If Biden Wins, Progressives Are Getting Their Wish List Ready

Internecine tensions within the Democratic Party have been tamped down to defeat Trump—but that truce could be over Wednesday.

By Colum Lynch, a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy.
U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders and former Vice President Joe Biden attend the Democratic presidential primary debate at the Charleston Gaillard Center in Charleston, South Carolina, on Feb. 25.
U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders and former Vice President Joe Biden attend the Democratic presidential primary debate at the Charleston Gaillard Center in Charleston, South Carolina, on Feb. 25. Win McNamee/Getty Images

For months, Democratic progressives have honored an informal cease-fire, burying their differences with nominee Joe Biden’s camp over issues including defense spending, counterterrorism, and China and Middle East policy in an effort to mount a unified challenge to President Donald Trump.

But come Nov. 4, should Biden win, the party’s left wing will take off the gloves, setting the stage for a public brawl for the party’s soul over policy and political appointments to the most senior positions, according to interviews with more than a dozen Democratic insiders.

“There has been something of a cease-fire in the interest of trying to unite to win a very important election,” said Stephen Wertheim, the deputy director of research and policy at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft who served as a volunteer advisor to the presidential campaign of Sen. Bernie Sanders. “I do expect that soon after the outcome of the election is known progressives will express themselves candidly.”

They’ve already laid out a wish list. Sanders has quietly submitted a list of recommendations for senior policy cabinet-level positions, though the Biden team has not yet entered into serious discussions with Sanders on appointments. Sanders’s top foreign-policy advisor, Matt Duss, and other advisors are considering, shortly after the election, publicly promoting policies and principles favored by the party’s left flank, possibly in a series of opinion pieces or position papers.

The first struggle will play out over the appointments of officials in national security jobs. Progressives appear to be coalescing behind Sen. Chris Murphy, a sharp critic of U.S. policy who has made inroads with grassroots progressives, for secretary of state.

But they also appear resigned to the likelihood that they may not get their way. Progressives acknowledge that they lack a deep stable of foreign-policy experts with prior government experience, but they are playing a long game: They hope that Biden, if he wins, will provide jobs at mid-level and low-level positions, allowing progressives to gain experience and training in government that would enable them to move up in the system.

“There are very few pure progressives that have the caliber to step into the role [of secretary of state],” one progressive advocacy source said. “I think we expect the senior ranks to be filled by Biden and Obama’s national security community. But we have an interest in the assistant secretary and undersecretary of state posts and building a bench of progressive leaders.”

The broad progressive campaign—which has been previously reported by the Daily Beast—will cut across the spectrum of federal agencies, programs, and policies, from health care and infrastructure to the size of the Supreme Court, which some progressives would like to see expanded to dilute Republican dominance. In an interview, Sanders said he would lay out a 100-day agenda addressing infrastructure, wages, and union mobilization. For those Democratic lawmakers who resist, he noted, he will back primary challengers to take up the baton in the next election cycle.

“Some of my friends in the Democratic establishment are not aware—or I think cannot comprehend—what some of us have in mind in terms of what will happen after Biden is elected, hopefully after he is elected,” Sanders told Hill.TV. “And that is we are not going back to business as usual.”

Sanders did not detail his foreign-policy priorities. But progressives said they would be pressing Biden to live up to his pledge to end the forever wars, rebuild the State Department, and restore congressional authority in authorizing the use of force and to limit the deployment of U.S. military forces to operations that have congressional approval and oversight. They also mean to urge Biden to promote democracy and take on autocratic governments—including those, like Saudi Arabia, that have close ties to the United States.

Sharp differences in the foreign-policy vision for the party are likely to the surface over the choice for a new secretary of state. Potential candidates include Murphy; Susan Rice, former President Barack Obama’s national security advisor; and Sen. Chris Coons.

Progressives see Coons as a centrist in the mold of Biden, someone who is all too willing to reach across the political aisle and compromise values in favor of consensus. Like other influential centrist Democratic lawmakers, he gave too much credence to critics of the Iran nuclear deal.

“Bipartisanship is like a fetish,” a senior Democratic congressional staffer said. “Bipartisanship in support of bad policy is worthless.”

Progressives have looked favorably on the potential for a Murphy appointment, citing his record of backing restrictions on U.S. military assistance to Saudi Arabia and pressing early and energetically for more funding for the State Department. “There are very few senators who have built the kind of relationships with progressive grassroots foreign-policy groups as Murphy has,” the staffer said.

Rice has stirred more ambiguous reactions from progressives.

She is associated by many on the left with the interventionist policies of the Obama and Hillary Clinton era and reportedly served as a consultant for the Rwandan government nearly two decades ago, when she was outside government, raising concerns about how revolving-door relationships might color her stances as secretary of state.

A spokesperson for Rice, Erin Pelton, denied that Rice ever served as a consultant for the Rwandan government.

“Susan Rice has never consulted for any foreign government,” Pelton told Foreign Policy. “This is simply not true.”

But some think she has the spine and the incentive to take on Republicans.

“I think Rice may hold some helpful grudges against people who went after her on Benghazi. I want her to be angry at those people,” the congressional staffer said. Also, the staffer pointed out, Rice is part of the team that secured the Iran nuclear deal and may take a tougher line with the Gulf states, including Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, that lobbied against it.

There is little expectation that Biden will make foreign policy the centerpiece of his agenda in his first year in office, noting that his priority will be combating the COVID-19 pandemic, which has led to the deaths of more than 236,000 Americans, and reviving the U.S. economy. But, if elected, he is expected to take steps early on that will likely appeal to progressives, including rejoining the Paris climate accord, rebuilding critical ties with U.S. allies in Europe and Asia, and signaling a willingness to reopen dialogue with Iran and reaffirming support for the Iran nuclear deal.

“We would all like to find issues where we can push in the same direction,” said Stephen Miles, the executive director of the advocacy group Win Without War. “But I think the questions we have about a Biden administration is, ‘Is this just a trip back to where things were during the Obama administration?’”

Progressives have been somewhat wary about Biden’s outreach to some moderate Republican figures, like John Kasich, who are being vetted for potential jobs in a Biden administration. They are concerned that they might be left out in the cold.

“I don’t think progressives expect to get everything they want,” Miles added. “The question is, ‘Is Biden going to cut deals with Republicans where the left wing gets cut out?’”

An early test of Biden’s commitment to progressive values, he said, will arise in the first months of a Biden administration over the 2022 budget and how he deals with the defense spending budget. If the Democrats control the White House and both chambers of Congress, progressives will mount an aggressive campaign to shift funding from defense to other domestic priorities.

“Defense spending has gone to obscene levels,” Miles said.

But Jake Sullivan, one of Biden’s top national security advisors, appeared cautious about committing to deep cuts in defense spending, noting the need to insulate communities dependent on defense jobs and find ways to transition from outdated military projects to ones that fit U.S. defense needs.

“Defense spending in the United States, which is a significant share of our national budget, drives employment and good middle-class jobs in many parts of the United States,” he said at a webinar hosted by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “So simply saying … we’re going to shut down that base is, you know, not just a matter of accounting or of grand strategy. It has a real impact on the real lives of people, families, jobs, and a real impact on the real welfare and future of communities and cities and towns and regions.”

Progressives say they understand the need to weigh such impacts but that the Defense Department shouldn’t be off the table. “It’s a question of priorities, how much you are spending on defense versus other things like infrastructure, health, and education,” said the Democratic congressional staffer.

Observers say many of Sanders’s foreign-policy positions have already been embraced by the party, including the need to end the forever wars and a higher threshold for the use of force in the global war on terrorism. Biden has even shown a willingness to take on important U.S. allies in defense of human rights.

On the anniversary of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s killing at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul, Biden vowed that if he were elected, he would reassess the U.S. relationship with Saudi Arabia, end support for its war in Yemen, and ensure that “America does not check its values at the door to sell arms or buy oil.”

But both progressive and establishment observers say they expect those hoping to break ranks with Saudi Arabia will be disappointed. “I suspect some progressives will want to treat [Saudi Arabia] like a pariah nation and sanction them,” said a Democratic foreign-policy veteran. “That’s not Biden. He is not talking about dismantling an entire security and alliance infrastructure built over decades. He is more careful and a bit traditional and sees the value over time of maintaining these strategic relations, even as we reassess the relationship and perhaps do less for them.”

This story has been updated to include a denial by Susan Rice’s spokesperson that the former U.S. national security adviser ever served during her time outside of government as a consultant for foreign governments.

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch