Election 2020

Biden May Win, but the Left Is Still Fighting for Influence

Continued Republican control of the Senate threatens to forestall both progressive cabinet picks and progressive policies.

By Colum Lynch and Robbie Gramer, a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren (from left), Sen. Bernie Sanders, and former Vice President Joe Biden participate in the Democratic presidential primary debate in Charleston, South Carolina, on Feb. 25.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren (from left), Sen. Bernie Sanders, and former Vice President Joe Biden participate in the Democratic presidential primary debate in Charleston, South Carolina, on Feb. 25. Win McNamee/Getty Images

As former U.S. Vice President Joe Biden edged closer to winning the presidency, Democratic lawmakers descended into a fresh round of recriminations, with some establishment Democrats charging that the party’s swerve to the left helped fuel a surprisingly strong showing by President Donald Trump that helped Republicans maintain control of the Senate and forestall an expansion of the Democratic majority in the House.

Democrats still have a slim chance of gaining control of the Senate in a pair of Georgia runoffs in January, but for the time being—and potentially for two years—Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell has maintained his grip on the upper chamber. That will make it more difficult for a Biden administration to satisfy progressive demands for cabinet picks, pass progressive legislation, or impose new checks on the power of the presidency.

The mixed outcome of the race threatens to diminish the influence of Sen. Bernie Sanders and other members of the party’s left flank, and may well ease pressure on Biden to offer progressives key positions in a new administration, according to interviews with several establishment and progressive Democrats. It also raised concerns among progressives that Biden will seek to forge a bipartisan governing consensus with McConnell, his former Senate colleague, at the expense of progressives who helped energize the party’s more liberal base that helped deliver Biden the presidency.

Democrats fear Republicans will threaten to block the appointment of progressives in a Biden administration, prompting the new president to bypass worthy candidates for government office. Of course, the Trump administration simply ignored Congress and placed acting officials in cabinet roles for extended periods of time—a possible playbook for the next administration.

“Look, at the end of the day, Joe Biden received more votes than anyone in the history of this country. President Trump, with a smaller victory, installed radically conservative folks in the administration,” said Stephen Miles, the executive director of the progressive advocacy group Win Without War. “The last four years have been a master class in how to staff your administration even with an uncooperative Senate.”

Several Democratic Senate aides conceded that it would be difficult for Biden to tap prominent progressive figures to senior administration posts, including the secretary of state position, for which some on the left had hoped that a progressive leader like Sen. Chris Murphy would be a front-runner. This week, Murphy predicted that “Mitch McConnell will force Joe Biden to negotiate every single cabinet secretary, every single district court judge, every single U.S. attorney with him,” according to Politico. “My guess is we’ll have a constitutional crisis pretty immediately.”

The Senate aides also said it might be difficult to enact more ambitious foreign policies, such as broad-scale nonproliferation efforts or increasing foreign aid after four years of what they described as neglect under Trump. In the past, however, Republicans have fended off some of the White House’s calls for more draconian cuts in the foreign aid and State Department funding.

Still, other election observers are more hopeful, saying that Biden would come into office with the mandate of securing the most votes of any presidential candidate in U.S. history and a lot can get done with control of the White House and the House alone.

“I think you have to look at the specific issues. A bipartisan majority of senators has already voted to halt U.S. military involvement in Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen, and I expect they will again in 2021,” said Andrew Albertson, the head of the advocacy group Foreign Policy for America. “It’s clear the Biden administration will extend New START. It’s going to restore U.S. leadership in combating the climate crisis. Trump’s Muslim ban, his family separation policy, his rejection of refugees—all that’s going to end,” he added. “I’m excited about all we can accomplish.”

Despite the likely defeat of Trump, the Democrats’ failure to secure the Senate and expand their majority in the House led to a fresh round of finger-pointing between the party’s establishment and progressive flanks.

In a leaked private exchange among Democratic lawmakers, Rep. Abigail Spanberger, who narrowly beat her Republican challenger in Virginia, charged that the party’s shift to the left had nearly cost her the race.

“We lost members who shouldn’t have lost,” Spanberger said in a heated internal conference call with members of the House Democratic Caucus, according to an account in the Washington Post. “The No. 1 concern and thing that people brought to me in my district [because of attack ads] … was ‘defunding the police.’ … And we need to not ever use the word ‘socialist’ or ‘socialism’ ever again.”

And in Florida, the party’s left wing proved to be something of a liability, according to some Democratic congressional staffers. Republican candidates portrayed establishment politicians, including Donna Shalala, a former U.S. secretary of health and human services, as socialists in the mold of left-wing Latin American autocrats from Cuba to Venezuela.

Progressives pushed back, noting that initiatives like a $15 minimum wage performed well in Republican districts, and that Democrats needn’t sacrifice their convictions and govern from a position of fear. They cite the case of Rep. Katie Porter, who won reelection in California’s conservative Orange County.

“Dear centrist friends, the progressive left put differences aside and worked extremely hard to help get Biden elected,” Sanders’s top foreign-policy advisor, Matt Duss, tweeted. “If you want to keep folks energized and mobilized maybe don’t blame them for your tough races.”

“We have to be thinking about 2022. If we want to mobilize voters for the midterms, we have to keep all our constituencies energized,” Duss told Foreign Policy on Friday. “Remember who helped get us here.”

Progressives said there are areas of convergence, even with a Republican-controlled Senate, citing the growing consensus across party lines for the withdrawal of more than 4,600 U.S. military forces in Afghanistan by the end of 2021.

There is also a lot the president can achieve—rejoining the Paris climate accord, restoring humanitarian funds to Palestinians, reopening nuclear talks with Iran, and rebuilding a demoralized State Department—without agreement from the Republicans.

But some key progressive goals, like greater oversight of presidential war powers, seem harder to achieve now. The 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) has been the bedrock of America’s forever wars, but some congressional Democrats say it will be difficult to rein in the AUMF under a Republican-controlled Senate. Others suggest that too few lawmakers are willing to run the political risk of tying the president’s hands, particularly a Democratic president.

“Do you want to be blamed for tying the president’s hands in the event of another terrorist attack and leave him with no ability to respond?” one congressional staffer said. “We’ve controlled the House for two years, and there has not been a credible effort to move something like that. I don’t think the Biden administration will come up with legislation to undo his ability to conduct a war whenever he wants.”

A President Biden would have considerable leeway to offer concessions to Iran, including by easing sanctions imposed by Trump, in an effort to jump-start nuclear talks and to convince Tehran to return to compliance with the 2015 Iran nuclear pact. But it is unlikely that Biden would be able to persuade the U.S. Congress to endorse such a deal—and that kind of iron-clad ratification might be what’s needed to get the once-burned Iranians back to the negotiating table.

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

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer