Sunday, March 1, 2020


Biden's elevator pitch in the New York Times building. 

Last week, the black news website The Root published a kind of magisterial overview of every remaining Democratic presidential candidate's "black agenda", based on a survey of policy, legal, and journalists experts, all of them black, and looking at a list of ten criteria (economics, criminal justice, education, voting right issues, comprehensiveness, blind spots, feasibility, candidate's history, candidate's intentionality, and programs' impact) and ranking all eight (including Tom Steyer, who dropped out last night) on a 100-point scoring system.

It's clarified some things that have been tormenting me for a while in a way that extends beyond the black agenda to the whole campaign, alongside yesterday's results in South Carolina, and might clarify for you some of the discomfort I've been having with the traditional left-right axis and its application in the current situation (and uses some terminology I've been using, which is gratifying, because that means I'm using it right). It's also entertainingly written, by Michael Harriot, and designed for suspense, so—spoiler alert—you might like to go read it before you look below the fold here.

The candidates'  scores and rank are as follows:
  • Gabbard 0
  • Klobuchar 22
  • Bloomberg 43
  • Sanders 50
  • Steyer 62
  • Buttigieg 66
  • Biden 70
  • Warren 79
The most interesting part of the list, I guess, has to be the relative positions of Sanders and Biden. It feels a little surprising that Klobuchar has such a low score and Buttigieg such a high one, but we haven't been giving their policy ideas a lot of attention, have we? And frankly they haven't helped, by their conduct in debates, focusing so hard on convincing the audience that they're electable that they have little time to tell us what they stand for. For Warren, obviously, the scoring system kind of ensures her coming out on top: it rewards her for having a plan for that on every conceivable issue. But it's startling to see Sanders and Biden where they are because we all know that Sanders is "more progressive" than Biden. What's up with that?

The big reason for Sanders's lower score is that his approach is what The Root calls "performative": that he doesn't normally have a plan for that, just a passionate stand, and this is worse in his black agenda than the other aspects of his program.

  • Comprehensiveness: Sanders’ plan for black America reads like a first-year sociology student’s midterm project. While he hits the major talking points, they leave a lot to be desired. He relies heavily on the idea that his overall policies will improve the lives of America.
    Comprehensiveness Score: 5
  • Blind Spots: Sanders doesn’t have any egregious blind spots in his platform because it consists mostly of listing the problems and saying: “I got this.”
    Blind Spots Score: 5
  • Intentionality: Here’s where Sanders’ problem lies. His black agenda is performative at best. It is devoid of the kind of specifics that he displays in his tax plans, his healthcare proposals and his income inequality policies. In interviews and in practice, he seems to regard issues of race as purely a class issue. And, while race is inextricably tied to economics and class, white supremacy is not a math problem. One has to be intentional about confronting it.
    Intentionality Score: 3
Biden, in contrast, has a background that enables a voter to figure out how seriously to take his program,
  • Comprehensiveness: Here is where Biden has the advantage. In almost every area, he can point to actual legislation and policy that he has passed or enacted during the Obama administration. The only thing that hurts Biden is that he can point to specific actions and legislative plans from his tenure as vice president, which makes his more aspirational plans look sparse when he doesn’t provide specifics.
    Comprehensiveness Score: 9
  • Blind spots: Biden doesn’t specifically address gerrymandering or voting security. He also doesn’t mention white supremacist violence. Overall, his plans have few holes.
    Blind Spots Score: 7
and while his long record includes some really bad-looking moments, it gives you reason to believe he can, and intends to, come through with as much as he offers:

  • History: Aside from his brief war with Corn Pop, dragging Anita Hill through the mud, writing a crime bill that disproportionately incarcerated black men, Biden has done a lot for black people. I can’t recall any off the top of my head, but I’m sure he has. To be fair, he has a good voting record on a lot of civil rights legislation, affirmative action and most progressive race-based policies.
    History Score: 5
  • Intentionality: Biden worked for a black boss and, as veep, he was surrounded by black people who were smarter than him (Susan Rice, Michelle Obama, Eric Holder, Jeh Johnson). This might not seem like much, but eight years listening to black people is something few white people have ever done.
    Intentionality Score: 8 
  • Impact: Biden’s policies are progressive but not groundbreaking. He wants to fix the inequalities through conventional means and left-center legislation. However, if enacted, they would make a significant impact.
    Impact Score: 6
This is a new light for me on why African Americans could really prefer Biden to Sanders in a positive way, not just because they fear he's the only candidate who can beat Trump, but because he really is, from a black agenda standpoint, the better candidate, the more progressively effective. In terms of the three-dimensional model I was thinking about earlier this month, Sanders is more generous in intent, and also I think rather more authoritarian, he is definitely more performative, asking to be judged on what he says he wants to do without really talking about what he will do.

Could the same be said for Biden's health care proposals, at this point pretty much what I used to advocate before the Medicare For All fad began, of improving the Affordable Care Act at every corner where it fails and building up publicly and cooperatively owned insurance vehicles inside it? Maybe: looking at Warren's belated plan for getting to M4A, Biden looks like that, but stopping when he gets to second base. I could live with that, because once you get to second base, you find there's only one direction worth going in. Sanders's plan sounds more revolutionary, but it doesn't sound like something that can happen; it's a statement of where he wants the audience's emotions to be.

Could it be said for his tax plans?
even though Biden’s proposals on this front are much more moderate, they are almost identical in their orientation — raising money from a similar group of people for mostly similar reasons. Despite the disagreement about how far to go, all Democrats these days are basically reading from the same playbook, one that says Reagan-era conventional wisdom about the relationship between taxes and growth is wrong.
Consequently, if Biden’s plans were enacted, taxes on capital owners would end up substantially higher than they were at the end of President Barack Obama’s tenure, even as taxes on the working and middle classes are lower. (Vox)
That's quite a bit to squeeze out of any conceivable Congress of the next four years. It would be a good thing to do it. Here, Warren is pretty performative too, in the name of combating inequality (a wealth tax needs to be proven constitutional in the Supreme Court, and there's no way that's going to happen in the next presidential term unless three fairly young justices die or retire).

And so on. I don't need to build this argument all the way out. But what I'm trying to say is, and in the light of the South Carolina results showing black people (and "moderate" white Democrats) really turning out for Biden the way they must turn out in November (total turnout 40% above 2016 levels, Biden is getting to look like a very good second choice,

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