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Biden Isn’t a Progressive. The Question Is How Far He Can Be Pushed.

If political momentum among Democrats continues to move leftward, Biden may be movable.

Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden and his wife, Dr. Jill Biden, interact with supporters via video teleconference on the fourth night of the Democratic National Convention on August 20, 2020, in Wilmington, Delaware.

By now, teeming bacteria on the volcanic floor of the Mariana Trench have heard that last night was the speech of Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden’s life. It was, and he exceeded expectations.

At his best, Joe Biden gives speeches the way good carpenters build bookcases: All sturdy right angles and nothing too fancy. Last night, certainly in awareness of the stakes, Biden found a new gear. His rhetoric did not soar, but he was evocative in his passion. He did not say the words “Donald Trump” once, but left his opponent in tatters all the same. On a night requiring maximum performance, Biden built the bookcase with no wood screws left over.

Nowhere was this more evident than when Biden put on pads and a helmet and charged straight at the COVID-19 crisis. In a country filled with millions of voters who are bone-weary of bad news, Biden gave them some more with no varnish, splinters and all. It was a risk, but after months of bald-faced lies and equivocation from the administration, it was grimly satisfying to hear the straight dope, finally, from someone who calls himself a leader.

“As president, the first step I will take will be to get control of the virus that’s ruined so many lives,” said Biden. “Because I understand something this president doesn’t. We will never get our economy back on track, we will never get our kids safely back to school, we will never have our lives back, until we deal with this virus.”

Biden reeled off a litany of actions he will take to confront the pandemic if he wins in November, many of which should have happened months ago: Rapid testing, personal protective equipment for all who need it (in a bleak historical counterpoint to “a chicken in every pot”), safely opened schools, experts who can speak without fearing for their jobs, and a national mask mandate until the virus is under control.

Biden’s November opponent, by contrast, spent yesterday blundering around the country like a bat lost in the daylight. At a rally just outside of Scranton, Pennsylvania, Trump said of Biden, “He left. He abandoned Pennsylvania. He abandoned Scranton. He was here for a short period of time, and he didn’t even know it.” Joe Biden was 10 years old when his family moved from Scranton to Delaware after his father lost his job.

Things got positively apocalyptic from there. “If you want a vision of your life under [a] Biden presidency,” Trump snarled, “think of the smoldering ruins in Minneapolis, the violent anarchy of Portland, the bloodstained sidewalks of Chicago, and imagine the mayhem coming to your town and every single town in America.”

It reminded me of George W. Bush-era Republicans who claimed Bush protected us from terrorism while omitting the hole in the sky above Lower Manhattan. Trump fans don’t like masks, but they do blinders like a catwalk model does heels.

The four days of the Democratic National Convention came off like they were on rails, technologically seamless and deeply moving in places. The delegate roll call, the 17-person keynote, the children speaking their hearts and minds, punctuated by towering speeches from Michelle and Barack Obama and other party heavyweights, all came together in what may very well become the prototype for conventions in the 21st century.

Yet all the championing of Black Lives Matter, of better health care for all, the warnings of looming climate catastrophe, and the shouted alarms on the existential threat to democracy itself posed by the president of the United States, does not change the fact that this convention was run by a center-right Democratic establishment for the sole purpose of nominating a center-right ticket.

It is what it is, as Trump says of the dead and Michelle Obama says of Trump. It was a magnificent TV show that will be the measuring stick for next week’s Republican mayhem convention — I mean, would it surprise you if the GOP had a convention panel featuring Kid Rock and Scott Baio coughing on each other to “prove” COVID is fake? — but as every adult except Trump knows full well, TV shows are not reality.

A Biden administration would have to be pushed, and pushed hard, by progressive activists from day one. I can only laugh into my sleeve whenever Trump tries to describe Biden/Harris as some secret Trojan horse for socialism; he may as well accuse Biden of being Batman. BLM showed us how effective grassroots protest can be in the face of entrenched power, and we will all likely need to flex those muscles again.

That being rightly said, I have been giving a great deal of thought lately to an article written last March by Esquire’s Charles P. Pierce. “Biden has been an influential Democrat through all of this. He has been a loyal party man,” wrote Pierce. The thrust of his argument is that Biden wallowed in the muck of Clinton-era economic neoliberalism and Republican “law and order” brutality because that is where the party was headed, and he went with it.

This is no excuse for the gruesome pieces of legislation bearing Biden’s name from those years, but that blade also has a keen second edge. “[H]ow sincere do you believe Joe Biden is in his newfound adoption of positions that would have been unthinkable 20 years — or 20 months — before[?]” asked Pierce. “If he thinks that’s where the party’s headed, he will go along. His history proves that he will, and that he likely will do it with gusto.”

Thin gruel, to be sure, but progressive House leaders like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and her allies have a great deal of momentum at present, evidenced again by this year’s round of primary victories. Biden reads the wind well. If it continues to blow leftward, and if Mitch McConnell finds himself either in the Senate minority or fully unemployed, a President Biden may decide to blow with it.

Stranger things have happened, and if COVID has taught us anything, it is that government does the most damage when it does nothing in a crisis. That lesson will still have teeth in January, and for many long years to come.

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