SAN FRANCISCO — While 14 top Democratic presidential candidates swarmed the Golden State this weekend for the California Democratic Party’s convention and related events, one was conspicuously absent: former vice president and early frontrunner Joe Biden, who decided to skip the festivities in favor of an LGBTQ-rights gala 2,500 miles away in Columbus, Ohio.
The big, Biden-shaped hole in the single-largest gathering of 2020 hopefuls to date dramatized what may become the defining dynamic of the Democratic primary contest: the search by progressives for someone who can unite the rest of the party and take the nomination away from a well-known, well-respected, historically moderate figure who has been lapping his rivals in the national polls ever since he launched his campaign in late April.
An “Anti-Biden,” so to speak.
“Some Democrats in Washington believe the only changes we can get are tweaks and nudges,” Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren said in her convention speech, much of which amounted to a veiled but unmistakable attack on Biden’s belief in “middle ground” policies and bipartisan consensus. “Some say if we all just calm down, the Republicans will come to their senses. But … 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.”
“Not me,” Warren added. “I’m here to fight.”
The audience couldn’t have been more receptive — not only to Warren’s pugilistic Biden-bashing, which earned perhaps the loudest cheers of the convention, but to the weekend’s whole “Anybody But Biden” atmosphere. In California, delegates lean much further left than the state’s broader Democratic electorate— so far left, in fact, that in 2018 they endorsed a progressive challenger to Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein, Biden’s ideological counterpart and only major California endorser. As attendees entered the cavernous Moscone Center, representatives from online activist group RootsAction.org passed out large, glossy flyers featuring unflattering Biden quotes:
“The folks at the top aren’t bad guys.” “The wealthy are as patriotic as the poor.” Vice President Mike Pence is a “decent guy.” “I really like Dick Cheney for real.” “My greatest accomplishment is the 1994 crime bill.”
Nearly every attendee grabbed a flyer as they descended the escalator to Hall F to hear Biden’s Democratic opponents speak. It would be hard to find a bigger, less pro-Biden crowd anywhere.
Yet California’s jam-packed anti-Biden audition also dramatized something else: just how daunting it will be for any one candidate to emerge as the alternative to Biden this year — or even next.
“There are far too many candidates right now for that,” says Dan Schnur, a former spokesman for John McCain and recent director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California. “It’s more likely that a small number of ‘un-Bidens’ will rise to the top before the field winnows to one alternative — and this weekend is one of only dozens of opportunities” they’ll have to make their case.
None of which stopped the vast field of candidates from seizing the opportunity afforded by Biden’s absence — and this weekend’s huge, sympathetic audience — to at least start to contrast themselves with the former veep.
Hometown favorite Sen. Kamala Harris, trailed everywhere by hundreds of well-organized volunteers waving purple “For the People” placards, repeatedly lamented that “women are paid 80 cents on the dollar [compared] to men, black women 61 cents, Native American women 58 cents, Latina women 51 cents” as she touted her plan to close the wage gap by fining companies that fail to ensure they are paying men and women equally — a reminder that she may better reflect the Democratic base than Biden.
“I am obviously a woman of color,” she said at Saturday’s Big Ideas forum hosted by MoveOn. “My mother was also a woman of color. My aunties, relatives — also women of color. It is not a new issue for me. The battle for economic justice is a civil rights battle.”
In Oakland Friday night, Warren held a sunset town hall that drew more locals (6,500) than Biden’s big campaign kickoff rally (6,000) earlier this month — a reminder that Biden has had trouble translating his polling dominance and big-money donors into grassroots enthusiasm.
“When I lead the Democratic Party, we will be a party of moral clarity, a party of courage, and a party with backbone,” Warren said Saturday on the convention stage.
On the same stage, South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg sharpened his implicit generational argument against Biden, squeezing in his appearance amid a tight schedule of at least four Bay Area fundraisers — a reminder that he is banking both millennial money and energy to power his campaign. At 37, Buttigieg is less than half Biden’s age (76).
“In these times, Democrats can no more promise to take us back to the 2000s or 1990s than conservatives can take us back to the 1950s,” Buttigieg said. “[Trump] wins if we look too much like Washington. … He wins if we look like more of the same. Which means, surprisingly, that the riskiest thing we could do is try to play it safe. There’s no going back to normal right now.”
And former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke began every one of his speeches in fluent Spanish, touching time and again on his new, detailed plan to legalize America’s 11 million undocumented immigrants and remove citizenship hurdles for 9 million green card holders — a reminder that he has represented a community Biden has little connection to.
“If immigration is a problem,” O’Rourke said at the MoveOn forum, “it’s the best problem we’ve ever had as a country.”
Some approaches were smarter than others. Former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, for instance, went before the convention’s left-wing delegates to declare that he planned to win the nomination by running to Biden’s right — a lane that likely does not exist in the party.
“Socialism is not the answer,” Hickenlooper said as the crowd started booing — boos that continued as he attacked Medicare for All and the Green New Deal. “We shouldn’t try to achieve universal coverage by removing private insurance from over a hundred million Americans. We shouldn’t try to tackle climate change by guaranteeing every American a government job.”
Yet all the candidates — including Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who focused on drawing down what he called “endless wars,” and New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, who emphasized the racial wealth gap — seemed increasingly to define themselves in opposition to Biden. Whether they presented themselves as anti-war doves, or civil rights champions, or anti-incrementalists, their self-branding consisted more than ever of emphasizing their distance from the campaign’s white, male, hawkish, centrist, long-serving pacesetter.
Meanwhile, Biden himself was stumping in the Buckeye State — not a huge primary target, but one of the biggest prizes of the general election. A new poll of voters in California showed him leading statewide with 30 percent of the vote, seven points ahead of Sanders and 15 points ahead of native daughter Harris. Another survey showed him walloping each of his primary opponents by at least 36 percentage points in head-to-head matchups. During a quick stop for tacos with Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti last month, Biden expressed confidence about the primary process — and California’s role in it. The field "is going to be winnowed out pretty quickly, here in California as well,” he said. “In order to get any delegates in a congressional district, you've got to get 15 percent of the vote. So, this is going to work its way through relatively quickly for all of us.”
Biden’s above-the-fray plan could easily go awry. He’s been known to misspeak. He could stumble in the debates. He could fall short in Iowa. But for now he will keep coasting, and all of the would-be anti-Bidens will keep trying to make waves.
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