Joe Biden 2020 – The Anti-Populist

by Marcus Otono

It’s a pretty simple analysis. In times of populist fervor brought on by a crisis of capitalism, history shows that populists do better in elections than establishment candidates. Recently, this was shown by Clinton’s loss to Trump in 2016 and even more recently by the continued popularity of Bernie Sanders and even Michael Bloomberg, as well as the continuing solid base of support for Trump. The commonality between the three is that none of them are closely associated with the “Washington Consensus” of Democrats and Republicans that ruled, unchallenged, over the political economy from Reagan until the Great Recession.

In the United States, the Great Recession, and the continuing decade-long stagnation and low growth of the Long Depression, changed the electoral playing field and allowed alternative views of politics and the economy a bigger hearing. And since the establishment view had shown absolutely no signs of improving the status of the masses since the GR, it’s no wonder that this view has lost support among the masses. During times like this, the political “center” is hollowed out and the poles grow.

In short, you’re not likely to beat a populist candidate like Trump with an establishment candidate like Joe Biden.

The Democrats Double Down on the Establishment

But that fact of history doesn’t seem to have made much of a dent in the thinking of the establishment of the Democratic Party in 2020. Even after Hillary Clinton’s loss to Trump- a right wing populist insurgent candidate and Clinton’s preferred choice to run against if reports are believed- the leaders of the party have blamed everything from racism to Russia for Clinton’s defeat. Everything that is except for the bankruptcy of her policies that relied on the “normalcy” of a neo-liberal agenda of support for banks and financial capital and big corporations, but cuts for the rest of us. In spite of a much ballyhooed promise in the aftermath of the 2016 election to look at everything that contributed to her loss, the party establishment looked at everything, but her policies. And the candidate herself. In spite of her famous counter to “Make America Great Again”, “America is Already Great” is not something that a significant portion of the voting population actually believed.

Which brings us to Joe Biden. Biden entered the primary season for the 2020 Presidential election as the odds-on choice to win the nomination on the Democratic side of the ledger. He had everything that the establishment of the Democrats could want. He was a 30 year Washington insider from the state of Delaware, the home to lightly regulated banks. He had access to wealthy donors that were opposed to either the policies or the optics of Donald Trump. He had the name recognition that came from that 30 year political career as a US representative and a Senator. And he had recent clout within the Party as the VP under Barack Obama, the last Democrat to sit in the White House. Much like HRC in 2016, the smart money was on Biden to ride roughshod over the competition to the nomination in Milwaukee in July of 2020.

Of course, he also had the same policies that Obama and Clinton had, policies that had redeemed the banks and big businesses from the depths of the Recession to untrammeled heights of wealth, but had led to stagnation, or worse, for the rest of us. And unlike Clinton, he had more serious competition from Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren on his left, along with a host of other lesser names striving for that centrist Democratic Party niche.

Biden had run for President before, at least twice in the 1980s and once again against Obama in 2008. He also had a history of gaffes on the campaign trail and while in office, along with a reputation as, not only a neo-liberal centrist, but also as a right-wing or “Blue Dog” Democrat in the mold of Bill Clinton. In short, his reputation was as a Republican “lite” who would have been perfectly at home in the Reagan administration. And, at 77 years old, there were some concerns about his age and mental facilities. For the most part though, it was the optics of his campaign that kept the other centrist Democrats in the race, rather than any disagreement over his policies. Biden looked like he was beginning to falter and this appearance of weakness seemed to open the door for someone else to don the mantle of a centrist champion of the Democratic establishment.

2020 and Biden – South Carolina and Super Tuesday

The big news of the early stages of the Democratic primaries had been the lead won in caucuses in Iowa and Nevada and in the primary in New Hampshire by Bernie Sanders. Just as seemed clear that Biden has failed to catch the imagination of primary voters in the early part of the primary campaign, it seemed just as clear that Sanders had.

Then along came South Carolina. Biden won the state handily, relying on the support of a more conservative southern electorate and black voters who were also seen as more conservative than their peers nationally. The win, although expected by most, restored some of the luster to the flagging campaign and caused two of his main competitors for the nomination from the center of the party to drop out of the race. Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar both endorsed Biden shortly after dropping out, along with another former centrist candidate, Beto O’Rourke from Texas. These endorsements, and the resultant press garnered by the news, had the desired effect for the establishment wing of the party, causing a momentum swing that resulted in a late surge of support for Biden leading up to the Super Tuesday primaries. Out of 14 primaries that were held on March 3rd, Biden won 10, Sanders 3, and Bloomberg squeaked out a win in American Samoa.

Most of the exit polling was indicative of that late shift in momentum. Voters made up their minds late in the process and those late deciders went overwhelmingly for Biden, especially in the southern states. Biden also won the “electability” question against Trump with half of those voters polled saying that he was the best candidate to beat Trump. Only 20% said that about Sanders. However for Democrats, there are nagging questions remaining about Biden’s win. The majority of delegates won came from the southern states which are expected to vote for Trump in the general election overwhelmingly. Sanders did win in Utah and California, the latter state having almost twice as many delegates at stake as any other, and in his home state of Vermont. The negative for Sanders is that two states that he might have been expected to be competitive in, Minnesota and Massachusetts, Biden also won easily.

And finally, later in the week after the Tuesday primaries, the only other Democratic Party “left” candidate, Elizabeth Warren, also dropped out of the race. However, unlike Buttigieg and Klobuchar, Warren didn’t endorse anyone. To some this might have been a surprise, given her perceived ideological kinship with Bernie Sanders, but in reality, Warren is a reliably liberal, capitalist, and establishment Democrat. It’s not that Bernie is so much different than Warren, but he is to the left of Warren on most issues and, as far as the ruling elite believes, he’s playing with fire with his and his supporters’ populist message One can’t help but wonder if she’s withholding her endorsement in the hopes of further clout both within the Party hierarchy and in any new potential Democratic administration. Maybe the sound of “Vice President Warren” was pleasing to her ears in the wake of her failed presidential campaign.

So within one week, the long Democratic primary race has boiled down to two contenders, with the pretenders all dropping out. It’s now Bernie versus Joe, the populist versus the Establishment. Which means that Joe Biden is the likely candidate. Barring either a miracle or a Joe Biden gaffe, he is back to being the odds-on choice for the nomination. And he would certainly be the choice of the superdelegates if neither wins the majority of delegates in the primaries to come. But he is Joe Biden after all, a flawed candidate that has already lost the frontrunner status once and could easily lose it again. And that’s even before he runs against Trump with all that entails. Expect “Ukraine” to be a buzzword come November if it’s Trump versus Biden in the general election.

Populist vs. Anti-populist

The latest polls show that Joe Biden can beat Trump. Of course it’s nine months away from the election and those polls also show that Sanders can beat Trump. Even Warren and Bloomberg polled well against Trump in these early stages. And lest we forget, Clinton was also ahead in the polls leading up to the election of 2016. Finally it’s worth noting, as we’ve seen twice in the last 20 years, who’s ahead in the popular vote, unless it’s a landslide, doesn’t mean as much as who’s ahead in the Electoral College.

The rise in populism on the right and the left has put the establishment Democrats into a quandary. Democrats have their role in bourgeois politics as a “compromise” party, in the middle, compromising with right populism and co-opting left populism. But the rise of Trump and his racist and misogynist attitudes that play to his white base put him into the territory of Bonapartist authoritarianism and even proto-fascism. Democrats could and would easily compromise with many of Trump’s economic stances, but that would betray and cause problems with their base, especially in the black community. Trump has moved the needle so far right on social, racial and gender issues that any compromise with him on anything is problematic for most of the Democratic base. The leadership is desperately searching and hoping for a return to the “normalcy” that held sway for three plus decades before the Great Recession. But It’s a normalcy that shows no sign of returning any time soon. And there’s no chance that the surge in populism that is an outgrowth of capitalist crisis will ebb as long as economic stagnation for the rest of us continues.

The elections of 2020, both the primary and the general, are coming down to a choice between populism and politics as usual. The Democratic establishment is betting that politics as usual can beat Trump in the general election, something that the defeat of Hillary Clinton in 2016 showed was not a sure thing. They are also betting that a brokered convention, with a majority of the superdelegates, themselves the establishment, deciding the nominee, won’t result in the left populists that support Bernie Sanders sitting out the general, also resulting in the re-election of Trump. But it’s obvious now that the re-election of Trump is more palatable to them than nominating a left populist like Sanders.

The truth of the matter is that no one who is elected to office in the US will be able to do much to change the underlying dynamic of capitalism in crisis. The crisis of stagnation and a lowered standard of living for most of the US citizenry is now, and for the foreseeable future, a feature, not a bug of the system. Electoral politics in times like these is like putting a band-aid on a sucking chest wound. Any reforms, even the Sanders reforms, will be difficult to enact and inadequate if they were enacted. The only real hope lies in a conscious and militant working class fighting, by any means necessary, for what is needed.

Joe Biden, Donald Trump, Elizabeth Warren, Mike Bloomberg and, yes, even Bernie Sanders, won’t come close to fixing what’s wrong in society. That will be up to us. We can only hope we have the will to do so.