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The Right Way to Push Biden to the Left

It’s useless to convince him to adopt progressive policies if he won’t agree to structural reforms.

Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Most presidential nominees leave the primary season behind with a sprint to the political center. It’s a testament to the power progressives have built within the Democratic Party since 2016 that Joe Biden is instead being urged to make a showy detour to the left. There is no chance whatsoever that Biden will campaign on Medicare for All or many of the other policies that were cornerstones of Bernie Sanders’s campaign. And for all progressives know, his commitment even to the proposals his camp has billed as overtures to the left, including a means-tested free college plan and lowering the Medicare age to 60, may not last through November. But left-leaning activists and policy minds are trying to catch Biden’s ear on everything from climate policy to the veepstakes anyway, hoping to leverage the Democratic establishment’s anxieties about uniting the party into sustained influence on the Biden campaign and the potential administration to come.

But even if they make these gains, all of that influence will be useless unless Biden commits himself to a set of structural reforms: four pillars upon which the success of his presidency, the security of any policy gains he makes, and the political future of the Democratic Party may depend. This is where the conversations about Biden winning over progressives should begin. If he refuses to make these commitments, this is also where those conversations should end.

The Electoral College: At this point, everyone should be roughly familiar with the relevant facts. Hillary Clinton won nearly three million more votes than Donald Trump. Al Gore won over half a million more votes than George W. Bush. A study last year from the University of Texas found that “Republicans should be expected to win 65% of Presidential contests in which they narrowly lose the popular vote.” A vote cast in Wyoming in 2016 mathematically counted nearly three times more toward the Electoral College result than the average American’s vote. Et cetera. Everyone should also know that Joe Biden opposes eliminating the Electoral College, a position that puts him to the right of Clinton, many other prominent Democrats, and the vast majority of Democratic voters. In an interview with the New York Times Editorial Board, Biden suggested that moving to a popular vote would require a constitutional amendment. This is incorrect. Since 2007, 14 states and the District of Columbia have moved to award their Electoral College votes to the national popular vote winner as part of an effort called the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact. Once the electoral votes of the states signing on reach 270, the compact will take effect and the Electoral College will be functionally eliminated. Eighty-three more votes are needed, and Biden should lend his public support to getting NPVIC legislation passed in the remaining states.

The Filibuster: Even if Democrats take the presidency, keep the House, and win a Senate majority in November, Biden will be unable to pass his legislative agenda without a 60-seat Senate supermajority or a significant amount of Republican support. He will have neither. A Democratic Senate could solve this problem with the nuclear option—eliminating the legislative filibuster and moving to a simple majority vote. Biden opposes this. In fairness, Bernie Sanders also did. But Sanders proposed an alternative: having the Vice President, who is constitutionally the president of the Senate, approve the passage of major bills by reconciliation’s simple majority rule. Biden hasn’t given any indication he supports either this idea or any other proposal that would make it possible for him to pass legislation without getting members of the Republican minority on board. In fact, Biden spent much of the primary campaign promising Democratic voters that Republicans will be awakened by an epiphany after Trump’s defeat, at which point they will be open to working on his administration’s priorities. Again, this will not happen. Barack Obama offered a more sober preview of what’s to come in 2018. “The filibuster,” he said in an interview, “has made it almost impossible for us to effectively govern at a time when you have at least one party that is not willing to compromise on issues.” Biden should publicly agree and support either the nuclear option or giving Sanders’s idea a try.

Expansion of Statehood: Another step that would both make the Senate more representative and make passing legislation easier, would be granting statehood to the millions of Americans being governed by a Congress in which they have no real vote. It should start with the District of Columbia. Like the last two Democratic presidents, Biden supports D.C. statehood. But unlike those presidents, Biden should also commit to making statehood a priority for the first few weeks of his administration, given the boost two Senate seats for D.C. would grant his legislative efforts. He should also support new, fully representative statehood referendums in Puerto Rico and the other American territories.

The Supreme Court: Any major bills Biden manages to pass and any major executive actions he’ll take to work around Congress could be gutted in courts that Trump and Senate Republicans, representing a minority of the American people, have stacked with right-wing justices. That includes the Supreme Court, which may maintain its solid 5–4 conservative majority for many years to come. A Democratic Senate could address this problem and protect Biden’s agenda by adding liberal justices to the Supreme Court bench. Biden, however, opposes this. He also hasn’t backed the more moderate court reforms proposed by figures like Pete Buttigieg. He should either offer a plan to overcome the conservative judiciary or explain why he believes Democratic legislation should continue to face the same challenges that have hobbled the Affordable Care Act.

These proposals are as substantively reasonable as they are politically necessary, and the majority of the Democratic primary candidates have either embraced them or engaged the concerns they reflect. Biden, for the most part, did not. He won anyway, but his theory of governance remains fantastical. If Biden wises up and embraces structural reforms, progressives will have more reason to engage him on policy. If he chooses not to, dialogue with both the Biden campaign and the Biden presidency will be a waste of time.