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Is Biden getting more progressive policies enacted than Sanders could have?

Jonathan Freedland argued in The Guardian that there is no honest way to minimize the $1.9 trillion Biden recently signed into law as consistent with terms like “moderate” or “cautious.”

President Joe Biden speaking to the press after spending Easter weekend at Camp David.
President Joe Biden speaking to the press after spending Easter weekend at Camp David.
REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

If I had been empowered (which I certainly was not) to appoint a president from all those who ran in 2020, I believe I’d have picked Elizabeth Warren. Many real lefties would say Bernie Sanders. Compared to them, on policy, Joe Biden seemed a boring old centrist liberal.

To people who felt that way, Biden backers sometimes argued that Bernie and Warren were too far left to get elected. Biden was the guy who could beat Donald Trump, in part because he wouldn’t drive away voters who were scared of policies that could be (and would be by Donald Trump, and were) demagogued as “socialism.” (I’m so tired of that gag, which, among other things, always makes me want to ask the red-scared population why they don’t want to repeal Social Security, which is mandatory, has a built-in tax that keeps rising through the years, and is redistributive.)

But (it could be argued at least, and turned out to be somewhat true) familiar, likable ol’ Biden couldn’t be portrayed as representing anything as scary, to some voters, as “socialism.”

It may be that that’s exactly what happened. In fact, this is an element of the conventional wisdom about the 2020 campaign. Trump specifically, and Republicans in general, ran against “socialism” and it just didn’t work against ol’ Biden, who (as you know) ended up beating Trump by solid popular vote margin and a solid Electoral Vote margin that Trump himself had (ludicrously) labeled a “landslide” when he won, with illicit foreign help, by the same electoral vote margin in 2016.

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Let’s not forget to mention, of course, that Trump “won” in 2016 by losing the national popular vote. Biden beat Trump in 2020 by a solid popular vote margin and a solid electoral vote margin. No landslide. Solid win.

The paragraph below is from an analysis by Jonathan Freedland of British paper The Guardian:

When the right claimed [Biden] was a radical socialist, the charge did not stick – because Biden had been around for 50 years and people could see with their own eyes that he was a traditional moderate. That view was helpfully reinforced by those leftists who had long written Biden off as a dull, decrepit centrist, barely fit to shine the shoes of  progressive favorites like Bernie Sanders or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

I guess we’ll never know whether Sanders, the last man standing against Biden in the nomination race and someone who both favors a number of more progressive positions and calls himself, as he always has, a “democratic socialist,” could have beaten Trump. But there is ample room for doubt.

And even if we imagine that Sanders might have won, and everything else turned out the same with the Democrats clinging to a one-vote margin in the Senate, it’s hard to see how Sanders could have passed his program when, as it turned out, the deciding vote in many matters would be cast by Sen. Joe Manchin, D-West Virginia, who finds supporting Bidenism difficult and would have been unlikely to vote for much for Sandersism.

On policy, my own views were closer to Sanders’ than Biden’s on a number of the major areas of difference. In most of the areas, Sanders and Biden actually favored change in the same direction, but Sanders proposed to go further and faster. Since the election, Biden has actually moved closer to Sanders’ position in a number of areas. In fact, in the current real world, where it takes at least agreement among all 50 Senate Democrats to create a tie that can be broken by Vice President Kamala Harris, it appears that Sanders, the leftiest member of the Democratic caucus, has less leverage to push Biden to the left than the most conservative Senate Democrat, Joe Manchin of West Virginia, has from the right.

Sanders gets interviewed frequently about these dynamics. His talking points make clear that he (like most of the rest of the Senate Democrats) is prepared in pretty much every area to support the most progressive policy that can pass, and the question of how far down the progressive path it goes substantially depends on what the least liberal Democrat in the Senate, Manchin, is willing to support.

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In the Guardian piece I linked to above, Jonathan Freedland argued that there is no honest way to minimize the $1.9 trillion Biden recently signed into law as consistent with terms like “moderate” or “cautious.”

But my working hypothesis for the moment is that with Biden’s ability to seem like a non-radical, and with the vote of Manchin, who can’t really be called much of a liberal, more progressive policies are now law than perhaps would have occurred if the Democrats had nominated Bernie Sanders, even if Sanders had been elected. What think?