It won’t be official until the 2020 Democratic National Convention—brought to you (perhaps) by Cisco Telepresence—but it is very nearly so: The Democratic Party’s leadership vacuum will persist for, at the least, a few more years.
The left-of-center party of the richest and most powerful nation in the world has plenty of people in what you could call leadership positions, all of them well known and exceptionally experienced. But of the three who would broadly be considered party “leaders”—Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and, now, presumptive Democratic presidential nominee (and, thus, the Democratic Party’s standard-bearer) Joe Biden—only Schumer is younger than 70. Pelosi is 80, and Biden is 77.
Their ages matter less than their histories. Each of these people has been not just in politics but a leader of the mainstream wing of the Democratic Party for decades. The nomination of Biden will ensure that, for the foreseeable future, the party will be run by people who haven’t had a new idea since 1992.
Since Barack Obama’s departure from office and Hillary Clinton’s shocking 2016 loss, Pelosi and Schumer have borne the burden of representing and leading the party at the national level. They did, to their credit, decisively win the 2018 midterms—in the House, at least (though if we’re doling out credit, the current president probably deserves the lion’s share). But Obama’s purposeful retreat from public life (besides his occasional forays into influencer culture) has exposed how ill-suited these congressional leaders are for the role of spokesperson, national strategist, or mascot.
In normal times, their jobs are to be none of those things. What makes Pelosi’s and Schumer’s grip on power so secure is, in fact, their parochialism. They don’t offer up grand visions for the future. Their jobs, at least as they understand them, are to protect the members of their caucuses, especially those in the most vulnerable seats. Protecting them does not mean making sure they are associated with a popular and ambitious political project. It mainly means keeping them well funded, secure from primary challengers, and safe from potentially dangerous votes.
Pelosi whips votes for legislation she deems passable. Schumer protects centrists in red states from ever having to take a stand. That is what they do, and by the standards they set for themselves, they are very good at it. If you have found their responses—or, as the case may be, nonresponses, since Congress won’t be doing anything for another 10 days or so—to our multiple concurrent national crises underwhelming, it is probably because you expect from them something they do not see as part of their job description. That would be, to borrow a phrase from a presidential candidate who, long ago, ran a campaign based primarily on his long experience in government and association to a more popular president, “the vision thing.”
This lack of imagination explains why Congress responded to a completely unprecedented economic freeze-up resulting from a national, viral pandemic by passing an economic stimulus that was built around loans to small businesses, temporary expansion of our rickety unemployment benefits, and one-time checks to households, without considering more creative options. It is why Pelosi’s first instinct when thinking of what else to do was tax relief for her wealthiest constituents.
The Democratic nominee for the presidency was supposed to step into this void of creative thinking. But he or she was also supposed to have some claim to being an agent of change. It would be his or her job, if elected, to make Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer make their members fall in line behind some agenda—an agenda none of those members would face any responsibility for coming up with, and which some of them could even safely stand against, in order to continue being seen as Moderates.
Instead, our nominee is a man whose political horizons are precisely as limited as Schumer’s and Pelosi’s, because he comes from exactly the same milieu.
The first act in the predictable “Biden is reaching out to the left” performance was a policy proposal intentionally hamstrung by the long-standing New Democratic insistence that government aid should never be doled out to anyone a hypothetical Independent voter might consider Undeserving. In his proposal, Biden suggested dropping Medicare eligibility from 65 to 60, which is sound enough policy coming from someone whose top priority is to shore up the existing order, rather than extend services to those who need it most. (People between the ages of 60 and 65 are, on balance, more expensive for private insurance to treat than Medicare’s current population. Biden’s plan, in other words, is a gift to the private insurance industry as much as it is an attempt to expand government insurance.) In the face of an economic crisis that is (once again) devastating the young, it could be construed as a slap in their faces. But as the other plank of the proposal showed, it’s mainly the result of a campaign that is simply unable to think any differently about issues than the way it has thought about them forever.
Joe Biden’s plan for student debt relief is to means-test it, seemingly in an attempt, once again, to make sure it doesn’t fall into the wrong hands, but the plan also limits relief to public colleges and historically black colleges and universities. This presumably made some sort of sense in the addled minds of Biden’s policy team—this way the Harvard boys won’t get it!—but it has the unfortunate side effect of leaving out every victim of the predatory for-profit college industry. This is what happens when people making policy think about it not in terms of solving the actual problems of real people but as winning over some constituencies without offending others.
If this ostensible olive branch to the left is any indication, the Democratic Party will continue to be led by people beholden to ancient shibboleths, operating in a permanent defensive crouch against dimly remembered backlashes.
It is hard to convey how ill-suited to this moment Joe Biden is. Nearly everyone he beat out for the nomination would have handled it better. Even his fellow moderates had the benefit of seeming nimble enough to adapt to rapidly changing circumstances. The establishment progressives, like Harris or Booker, may not have been revolutionaries—indeed, they appeared to be running to hold back or placate the would-be revolutionaries—but they at least seemed to understand that the Democrats’ agenda and political playbook should not stay frozen until such time as the country is ready again for some change. The change is upon us, like it or not. We desperately need our second major party to recognize that.