ideological politician who has continuously shifted with the political tides to remain close to the consensus view of his party might be a feature, not a bug. “Nobody expects Vice President Biden to organize a direct action,” Mitchell said. “That’s not his job.”
‘Joe Biden doesn’t have to be a revolutionary’
Just as Mitchell would expect, Democratic candidates across the country are recalibrating their positions on police reform and racial justice to catch up with the public. One Democratic campaign operative working on a Senate race said he was blown away by a recent poll his candidate commissioned.
“Racial issues were one of the top three concerns of the Democrats we polled,” he said. “It was right there with health care.”
Biden was quick to embrace two previously controversial positions: banning chokeholds and ending qualified immunity for law enforcement officers, a change that Obama opposed as president. “Symone was like you gotta do this and he did it,” said a prominent Democrat who advises the campaign. “And he did it pretty quickly. The police hate it.”
But other issues highlighted by the Black Lives Matter movement and its allies have not been embraced by the Biden campaign. And some Democrats worry the presumptive nominee’s reluctance could dampen enthusiasm for him among African American voters who have suffered disproportionately through the trio of 2020 crises: the coronavirus pandemic, the subsequent economic collapse, and the epidemic of anti-black policing.
Activists have pointed out that over the last month, as thousands took to the streets in hundreds of cities, Biden’s policy platforms on criminal justice and policing have not changed on his website. In a letter to Biden’s campaign last week, more than 50 progressive groups criticized his response to the mass protests, calling on him to incorporate policies crafted by the Movement for Black Lives.
“Joe Biden doesn’t have to be a revolutionary,” said Jennifer Epps-Addison, president of the Center for Popular Democracy. “But he has to agree to actually bring folks who have been marginalized both by the Democratic and Republican Party to the table, and have a conversation about how we are going to ensure that we break down these systems of racial and economic and gender based inequity in our country.”
Last July, as part of his criminal justice platform, Biden proposed injecting $300 million into the Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) program, which was created by the now-controversial 1994 crime bill and has had questionable success. To the dismay of many activists, Biden has stood by his COPS funding plan.
“Folks that are not regular voters are looking for more than that,” said Albright. “Not all black voters equal the black electorate in the primaries; if he does not understand that, or doesn’t care to understand that, he runs the risk of losing.”
Defending community policing
For activists who’ve long led the Black Lives Matter movement, Biden’s unyielding defense of the COPS program is a disappointment and more important than getting Biden to say “defund the police.”
“I don’t care if he never utters those three words,” said Albright.
A “unity” task force, created by Biden and Bernie Sanders, recently waded into the fraught debate over defunding the police, and efforts by Sanders’ appointees to push some version of a defund policy were dead on arrival, according to several people with direct knowledge of the matter.
A senior adviser to the Biden campaign said there was almost no chance that Biden would nix his COPS proposal, arguing that those federal dollars allow Washington to shape police reform at the local level.
Another flash point inside the campaign pits progressives against Biden stalwarts over the issue of legalizing marijuana, which has been hotly debated among members of the task force.
Multiple people said marijuana policy has been discussed on the criminal justice panel, one of the policy groups of the unity task force. Sanders appointees have advocated for legalization. Some Biden appointees personally support legalizing pot and have debated putting the policy in the panel’s recommendations to the former vice president, according to two people familiar with its deliberations.
Biden supports decriminalization, but has resisted the calls to make cannabis legal — a reform endorsed by the majority of his primary opponents, including vice presidential contenders Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren. The criminalization of marijuana has contributed to the country’s mass incarceration problem, disproportionately affecting black men.
Chiraag Bains, a co-chair of the criminal justice task force tapped by Sanders, said Biden should “end the War on Drugs, including by legalizing marijuana.” He said those are his personal views, however, and he was not speaking as a leader of the task force.
“There’s an opportunity to advance a really bold agenda on criminal justice,” he said. “This is part of envisioning a completely different future, not returning to a pre-Trump era. I say that as someone who served proudly in the Obama administration. We just have to be much more aggressive about rooting out systemic racism and injustice in the legal system.”
Faiz Shakir, Sanders’ 2020 campaign manager who oversees the Sanders wing of the unity task force, confirmed that members have talked about issues such as marijuana, qualified immunity, and defunding the police. Shakir, who declined to discuss details, said the fact that Biden announced support for reforming qualified immunity is a victory for progressives.
There has been a sense in the wake of Floyd’s killing that Biden’s team has been more amenable to other reforms.
Though activists and the young voters they represent want more, Democratic strategists say Biden’s evolution on policing may be enough for voters as long as they’re aware of his actual policies.
“Police reform [and] racial profiling are not a secondary issue consideration for these younger voters. They are in fact, a front and center primary issue consideration for these younger voters,” Belcher said.
He added, “If we go into August or after this convention and I’m in focus groups with millennials and they don’t understand where Joe Biden is on criminal justice reform, it is a failure on Democrats’ part.”
Holly Otterbein contributed to this report.