Joe Biden is not an inspired presidential contender. He offers, at best, the promise of normalcy in a moment when Donald Trump’s surreal approach to campaigning and governing has worn everyone out. That might be enough to provide Biden with a win in 2020, as some polls suggest. But the operative word is “might.”
The reality that Biden and his partisans must wrestle with is that the former vice president did not become the presumptive nominee of the Democratic Party because of his superior ideas, oratory, or organization. Rather, a convenient primary schedule, a coalescing of centrists, and enthusiastic media cheerleading gave him a boost at precisely the moment when he needed it to pull ahead of Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders. If Biden has even a modicum of political sense, he has to realize that he got lucky. And that luck can run out.
Biden needs something more than ritualistic endorsements from Democrats who feel they have no other choice, a home-studio campaign strategy, and the hope that Americans will remember that Trump peddled bleach as an antidote to the coronavirus. He needs a political party that is prepared to turn this campaign into a movement.
Biden is not a movement builder. Neither is the Democratic National Committee as it currently exists. But the policy task forces announced this week by the Biden and Sanders camps hold out the promise that the party could in this period of social and economic crisis become something that the vast majority of Americans can believe in.
For that to happen, however, Biden and his team need to get out of the way. That will be hard; they will want the so-called “unity task forces” to be nothing more than window dressing for a campaign that is struggling to appeal to backers of Sanders and to the disenfranchised, disenchanted, and disengaged potential voters who could turn a close contest into a Democratic win. But a facade of unity, forged in compromise and concession, will not do the job. Nor will a self-serving nod to the task forces from a candidate who still takes money from billionaires and advice from former treasury secretary Larry Summers.
What Democrats require is a coherent agenda, and a campaign, that breaks sufficiently from the old politics to capture the imagination of the American electorate at a time when the coronavirus pandemic and an economic meltdown preclude a return to normal. The party has to propose a new direction. And these task forces on the economy, immigration, health care, criminal justice, education, and climate action could do just that. While each task force is made up of both Biden and Sanders backers, the most dynamic figures on most of them are progressives.
A climate change task force cochaired by Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a Sanders ally who has been the most prominent advocate for a Green New Deal, and former secretary of state John Kerry, a Biden surrogate who has a credible environmental record and who hails AOC’s leadership on climate issues, has the potential to act as boldly as is necessary. The presence of two other Sanders designees on the task force—Center for Rural Enterprise and Environmental Justice founder Catherine Flowers and Sunrise Movement cofounder Varshini Prakash—strengthens the argument that meaningful agenda-setting could actually occur.
“A year and a half ago, our movement was joined by then Representative-elect Ocasio-Cortez in Nancy Pelosi’s office demanding that the Democrats develop a solution at the scale of the climate crisis,” says Prakash. “Now, together, we’ll be helping to write the Democratic Platform on climate.” The emphasis that Prakash and the Sunrise Movement put on “building our movement and raising our voices loudly for a Green New Deal” is the key.
These task forces are charged with forging platform language, which is important, but their real duty should be to help frame a campaign that, as Sanders suggests, “will unify our party in a transformational and progressive direction.” There’s no doubt that Biden—and other Democratic candidates—could benefit from that connection. That’s won’t happen if the task forces function merely as extensions of the Biden campaign, however. That’s not how a movement-driven politics works. Candidates have to embrace proposals and programs that are developed by activists, and then carry the agenda into the fall competition.
While there will be great attention to the climate crisis task force, several of the others also have the potential to move the party and its 2020 campaign in a transformational and progressive direction. A health care task force is cochaired by Representative Pramila Jayapal, the Congressional Progressive Caucus cochair who has emerged as the leading House advocate for Medicare for All, and it includes Dr. Abdul El-Sayed, the former director of Detroit’s Health Department. It can and must craft the arguments that Biden will need to move from his tepid approach to health care issues toward the bolder stance advocated by Sanders, Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, and other Democratic presidential contenders.
The same goes for a task force on the economy cochaired by Sara Nelson, the international president of the Association of Flight Attendants, who is an essential advocate for labor rights, and Representative Karen Bass, the Congressional Black Caucus chair and Congressional Progressive Caucus member whose name has appeared on lists of vice presidential prospects. The committee’s potential is enhanced by Jared Bernstein, an Economic Policy Institute veteran who served as deputy chief economist for the Department of Labor under Labor Secretary Robert Reich and as Vice President Biden’s chief economist and economic policy adviser, and by Stony Brook University economics professor Stephanie Kelton, an adviser to the 2016 Sanders campaign who served as chief economist for the Democratic minority staff of the Senate Budget Committee and is a savvy critic of austerity.
Task forces are supposed to come up with ideas—ideally, new and innovative ideas. If Biden and his campaign let these groups do their work, and if the presumptive nominee and the party use the agendas that are developed as cues to move in a sufficiently progressive direction, Democrats might again be what they were in the days when Franklin Roosevelt and his New Deal Coalition won overwhelming victories: the dynamic force in our politics and our governance.