The Morning Jolt


The Establishment vs. the Radicals

Democratic presidential candidate and former Vice President Joe Biden speaks while making a campaign stop in Pittsburgh, Pa., September 30, 2020. (Mike Segar/Reuters)

Today is the first day of October. If you think 2020 has been rough, you’ve just got to make it through three more months. We can do this.

On the menu today: a long look at the simmering behind-the-scenes fight between the Democratic Party’s establishment and radicals over who will be calling the shots in a Biden administration, an early vote count update, and examining a key change in Donald Trump compared to four years ago.

Which People Will Make Up the Biden Administration?

I feel as if I haven’t heard as much speculation about a Biden cabinet and administration posts in the past month, and that strikes me as an ominous sign about what to expect if a Biden presidency comes to pass.

Your mileage may vary, but broadly speaking, the Establishment Democrats are less of a potential menace to conservatives than the radical outsiders. The establishment wants the status quo with higher taxes and more spending — with gobs upon gobs of opportunities for lobbying firms to rake in the cash to ensure the legislation protects every imaginable faction, industry, and business. (Great news: Lobbyists are allowed to work for the Biden transition team!) The radicals want to tear up the Constitution, overhaul every aspect of American society, and ban farting cows.

The establishment tends to be self-interested and insufferably enthusiastic about the nanny state, but competent by government standards. The radicals cannot differentiate between theory and reality, have little sense of how the world actually works, relish the idea of using the power of government to punish those who disagree with them, and generally are an even greater menace to everyone because of their incompetence. With the establishment, you get someone like Michael Bloomberg. With the radicals, you get someone like Bill de Blasio.

Back in 2019, David Swerdlick argued that Barack Obama was, by the standards of the Democratic Party, actually kind of conservative: “The former president was skeptical of sweeping change, bullish on markets, sanguine about the use of military force, high on individual responsibility and faithful to a set of old-school personal values. Compare that with proposals from his would-be successors: Medicare-for-all, the Green New Deal, free college, a wealth tax, universal basic income.”

I’m not sure I buy that. But the Obama administration was populated in part by figures such as Tim Geithner, who was much less hostile to Wall Street and the business community than Elizabeth Warren was. As White House chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel rarely hesitated to clash with more liberal and progressive voices in the early years of the Obama administration. Matt Stoller argues that Obama was ultimately comfortable with the concentration of wealth and power in the hands of billionaires. We can argue about whether the Affordable Care Act was designed to fail and eventually force America to go to single-payer, but unlike, say, Bernie Sanders, Obama wanted health-insurance companies to continue to exist — and for you to pay a special tax if you didn’t buy their product.

To me, the Democratic Establishment is perhaps best personified by former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz. He’s an outspoken fan of diversity, the environment, clean energy, gay rights, gun control . . . and his company making lots and lots of money. If you’re conservative, you’re not exactly thrilled with a new administration full of officials with this mindset, but you probably prefer that to an administration full of officials who are socially liberal and who want to tear down capitalism once and for all.

For many conservatives, the best-case scenario of a Biden presidency is he calls the Chris Dodds, Bruce Reeds, and Cedric Richmonds of the world, the old Democratic Washington establishment, declares, “we’re getting the band back together!” and spends four years frustrating and disappointing Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s “Squad.”

I’m not saying conservatives would love the people who would make up an Establishment-heavy Biden administration. But these people are much less intent upon turning everything in America upside down, because they’re already the establishment.

Ron Klain may be general counsel for an investment firm called “Revolution,” but he doesn’t want an actual revolution. Tony Blinken is going to move foreign policy leftward, but he’s not going to have any open fights with Israel. Biden’s old chief of staff, Steve Ricchetti, is not a man dedicated to destroying capitalism:

After the Clintons left the White House, Ricchetti fully cashed out, building Ricchetti Inc. with his brother. Armed with a long rolodex, the brothers grabbed a large slice of corporate America as clients, including AT&T, General Motors, defense contractor United Technologies, the American Council of Life Insurers, and the American Bankers Association. But health care was always a large part of the business, with multiple drug companies, insurance associations, and hospital trade groups signing on.

When radical Democrats wanted to defund the police, Biden proposed another $300 million for “community policing initiatives,” and Biden’s policy chief Stef Feldman said it was designed to push police forces in the right direction. Whether or not you like that particular proposal, it’s one of the better recent examples of Biden telling the left wing of his party that they can’t get what they want.

I’m not thrilled about the return of Anita Dunn to the White House. Maybe she’ll bring back “Attack Watch!” But I had forgotten that after leaving the Obama administration, Dunn had headed up an industry group working against Michelle Obama’s healthy eating initiatives and for the for-profit college industry.

Remember, the president appoints, and the Senate confirms or rejects, roughly 750 significant executive branch positions. You may have no desire to ever be the assistant secretary for disability employment policy at the Department of Labor, assistant secretary for Financial Management and Comptroller of the of the U.S. Army, or the alternate executive director of the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development. But the country is full of wonky progressives who cannot wait to get their hands on the wheel of the administrative state. (Those are all real positions, not a Weed Agency parody, and they all have nominees selected by President Trump who are awaiting action by the Senate.)

If Biden doesn’t have an Establishment crew ready to step into the key spots, we will end up with more of the Angry Twitter Lefties taking the behind-the-scenes policymaking positions. There will be a push to make Elizabeth Warren Secretary of the Treasury. (Man, if she’s confirmed, that official portrait of Geithner is getting moved to the basement.) Washington governor Jay Inslee’s presidential bid was more or less ran an audition to be the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency. Beto O’Rourke and Pete Buttigieg are probably going to get some cabinet posts; hopefully O’Rourke’s won’t involve gun policy.

Ocasio-Cortez is probably not alone in her thinking that Biden could gradually be pulled along into enacting a lot of the agenda Sanders laid out in his two presidential campaigns:

Ms. Ocasio-Cortez barely hides her lack of enthusiasm for Mr. Biden, although she says she believes that the comfort he engenders could buy him ideological latitude. “I think the fact that he is an older white man kind of has a Santa Claus soothing effect on a lot of traditional voters,” she said. “I’m convinced that Biden could essentially adopt Bernie’s agenda, and it would not be a factor — as long as he continued to say things like malarkey. And just not be Trump.”

With Harris being vice president and/or president-in-waiting, she may prefer a much less Establishment crew. Maya Harris is probably going to end up on the vice-presidential staff somewhere.

As Yogi Berra Said, It Gets Late Early out There

More than 1.8 million Americans have already cast ballots in the 2020 elections.

The Trump of 2020 Isn’t Having Fun the Way the Trump of 2016 Did

An intriguing assessment from our old friend Tim Alberta, writing in Politico:

In an interview several years later, Trump told me that he viewed the [second 2016 presidential] debate as an experiment in “who likes pressure.” Voters wanted to see how a prospective president would handle being tested, being pushed. Trump responded to that pressure. With his back to the wall, facing scrutiny like no presidential hopeful in memory, Trump turned in his strongest stage performance of 2016. He was forceful but controlled. He was steady, unflappable, almost carefree. Even his most noxious lines, such as suggesting that Clinton belonged in jail, were delivered with a smooth cadence and a cool smirk, as if he knew a secret that others didn’t.

“That debate showed that I like pressure, because there was some pressure. What were the odds? Like 50-50, will he show up?” Trump told me. “That debate won me the election.”

I happen to agree with him. At a moment of genuine crisis, with his campaign on the brink of collapse just one month before the election, Trump projected a confidence that became contagious. The calls for his ouster ceased. The party got back to work boosting his candidacy. His poll numbers began to rebound. Trump had passed the pressure test. He had stopped the bleeding in ways that kept his base intact while demonstrating a resiliency, a certain defiance, that was appealing to some voters still on the fence.

Alberta thinks that we’re seeing a different man, four years later: “The candidate we saw Tuesday night — the worn, restless, curmudgeonly incumbent of 2020 — bore little resemblance to the loose, rollicking, self-assured candidate of 2016. It might be hard to remember through the fog of these past four years, but the animating sentiment for Trump during his first run for the presidency wasn’t hatred or division. It was fun. He was having the time of his life.”

ADDENDUM: A fired-up, debate-focused edition of The Editors podcast is ready for your enjoyment.

As Seung Min Kim observed, Happy Fiscal New Year’s Day.


The Latest