Actually, turns out none of that is in The Plan. What is there are proposals—well before the idea of Barack Obama or Bernie Sanders running for president was widely contemplated—for robust expansion of government to allow universal access to free college; universal health care for children; increases in the minimum wage and on taxes paid by the wealthy and corporations; and investments in clean energy with the aim of cutting national gasoline consumption in half by 2015.
Now the people who advocated these ideas are viewed as apostates by the Democratic left.
As a journalist, count me in for a good old-fashioned ideological bloodletting. Intraparty conflict on matters of genuine principle is an important story; in the fashion of a forest fire, it can sometimes be an agent of party renewal.
In the case of the scowling warnings about who does and does not have the left’s seal of approval for duty in the incoming Biden administration, however, the conflict rests heavily on optical illusion.
These are matters of personal preference—and, in some cases, genuine differences over political strategy—masquerading as vital ideological questions. It’s possible many people making the arguments for and against potential Biden appointees don’t know how flimsy the factual predicates for their strong opinions really are.
Among the most absurd examples was the swirl of speculation over who would be Biden’s chief of staff. Many on the left were worried Biden would pick Steve Ricchetti; They were pleased that he went instead with Ron Klain.
It was news to many who know both men that either man has an ideological profile different than the moderate progressivism embraced by most Democratic professional operatives, much less that there are important distinctions between them. Some activists don’t like how Ricchetti represented corporate interests in his public affairs work when not in government. Apparently working in venture capital with billionaire Steve Case, as Klain did when not in government, is better background for the kind of populist disruption the left is seeking. One Democrat who worked with both men in the Clinton and Obama White Houses joked that Klain’s success in positioning himself to the left of Ricchetti (who will serve in the West Wing as counselor) may be the best evidence that he has the necessary political cunning to be an effective chief of staff.
The differences are scarcely more real in other battles that have drawn notice in the Democrats’ intramural struggles. The Washington Post said some on the left were troubled that Biden chose Antony Blinken as secretary of State over Susan Rice. While it is deplorable how Republicans have demonized Rice, an African-American woman, there are scant differences on a center-left spectrum between the two; Both are foreign policy establishment stalwarts.
Meanwhile, Biden’s choice as budget director, Neera Tanden, is drawing the kind of fire Rice would have taken from Republicans—quite the coincidence that she also is an outspoken women of color. But Tanden is also drawing grumbles from some on the left, even though she is president of the Center for American Progress, one of the leading generators of progressive policy ideas. That’s because she was vocal in arguing that Bernie Sanders would be a poor choice as nominee on electability grounds.
That argument, carried over from the 2020 Democratic nominating contest—which was itself an echo of a generation-long intraparty debate—is actually the real crux of the matter.
There is no serious argument that Tanden, like Emanuel and Reed, is not a committed lifelong progressive. But it is true that Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who has publicly urged that Emanuel and Reed be kept out of the administration, is not laboring under a big misunderstanding about her targets. She knows why she doesn’t like them.
The most important debate in the Democratic Party right now isn’t between centrists and the left on fundamental policy aims but on how to present those aims to the public and then achieve them. Both the centrists who want a robust expansion of government and those on the left who want to go even further have the same problem: Insufficient legislative power to do more than modestly advance the goals of either wing. One side, the side of AOC and her allies on the left, believe the answer to this problem is a more creative politics of mobilization—putting forth a bolder agenda and defiantly drawing lines in a way that excites people who should naturally vote Democratic but often don’t vote at all because the stakes have not been framed sharply enough. The other side believes the answer is a more creative politics of persuasion—simultaneously engaging and reassuring voters who are skeptical of undiluted progressivism but can be coaxed into backing Democrats through more pragmatic appeals.
Here is where, as often seems to happen in Democratic intraparty battles, the road leads back to Rahm Emanuel. For more than a quarter-century, as White House senior adviser under Clinton, as a member of Congress from 2003 to 2009, as Obama’s chief of staff in the first term, and in two terms as the mayor of Chicago, he has stood consistently—and loudly—for the politics of persuasion. Now he is hoping to be picked by Biden as secretary of Transportation. Unlike the mild-mannered and cerebral Reed—who served as domestic policy chief under Clinton and was a chief of staff to Vice President Biden—Emanuel has relished picking fights with the left. (Reed once joked that he taught Emanuel how to do policy, and Emanuel taught him how to be an asshole.) Emanuel believes he is right that progressive politics rests on political support that is acutely perishable, and that those on the left are wrong in underestimating the danger of over-reach, or for reaching the wrong goal altogether.
As Obama’s chief of staff, Emanuel lost two big internal debates. One was his argument for a more incremental approach to health care reform. That sounds like something you’d expect from a centrist. Obama said he wasn’t elected to pursue incrementalism. The other argument was for more vigorous and punitive campaign denouncing Wall Street malfeasance after the 2008 financial crash. That doesn’t necessarily sound like what a centrist would say. Obama sided with financial advisers who urged that scoring political points against bankers might shake confidence and slow economic recovery. Whatever the substantive merits of Emanuel’s positions, it is clear he was right in warning that Democrats were flying into a storm in 2010—the midterm elections in which control of the House flipped to Republicans, limiting Obama’s options for the balance of his term.
If the Democratic left doesn’t want a president who would be tempted to appoint the likes of Ricchetti, Emanuel, or Reed, the best option would have been to win the nomination and general election for someone like Sanders or Elizabeth Warren—who wouldn’t want that crowd working for them and for whom that crowd wouldn’t want to work. Sanders and Warren backers tried that in 2020 and didn’t succeed.
This reality of power is what makes the left’s hectoring of Biden about who is worthy to serve in a Biden administration these activists never wanted in the first place such a foolish exercise.
The alternative to stupid second-guessing isn’t simply to shut up. It is smart second-guessing. AOC and others on the left are surely right that an administration headed by a president who came to Washington in the 1970s, and who is surrounded by advisers who began their government service in the 1980s and 1990s, isn’t necessarily going to be fully attuned to the challenges of the 2020s. They will benefit from being pushed.
But the left should push Biden on policy ideas—and help give him the broad political support needed to implement those polices. There is little benefit to trying to exert influence with likely unsuccessful bids to pick off potential appointees on the basis of spurious ideological arguments about who really counts as a progressive.