As the Trump campaign tries to arrest its downward spiral in the 2020 presidential election, the president’s team is trotting out a new line of attack: that Joe Biden is a tool of Bernie Sanders and his fearsome band of socialists.
Never mind that Biden has spent more than 50 years in politics and soundly defeated Sanders in the Democratic primary. He is, the Trump camp would have Americans believe, really just a radical in moderate’s clothing.
It’s a strategy that’s as likely to succeed as the the campaign’s discarded salvos against “Sleepy Joe Biden” or “Joe Biden: China’s best friend.”
But it must be said that the Trump team’s latest attack contains an element of truth. Biden is not a socialist. He’s not a radical. But he is running on the most liberal policy platform of any Democratic candidate in modern American history. And if he wins the presidency, it could usher in a period of progressive victories unlike anything since the Great Society of the 1960s.
Yet, with the public focused on the coronavirus and the election becoming a referendum on Donald Trump, little attention is being paid to the progressive moment that might be right around the corner.
Take for example this rarely discussed but remarkable Biden proposal: raising taxes by $4 trillion. Virtually all of those higher taxes will be levied against the wealthiest Americans, and Biden says he wants to use the proceeds to address income inequality among other priorities. Not long ago, Republicans accused Democrats of wanting to raise taxes even when they didn’t. This year Biden is on the record about it and it’s barely talked about — even though a tax hike can be pushed though the Senate with a simple majority via the budget reconciliation process, making his sweeping campaign proposal a very attainable policy if the Democrats retake that chamber.
Yet this only scratches the surface of Biden’s plans. He also wants to lower the eligibility age of Medicare to 60 and create a public option as part of Obamacare — the latter an idea that some Senate Democrats so opposed a decade ago they threatened to join a filibuster against it. He is proposing to spend $2 trillion to fight climate change, with a plan that has been widely praised by environmental activists. He’s pushing a housing plan that would dramatically reduce childhood poverty, supports universal preschool, and is calling for an $8,000 child care tax credit. His “Build Back Better” plan aims to restart the US economy by investing $700 billion in US manufacturing and job creation — the largest such government investment since World War II.
There’s also much to be made of what Biden is not saying. In the Democratic primaries he spoke frequently of wanting to work with Republicans to get legislation passed. Now he’s parroting the rhetoric of Senator Elizabeth Warren and calling for “systematic change.” In the past, deficit concerns got in the way of Democratic spending priorities. If Joe Biden is concerned about deficit spending, he’s keeping it pretty quiet. Indeed, in recent weeks Biden — a 36-year creature of the Senate — has hinted that he might support scrapping the filibuster, which is essential if Democrats have any hope of passing most of their agenda.
That’s just Biden. If Democrats win back control of the Senate and maintain their hold on the House, the Democratic congressional caucus would be, arguably, the most liberal in history. The forces pushing lawmakers to the left will be many: With an aging Biden likely to serve only one term, would-be 2024 Democratic presidential contenders will be trying to one-up each other with appeals to the party’s liberal base; Democratic senators, including the party’s Senate leader, Chuck Schumer, will likely be more worried about intra-party primary challenges from a restive left than anything the Republicans might muster; and there is an obvious need to think big in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. Liberals might have lost the battle for the Democratic nomination, but they are poised to win the war.
There’s one more factor working in Biden’s favor — public support. In 1964, when Lyndon Johnson ran for president, he campaigned on the promise of the Great Society, which he pushed through after his landslide victory. But a close look at the ’64 polls suggests that many Americans were not fully supportive of LBJ’s ambitious plans, which contributed to the backlash against them. Today, polls show strong support for federal action on climate change, higher taxes on the rich, large investments in infrastructure, police reform, and strengthening Social Security and Medicaid.
If Biden wants to be “the most progressive president since FDR,” as Sanders recently suggested he could be, the stars could not be better aligned. The irony is that a candidate who won the Democratic nomination on a message of restoring the status quo may end up being the leader of a progressive revolution.
Michael A. Cohen’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.