(Bloomberg) -- Joe Biden’s growing lead in the Democratic presidential race is turning into a test of strength for a vocal and active progressive wing that’s been trying to wrest control of the party for the past four years.
The left’s ascent in the Democratic Party is embodied in the fervent followers of 2020 contender Bernie Sanders and young liberal stars like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the New York congresswoman. They rejected the notion of compromising with Republicans and are attempting to make sweeping proposals like Medicare for All and the Green New Deal litmus-test issues, asserting that is what Democratic voters want.
Biden has promoted consensus-building and given a cold-shoulder to Medicare for All. Yet he’s leading his nearest rival, Sanders, by 20 to 32 points in five national polls taken since he began his campaign on April 25.
Terry Shumaker, a 71-year-old lawyer from Concord, New Hampshire, and longtime Biden supporter, has a theory why.
“Twitter Democrats are not representative of the Democratic Party,” Shumaker said. “Democrats have to nominate somebody who can go toe to toe with Trump, and he’s the guy.”
Still, Biden’s a long way from securing the nomination and -- as Hillary Clinton learned in 2008 -- early front-runner status isn’t a guarantee.
The 22-candidate Democratic field is packed with progressives who have signed on to Medicare-for-All and the Green New Deal — most notably senators like Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, Cory Booker and Kirsten Gillibrand. If Biden sustains his lead through next year’s primaries and caucuses, it’ll raise tough questions for progressive advocates about whether their far-reaching ideas are as important to the rest of the party.
“Lots of voters support Medicare for All and a Green New Deal. But lots of voters also support Joe Biden. So that’s the test: whether we can organize and persuade voters to choose a candidate who supports those issues,” said Waleed Shahid, a spokesman for the progressive activist group Justice Democrats. “I’m feeling pretty confident that as we have debate and start to talk about issues, we’re going to see things shift.”
The left’s strategy to weaken Biden is to highlight his record as an establishment-friendly Democrat who cast votes that are out of step with the party’s base today. Sanders has already begun to do that by ripping into Biden’s past support for Nafta and deregulating Wall Street. At a rally in Washington on Monday night that marked Sanders’ second appearance in less than a week with Ocasio-Cortez, she and other activists complained Biden was too timid on climate change.
“So often when folks, particularly conservatives on both sides of the aisle, say that calling for a green new deal is too much or too extreme or too radical” and that the “middle ground is right,” she said. “What do they mean by that?”
In Concord, New Hampshire, on Tuesday, the former vice president responded to the criticism, saying, “I’ve never been middle of the road on the environment.” He told reporters he planned to release a bold plan on climate change by the end of May.
Biden said he doesn’t support turning Medicare into a national health insurance program for everyone because “the vast majority of people are satisfied with their own health care system today.” He said he favors “making a Medicare option available to all people” in which “you’d be able to keep your own insurance if you’re satisfied.”
Biden is “trying to thread the needle. He’s in a tough spot because you don’t want to turn anyone away, he’s more moderate but he needs to appeal to the more leftist ideas in the party,” said Liz Cannizzo, who traveled from Massachusetts to see Biden in Hampton, New Hampshire, on Monday. She said she was impressed by his empathy for voters and said he tops her list of Democrats for the 2020 primary.
“The people that are the loudest — that doesn’t reflect where the rest of the party is,” said Cannizzo, 38, adding that she — like plenty of Democrats — believes Biden may be the most electable candidate.
Biden has adopted some ideas popular among liberal Democrats. His standard campaign speech includes calls for a $15 minimum wage and an “environmental revolution.” Some liberal voters say it may be enough for them to back Biden in the primaries.
“I want to vote on who’s gonna be able to win the election,” said Eric Leith, 58, of Litchfield, New Hampshire, who is undecided but intrigued by Biden. “I’m a lefty’s lefty but you’ve gotta get this arrogant, narcissistic, lying bigot out of office.”
Leith said Biden “hit all the right notes” after seeing him at a rally Monday in Manchester. Leith said he’d like to see a more combative standard-bearer, like Warren, but worries she’d lose to Trump: “I love everything she stands for but I think she just p----es too many people off.”
Apart from policy, the Democratic contest has become a battle of two visions — Biden’s pitch to returning to a time of civility and bipartisanship, and the ascendant left’s view that a progressive agenda can only be achieved through trench political warfare with the right.
Campaigning in New Hampshire this week, Biden predicted that Republicans will have an “epiphany” and work constructively with Democrats after the Trump years are over.
“The thing that will fundamentally change with Donald Trump out of the White House, not a joke, is you will see an epiphany occur among many of my Republican friends,” Biden told reporters at the Works Cafe in Concord. “If we can’t change it, we’re in trouble. This nation cannot function without generating consensus. It can’t do it.”
His remarks were swiftly pilloried by some progressives, who called Biden’s hopes for compromise with the GOP starry-eyed and naive.
“I would wager that not even most Biden supporters believe this is true. Or Biden staffers. Or Republicans!” former Obama White House speechwriter Jon Favreau, a co-host of Pod Save America, said Tuesday on Twitter.
Bakari Sellers, a former state legislator in South Carolina who’s backing Harris in the primary, criticized Biden as offering “flaky aspirational stuff” and said Democrats want something more concrete.
“His numbers are really, really solid. They’re the definition of solid. See how well he’s doing with black voters right now? A lot of that is name ID,” Sellers said. “But we have a saying down South: when you’re hungry you want something that’s going to stick to your ribs. And Joe Biden doesn’t give you anything that’s gonna stick to your ribs.”
Biden downplayed his lead in the polls, saying the race is “a marathon” and that he won’t “yield to anybody on my liberal credentials,” whether it’s on climate change or LGBT rights.
“There are very loud voices on the very new progressive side of the agenda. And I think it’s useful,” he said. “They’re smart people and they should be able to make their case. But the idea that somehow the Democratic Party has gone so far to the left that it is not recognized by most Democrats who consider themselves liberal is not factually the case.”
Activists take some solace in Biden’s liberal turn.
“There’s a generational shift happening in the party,” Shahid said. “Whether that shift is totally embodied in two years or four years or 10 years, there’s a realignment happening.”
(Updates with Sanders appearances with Ocasio-Cortez in eighth paragraph. An earlier version of this article corrected the spelling of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in second paragraph.)
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