Bold, Transformative…Biden?

Tis the season of pumpkin spice lattes and political overload. So if you’re not paying attention to all the donation spam in your inboxes right now – or you’ve actually set up a filter to send email with the words “donate,” “urgent,” “election” or the like straight to the trash, then maybe you missed getting an email like the one I just got direct from the Biden campaign.

It’s typical anodyne campaign pabulum, the goal of which is to vaguely inspire yet offend no one (at least, this is Democrats’ MO, not so much Republicans’). But looking more closely, there are those pesky few words that have so bedeviled and come to define modern Democrats – for good and ill – again. Well, two words in particular, “change” and one of a small handful of adjectival modifiers: “fundamental,” “bold,” “transformative,” etc. The money quote this time was: “bold, transformative change.” This is one of the big problems of Democratic approaches to national politics in recent decades. I don’t know much about the specific appeals of state-level Dem candidates in states other than my own when it comes to this stuff, but on the national stage, there’s one of only a few ways this plays out:

  • When Democrats run on maintaining the status quo and not making waves, as Hillary Clinton did, they lose.
  • When Democrats run on change, particularly transformative or fundamental change – as Obama did – they tend to win.

Obama was a pretty good politician; he understood the mood of the electorate enough to know that after eight disastrous years of George W. Bush, with the economy in free-fall, torture memos, endless wars, tax cuts for the rich, people wanted real change.

And therein lies the danger.

Obama campaigned on “fundamental change,” and people responded. Man, did they respond. It’s easy to forget now after nearly four years of Trump, but just think about how ready America was for that message of fundamental transformation in 2008 — ready enough to elect the first black President, one with the middle name of a guy we’d just been at war with. That’s a powerful message, and Obama delivered it very skilfully.

Unfortunately, once elected, what Obama actually delivered was month after month of technocratic incrementalism and appeals to bipartisanship (or as the Obama team tried to put it: “post-partisanship”). This is what gave rise to the fading enthusiasm and rising disillusionment that led directly to the 2010 midterm shellacking Democrats sustained. By the time White House Senior Advisers admitted years later that the focus on bipartisanship had been misguided, it was (mostly) too late.

Yet here’s Joe Biden again in campaign emails, explicitly promising “bold, transformative change.” Ask yourself: when you look at the history of Joe Biden as a politician, are the words “bold, transformative change” the first that spring to your mind? I didn’t think so. And they shouldn’t be; Joe Biden has been the very model of a Democratic Party establishment guy. He made his bones in his early years in the Senate explicitly on being not just another liberal Democrat, and was actively pushing Third Way policies in the late 90s and early 2000s.

Maybe Joe Biden has learned something new in recent years. Maybe he understands the gravity of the moment on multiple levels, from racial justice to climate crisis to the erosion of our democratic institutions, and he’s genuinely committed to “bold, transformative change.” I sure hope so, because there IS a third way (pardon the pun) this can work. When Dems campaign on keeping the status quo upheld or making minor changes or “returning to better days,” they lose. When they run on the kind of big, bold change we need (and most of the left-of-center electorate wants), they tend to win their elections). But if they aren’t specific and intentionally use the rhetoric of change without ever intending to even attempt to implement the reality of it, as soon as the voters realize it, those victories are short-lived and Pyrrhic (see 2010 and 2014 mid-term losses).

That third, untried as of yet, option is: run on fundamental change and actually mean it. Politics is always a tug of war and thus nothing lasts forever. But if Democrats want a durable victory and the kind of lasting achievements that Dems of old delivered, like Medicare and Social Security, then they will need to remember to fight hard for real change, like the Dems of old who delivered those things. Here’s hoping Joe Biden has learned that.