Biden’s Challenge

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Rep. Eliot Engel’s loss last week in a New York Democratic primary after 31 years in office is perhaps the most visible sign of the generational and ideological changes the party is undergoing. It also suggests that 2020 may be the year of Black candidates, as 2018 was the year of the woman. First-time candidate Jamaal Bowman, who is an African American former middle school principal and member of the Democratic Socialists of America, beat Engel handily.

With Bowman and other progressive primary victors, the Democrat blue map is getting bluer as the party continues to lose steady centrist veterans like Engel and like Rep. Nita Lowey (D-NY), who is retiring. Mondaire Jones, a Black progressive former prosecutor beat a moderate challenger to win the Democratic nomination to replace Lowey.


Lowey chairs the House Appropriations Committee; Engel chairs the House Foreign Affairs Committee. The power they accrued through decades of seniority cannot be conferred to their freshman successors.

Engel’s loss tells an interesting story. Engel is socially liberal with a centrist
foreign policy approach, and stalwart support for Israel. As such, Engel embodied the moderate approach of traditional liberal Democratic leaders from Hubert Humphrey
to Barack Obama. But as he lost decisively, we see the mounting wave of progressives pulling the party farther left.

Joe Biden, the Democrats’ presidential nominee, represents the party’s middle ground. But there are concerns that in order for him to remain a viable leader, and to benefit from the energy and momentum being generated by the progressive trajectory, Biden will have to shift left — leaving some party traditionalists behind.

We face a serious choice on Nov. 3. Amid a deadly pandemic, an uneven economy, and ongoing protests over systemic racism, President Trump has an approval rating of 40% as of press time, with 58% disapproval. Of those, 49% “strongly disapprove.” But
counting him out would be as foolish now as it was in 2016.

In order for Biden to win, he needs the active support of an energized coalition of progressive and moderate Democrats, plus independents and Republicans who want to escape the Trump-driven chaos. He needs support from women and from African Americans, Jews, Latinos, and other minorities, who seem largely in agreement about the need to oust Trump but have contrasting visions for the party and the future. And Biden needs a running mate who is seen by these disparate voters as a natural heir to the presidency, and a reliable bridge to the next generation.

The rising generation of Democrats is more liberal than the Biden generation. If the party continues to move left and Biden stays in the center, he risks deflating the energy of the progressives. If he follows them to the left, he risks unnerving the moderates. At this moment, when it looks like the election is Biden’s to lose, he cannot afford to alienate any of the party faithful or give them reason to sit out the election.

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