In the political contest for the soul of the Democratic Party, the 2020 presidential primaries form the central mode through which socialist politics can enter the mainstream at this moment. As I wrote last month in Socialist Forum, seriously engaging in electoral politics by forming strategic alliances is an effective means to shift the Overton Window leftward, placing socialist policies within the realm of debate. This leftward shift is already underway, with the candidacy of Senator Bernie Sanders, the victory of high-profile figures like Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and wholesale adoption of Senator Sanders’ policy positions by centrist liberals, like Senators Kamala Harris and Kirsten Gillibrand. However, the old guard of capital within the Democratic Party has not taken this situation lying down; represented most purely in former Vice President Biden, it grasps the party with a golden grip, seeking to maintain the status quo. Blessing Biden as their champion has revealed the foggy vision of the centrist Democrats, and his performance in this primary season’s first debate has revealed a weakness that Senator Sanders and his socialist backers can exploit to fell Biden and weaken other challengers.
During their debate-night harangue, Harris addressed Biden and said that although “I do not believe you are a racist… it was hurtful to hear you talk about the reputations of two United States senators who built their reputations and career on the segregation of race in this country. It was not only that, but you also worked with them to oppose busing.” She then moved into personal territory, continuing, “Do you agree today that you were wrong to oppose busing?... I was part of the second class to integrate Berkeley, California Public Schools.” Barring any emotional appeal that this attack evokes, it was launched from solid political ground given Biden’s inability to effectively respond.
Cloaked in his own conceit, Biden displayed a brazen lack of preparation for these attacks, as if the early polls were an everlasting elixir that could alone sustain him. Perhaps a lack of political engagement in the last few years has atrophied Joe’s mental alacrity, but it was plainly obvious that his fumbling answers were unprepared adlibs. His attempts to smile and charmingly patronize were as ineffective on Harris as they were inhibiting to Congressman Paul Ryan in the 2012 primaries. This was his natural response, and it reveals his antiquated thought process. He will use old strategies that worked in his favor old political contests in the current primaries, which exist within a qualitatively different context. Biden’s history on policy for racial equity is a mess of line walking, non-specifics, and poll chasing. In a phrase, he is the embodiment of political ossification, which, unbending and brittle, can be shattered if the proper strategies are employed.
In regard to Harris’s specific busing attack during the debate, Biden must be made to feel the weight of his past vacillations. When busing was implemented in Wilmington, DE in the 1970s, the then-Representative Biden took the position against racially segregated schools but stated that busing was the “least effective remedy.” Continuing his congressional career, Biden authored a series of crime bills that set minimum sentences for drug crimes and harsher crime penalties. These included the crack-powder cocaine 500-1 sentencing disparity and culminated in the notorious 1994 Crime Bill that encouraged the already rising rates of mass incarceration that were impacting poor black communities across the United States. In both of these cases, although Biden claimed to be responding to cries for assistance from poor communities, the design of his bills served to limit progress within those communities. Many of our nation’s cities remain solidly segregated by race, a reality that limits the upward economic mobility of children who grow up in these stagnant conditions. For instance, the income gap in adulthood between black and white boys is lowest in communities with relatively low racial bias and poverty rates.
Biden is a being of limited political imagination beyond political hedging and crude vote-seeking. In the 1970s busing debate, he advocated, ironically, to end busing with an appeal to anti-racism, or to stop the creation of a “racial jungle with tensions [built] to explode.” In the case of the 1994 Crime Bill, he today defends its harsh penalties and incentives to build and fill new prisons with an appeal to protect black communities. In both cases, he likely is not making conscious decisions based on race — on this I agree with Harris — but what he is clearly doing is trying to move to the political “center” on these issues, while remaining to the right on policy. This opportunistic positioning has worked throughout his political career. He is an appeaser who arrogantly expects this strategy to spirit him into the White House; his unprepared and smirking performance at the first debate demonstrates this.
Comedically, now his platform is against mass incarceration. His 2020 campaign states that “too many people are incarcerated in the United States – and too many of them are black and brown.” However, liberal appeals for equality are worth nothing without the hard currency of equality-promoting policy, and Biden seems to be particularly broke in these times. We can thank Senator Harris for showing that his pockets were empty on national television.
Biden still holds a commanding lead in the polls against the other candidates in the primary. He, therefore, continues to represent the largest threat of a return to paralyzing neoliberal politics. Harris’s angle – that Biden is not racist but completely wrong on policy – will prove to be a powerful strategy against him. The proof is in the pudding: he saw his poll numbers drop. However, as we get further from his pitiful performance, Biden’s poll numbers have started to bounce back.
Therefore, in the coming debates, this tactic should be enhanced to deepen and sustain his diminished public perception. In fact, it should be expanded to emphasize that Biden will not fight for the working class people of all colors — not because of his racial animus, but because of his utter inability to articulate independent, complex thoughts on the subject. This is demonstrated clearly by his history authoring draconian crime bills and his current confused defense of and opposition to those bills. He simply doesn’t have the balance to maintain this unthoughtful, fence-sitting perch forever. Socialists should help give him a gentle tipping.
Senator Harris, eager to repeat her success at Biden’s expense, is sure to engage in similar criticism in the upcoming debates. Although she presents capitalist centrism with her own fence-sitting vacillations, she should not be discouraged from these actions. With each attack on crime and education that she makes against Biden, she further stockpiles political gunpowder underneath her feet, awaiting the leftist spark to blow it all in the Democratic primaries. She was also tough on crime, going so far as to oppose investigations into police shootings and prosecutorial withholding of evidence, and has now backed down on her busing position she used to attack Biden. This opens up the opportunity for the left to pin her down on her hypocrisy once her dust up with Biden is over. Strategically designing a leftist messaging strategy thusly would serve to weaken the two biggest opponents to socialist, or even social democratic, policies in this primary.
Vice President Biden has a stained past when it comes to crime, education, and racial politics, and he seems inflexible and inarticulate in his responses to criticism. Senator Harris’s campaign has taken advantage of this gap in Biden’s armor to attack him on these issues. However, her own past as a prosecutor and district attorney are not as distinct from Biden’s as she would like to think, and it has caused her own wavering on policy positions. Socialists can amplify these attacks to broaden the exposure of Biden’s faulty political tendencies, all while increasing their ammunition against Harris in the coming campaign.
As this opinion went to press, the next debate was upon us, with more to come. Biden, the neoliberal establishment pick, has displayed a gap in his armor. When an opponent offers up such an opportunity, it obliges the left to strike it.