In California, Democratic Hopefuls Counter Biden’s Status Quo Politics

Jeff Chiu/AP Photo

Senator Elizabeth Warren during the 2019 California Democratic Party Convention in San Francisco

This article appears in the Summer 2019 issue of The American Prospect magazine. Subscribe here

SAN FRANCISCO—“We asked a two-word question: ‘Why not?’” said Bernie Sanders, reflecting on his 2016 challenge, at a low-dollar fundraiser near the Moscone Center during the California Democratic Party convention. Many of the 14 Democratic presidential candidates who spoke here, at the first real cattle call of the 2020 primary, were asking that same question, daring to think beyond a cramped politics narrowly focused on defeating Donald Trump and exhaling. “Why not” is the language of activists, the language Robert Kennedy paraphrased from George Bernard Shaw in 1968, the language of the “si se puede” cries from farm laborers. 

It’s not the language of the front-runner in the Democratic primary, and this weekend in San Francisco offered some of the first lines of attack against Joe Biden thus far in the race. Biden had no presence at the gathering, save from quotes of his on a glossy flier being passed out by Bernie supporters (“I don’t think 500 billionaires are the reason we’re in trouble… the folks at the top aren’t bad guys”).  But he hung over the convention, with numerous challengers taking on the mindset of the Biden wing of the party, if not the former vice president by name.

This challenge was expressed most deeply by Elizabeth Warren, who received the warmest welcome from the assembly on Saturday—even more than the home-state candidate who preceded her, Kamala Harris—with a speech that assailed the small-ness of restoration politics, the inessential-ness at the heart of Biden-ism.

“Some Democrats in Washington believe the only changes we can get are tweaks and nudges,” said Warren, who dominated the weekend, including bringing 6,500 people to a town hall in Oakland on Friday night. “If they dream at all, they dream small. Some say if we all just calm down, the Republicans will come to their senses.” 

After offering some of her bigger dreams—a wealth tax, an expansive anti-corruption plan, breaking up big ag, big banks, and big tech—Warren stuck in the knife. “When a candidate tells you about all the things that aren’t possible, about how political calculations come first, about how you should settle for little bits and pieces instead of real change, they’re telling you something very important: they are telling you that they will not fight for you.”

It was the most direct challenge to Biden-ism yet, and it fit with Warren’s stump speech in Oakland, which highlighted corruption as a disease upon the body politic, frustrating progress at every opportunity. In just five months on the trail, Warren’s weaving between her personal middle-class upbringing and the role of big money and big business in politics already reflects a finely-tuned narrative that feels much more seasoned.

And her themes are big enough to cover the main case against Biden: that his hypothetical presidency would pose no threat to special interests and keep middle-class Americans depressed and voiceless. Several convention-goers expressed to me concerns about the backlash to another ineffectual Democratic regime, yielding a right-wing ascendancy that actually might be competent this time.

Other hopefuls mirrored Warren’s position in their seven-minute convention speeches. Pete Buttigieg, who did well in the formal speech setting, proclaimed that “Democrats can no more promise to take us back to the 2000s or 1990s than conservatives can take us back to the 1950s.” Cory Booker, in what seemed like off-the-cuff remarks riffing off a moment of silence for victims of the tragedy in Virginia Beach, condemned “the normalization of mass murder in this country” and thrummed that “beating Donald Trump is a floor and not a ceiling.” Following John Hickenlooper, who tried to create a Dianne Feinstein circa 1990 moment, trolling the 5,000 or so attendees in a bid for moderate votes by saying that “socialism is not the answer,” Jay Inslee ad-libbed, "I am a governor who thinks we shouldn't be ashamed of our progressive values."

And of course, Sanders was part of this call-out, too, subtweeting Biden as one of “those who have for whatever reason chosen to not be in this room” and referencing a May 10 Reuters article that suggested Biden was looking for a “middle ground” on climate change. “When the future of the planet is at stake, there is no middle ground,” Sanders said, using the same construction to lambast the middle ground on income inequality, health care, abortion, drug prices, gun violence, immigration reform, and foreign policy (ending “endless wars” was a core focus).

The simplistic rendering that Bernie’s base has splintered in California was not in evidence at his 1,000-person fundraiser, the first of his campaign. But the race for state party chair, necessitated by sexual assault allegations forcing former chair Eric Bauman to resign, offered a glimpse at what happens when insurgents have more than one option. When Bauman narrowly defeated Sanders supporter Kimberly Ellis in 2017, she benefited from an anti-Bauman vote. This time around, there wasn’t the same animus against Los Angeles labor federation leader Rusty Hicks, and he steamrolled Ellis on the first ballot 57 percent to 36 percent. To the extent that Sanders has a problem, it’s that there are other choices for those trying to overthrow the establishment.

The Democratic Party, set up as a series of silos, offers candidates multiple openings to carry the banner of “no middle ground” and “dream big” on discrete issues. At the MoveOn Big Ideas festival (marred by an animal rights protester accosting Harris and grabbing her mic) and in his convention speech, Julian Castro seized on the issue of criminal justice reform, invoking the names of Eric Garner and Sandra Bland and previewing a policing plan that would ban stop-and-frisk policies and track de-certified police officers in a national database. Amy Klobuchar, who hit several party caucuses, pitched automatic voter registration, which has led to higher turnout in her home state of Minnesota. 

Harris went in on gender pay equity, with a complex scheme to fine large businesses that don’t comply. And Inslee, who has led on climate, announced at the convention that he’s petitioned the DNC for a climate-focused debate. “You can negotiate with Republicans but you can’t negotiate with physics,” he told me.

The audience of 5,000 activists may be more restive than Democrats at large—they shouted during Nancy Pelosi’s speech to impeach Trump, nearly booed hapless John Delaney off the stage for criticizing Medicare for All, and criticized the state party for accepting hundreds of thousands of dollars from vaping company Juul, which actually was rewarded with a giant ad right next to big screens showing the podium. But these activists are the people who stuff envelopes and knock on doors, and they will focus their work on candidates who inspire, who offer something of value beyond the end of Trump tyranny. 

While a campaign to take down the primary’s leader may not be coordinated, it was palpable in San Francisco, a constant undercurrent of the talk at caucuses and social gatherings. Activists want something more, and as the field inevitably winnows they’ll pick someone to raise that flag. “I think a lot of the ideas that you’re hearing now are the things that are going to get done in the next several years,” said Joaquin Castro (D-TX), who introduced his twin brother to the convention on Sunday. “Oftentimes they are lofty, but I believe they are doable.”

As for Biden, who acting chair Alex Gallardo-Rooker said had called her before the convention and committed to attending another party meeting in November, where delegates will vote on a presidential endorsement, the contrast of where he decided to speak over the weekend was interesting. He keynoted a Human Rights Campaign dinner in Columbus, Ohio, forcefully castigating Trump for his attacks on LGBTQ Americans. It was an example of a dream big approach, which rapidly shifted the national mood from banning gay marriage to accepting it. In 2012, Biden got out in front of President Obama’s middle ground on the issue, blurting out his support for same-sex marriage before Obama was ready. 

Sometimes, it pays to say “Why not?”


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