In the aftermath of the 2016 presidential upset, it looks like the progressives have the upper hand in the Democratic Party quasi-civil war. Hillary Clinton’s unexpected loss to Donald Trump has shaken centrist Dems to their core, and Bernie Sanders’ legions feel vindicated that voters want aggressive reforms rather than pro-corporate “liberalism.” Once kept at a distance by the Washington elite, U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) is now the belle of the Democratic ball with his single-payer bill. During the 2016 primaries, Sanders only got one fellow Senator to endorse his candidacy. Less than eighteen months later, more than a dozen Senators have co-sponsored Sanders’ bold healthcare bill.
But not all Democrats are on board with Sanders dragging the Party to the left, and many fret that a focus on single-payer for tomorrow could reduce the much-needed focus on saving Obamacare today. There is also the fear that Sanders’ progressivism is simply too liberal for districts that have elected conservative Democrats, making these districts vulnerable to takeovers by moderate Republicans. If Sanders and his allies drag the Democratic Party to the left, could the GOP make tremendous gains among moderates and independents?
The door is open for a moderate Democrat to claim frontrunner status among centrists and portray himself as the “voice of reason” in a beaten and battered political party that needs to get its mojo back. That moderate is none other than former Vice President Joe Biden, who is apparently making moves that signal a 2020 presidential bid. The outspoken champion of organized labor has re-entered the limelight after months of laying low. Now that Hillary Clinton is on her book tour, and laying blame for her 2016 loss in several directions, Biden may feel emboldened to return to the public eye.
On the political spectrum, Biden occupies an interesting space. He has come out against the proposal of a universal basic income, a popular policy among Democratic Socialists, and has remained mum on Sanders’ single-payer proposal. Though widely known as a champion of the working man, Biden has also defended large corporations against liberal criticism. He and his supporters are focusing intently on jobs, as opposed to Berniecrats’ focus on health care.
Conservative Dems will likely flock to Biden’s focus on jobs and employment as opposed to a stronger social safety net, eager to avoid GOP snark of liberals wanting to give everyone “handouts.” With Donald Trump willing to lob Twitter bombs at the slightest provocation, Democrats may worry that safety net proposals will be easy pickings for conservative-invigorating Trumpian tweet-storms in 2020. Although a majority of voters may view the President as an obnoxious buffoon, that doesn’t mean his barbs won’t win the day. After all, the billionaire’s volleys of insults felled more experienced Republicans like Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, and Lindsey Graham.
Despite his age being just as advanced as Bernie’s, Joe Biden may hope to capitalize on being seen as a relatively fresh and drama-free face. He sat out 2016, which he likely regrets, and is free of the tarnishing that everyone got in the mudslinging. Despite Bernie Sanders remaining tremendously popular, it is undeniable that some bitterness lingers among many Democratic voters about his bulldog candidacy. For better or worse, many of his supporters did not vote for Hillary Clinton on Election Day, giving Trump the victory.
As a result of the lingering resentment between progressive and centrist Dems, even some progressives may want to kick off 2020 with a “fresh” face, even one as weathered as Joe Biden’s.
Having been on Hillary’s 2016 team, Joe Biden may quickly scoop up most of her supporters. As an outspoken supporter of labor, he will also be popular among many Berniecrats. But, could he take on Bernie Sanders himself in the primaries? Having sat out 2016, even after Clinton’s worsening e-mail scandal led many centrists to ask the vice president to toss his hat into the ring, Biden is vulnerable to being seen as an opportunist. Too afraid to challenge Team Clinton in 2016, even though he knew she was a badly flawed candidate, could Biden be accused of political expediency and lack of courage by skeptical Bernie fans?
Because of that vulnerability, Biden may be banking on an early declaration of his candidacy to provide a strong foundation. To have any chance of becoming the Democratic nominee without a bitter and exhausting fight, Biden must jump into the race before Bernie Sanders. Even with the early entry, Biden must go full-bore on advertising himself as a fresh face with new and aggressive ideas. He should avoid clinging to Obama’s legacy, which bought Hillary Clinton some criticism in 2016. An aged candidate reminiscing about the past never wins – see Bob Dole in 1996 and George Bush, Sr. in 1992.
But jumping into the 2020 race early could backfire if Biden cannot energize the electorate with popular policy proposals. If he unveils his proposals too early, they have plenty of time to fizzle and fade. The pressure is on for the former vice president to work on some key proposals – perhaps similar to Bernie Sanders’ – that will fire up the Democratic base.