Norman Solomon, Putting the Biden Crisis in Perspective

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Until last Sunday, the 2024 election wasn’t just a campaign between a distinctly old man making uncalled-for mistakes and his opponent. It was between two distinctly old men, both making uncalled-for errors, and of the two, the one making the most disastrous errors (not just in language but in preparing the future for the rest of us) was, thanks to an assassination attempt on him, offered a free pass to the Republican convention. Who cares that, at a recent rally of his, he said things like “everybody has a water spot, where water comes out” and went on “nonsensical rants about whether it would be better to be electrocuted or attacked by a shark.” And yet give him credit. Though in recent years he could never seem to stop talking, in the wake of President Biden’s disastrous debate with him (no matter that he himself offered a nozzle full of errors, misstatements, and god knows what else that night), he kept his mouth remarkably shut for days on end and let the Democratic Party beat itself to… well, now that President Biden has withdrawn from the 2024 race, let’s hope it’s not death.

Certainly, Joe Biden had his problems. I’m thinking, of course, about the president who only recently called Ukrainian President Zelensky, “President Putin,” while introducing him at a NATO conference in Washington, and briefly labeled his own vice president, Kamala Harris, “Vice President Trump.” And that, for sure, was anything but pretty, but at least he’s now left the race and we don’t have to face the possibility of an 86-year-old president. But even a president who would leave office at 82 is — let this 80-year-old assure you — simply not a good bet.

In the meantime, while the Republican Party has, with the rarest of exceptions, become totally Trumpified, the Democratic Party suddenly faces a new world of sorts and it’s not exactly in great shape, as TomDispatch regular Norman Solomon, who has had long-term up-close-and-personal connections to that party, makes clear. No one, of course, can faintly know how all of this or, given Biden’s decision, election 2024 will turn out, but if you’re not worried, believe me, you should be. Tom

The Democratic Party’s Culture of Loyalty

How an Ethos of Compliance Made the Biden Debacle Possible

The Biden campaign drove the Democratic Party into a ditch and speculation is rampant about grim prospects for the election. But little scrutiny has gone into examining how such a dire situation developed in the first place.

Joe Biden was on a collision course with reality long before his abysmal debate performance led to his withdrawal from the race. “Several current and former officials and others who encountered him behind closed doors noticed that he increasingly appeared confused or listless, or would lose the thread of conversations,” the New York Times reported five days after the debate. Some had noticed the glaring problem months earlier but kept quiet.

A culture of dubious loyalty festered far beyond the Biden White House. It encompassed Democratic leaders at the Capitol and across the country, as well as countless allied organizations and individuals. The routine was to pretend that Biden’s obvious cognitive deficits didn’t exist or didn’t really matter.

Because his mental impairment was so apparent to debate viewers, some notable Democratic dissenters in Congress stepped up to oppose his renomination. But for weeks, relatively few colleagues followed the lead of Texas Representative Lloyd Doggett, who broke the congressional ice by calling for Biden to “make the painful and difficult decision to withdraw.”

Heads in the Sand

Acuity came from Julián Castro, former secretary of Housing and Urban Development in the Obama administration, who kept up a barrage of cogent tweets. One message referred to Biden’s “unique political liability” and warned: “It’s not going to get any better — and has a high risk of scrambling the race again, sealing Dems fate. Burying our heads in the sand won’t assuage voters concerns, which have been painfully obvious for years.”

A literal heads-in-the-sand photo was at the top of a full-page print ad that the Don’t Run Joe team at (where I’m national director) placed in The Hill a year and a half ago. Headlined “An Open Letter to Democrats in the House and Senate,” it said: “Many of your colleagues, and maybe you, are expressing public enthusiasm for another Biden presidential campaign in on-the-record quotes to journalists — while privately voicing trepidation. This widespread gap ill serves the party or the nation… There are ample indications that having Joe Biden at the top of ballots across the country in autumn 2024 would bring enormous political vulnerabilities for the ticket and for down-ballot races. No amount of spin can change key realities.”

But the spin never stopped and, in fact, went into high gear this summer with Biden trying to make his candidacy a fait accompli. Meanwhile, the culture of loyalty kept a grip on the delegates who’ll be heading to Chicago in mid-August for the Democratic National Convention. As the second week of July began, CNN reported that “a host of party leaders and rank-and-file members selected to formally nominate Biden said they were loath to consider any other option.” A delegate from Florida put it this way: “There is no plan B. The president is the nominee. And that’s where I and everyone that I’ve been talking to stands — until and unless he says otherwise.”

The lure of going along to get along with high-ranking officials is part of the Democratic Party’s dominant political culture. I saw such dynamics up close, countless times, during my 10 years as a member of the California Democratic Party’s state central committee, and as a delegate to three Democratic National Conventions. I viewed such conformist attitudes with alarm at meetings of the Democratic National Committee (DNC).

Democratic Rubber-Stamping

Larry Cohen, former president of the Communications Workers of America, has been on the DNC since 2005. “Currently the national Democratic Party exists in name only, and is largely the White House and a nominating procedure for the president,” he told me. “The internal life is in the 57 state and territorial parties, and important reform efforts are visible in many of them.” Cohen added: “It’s the ‘rules and not just the rulers,’ and the Democratic Party compares poorly to centrist parties in other democracies, especially with the domination of corporate and billionaire money in our nominating process at every level of government.”

Pia Gallegos, co-founder and former chair of the Adelante Progressive Caucus of the New Mexico Democratic Party, summed it up this way: “The culture of the Democratic Party at the national level is top-down in the sense that it appoints the members of its committees rather than opens committee membership to elections among the DNC delegates — and then expects its delegates to rubber-stamp approval of those appointments.”

Gallegos, who chairs the board of RootsAction, is on the steering committee of the nationwide State Democratic Party Progressives Network, an independent group that formed last year. “Democratic parties at the state level also have policies or traditions to appoint local committee members or national committee representatives, consequentially pushing out their more progressive or reformist members from positions of power,” she said. In short, “the Democratic Party leadership appears to be more concerned with maintaining their control of the party than with promoting democracy within the party.”

When it comes to their decision-making, some state parties have headed in more democratic directions — or the opposite. I’ve seen firsthand that the nation’s largest one, the California Democratic Party, has steadily become more autocratic for over a decade.

Overall, big donors and entrenched power are propelling the Democratic Party.

After Judith Whitmer became an active DNC member as chair of the Nevada Democratic Party, she got a close look at the committee’s inner workings. “Today’s Democratic Party is run by consultants and operatives who tightly control every aspect of the DNC,” she texted me. “The big-tent party that champions ‘democracy’ is actually a small circle of insiders who hold all the power by maintaining the status quo. Dissenting opinions are not welcome. Progressives are ostracized, and the everyday voter no longer has a voice.”

In early 2021, a progressive insurgent campaign enabled Whitmer to be elected chair of Nevada’s Democratic Party. Powerful Democrats in the state, outmaneuvered by that grassroots organizing, quickly transferred $450,000 from the Nevada party’s coffers to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and set up a parallel state organization. Two years later, the erstwhile party establishment retaliated by crushing Whitmer’s reelection bid.

In a Word: Undemocratic

Subduing progressive power is a key goal of dominant party leaders as they gauge when and where to strike. While nominally supporting the two-term progressive congressman Jamaal Bowman for reelection in his New York district last month, powerful party elders nonetheless winked and nodded as the American Israel Public Affairs Committee poured some $15 million into backing a corporate pro-war Democrat against him.

“The Democratic Party is, in one word, simply undemocratic,” Joseph Geevarghese, executive director of the national activist group Our Revolution, told me. “The illusion of ‘party unity’ fostered by Biden and Bernie [Sanders] four years ago is gone. In fact, the donor class feels emboldened to wage war openly with progressives, especially after defeating Jamaal Bowman.”

I saw the illusion of party unity playing out at sessions of the Unity Reform Commission that the DNC convened in 2017. The calculus was that the strength of Bernie Sanders forces, then at high ebb, had to be reckoned with. The commission had a slight but decisive majority of members aligned with Hillary Clinton, while the rest of the seats went to allies of Sanders. While the commission did adopt some modest reforms, the majority balked at substantive DNC rules changes that would have provided financial transparency or prevented serious conflicts of interest.

Overseeing the blockage of those changes was Jennifer O’Malley Dillon, the commission chair, who later worked for three years as deputy chief of staff in Joe Biden’s White House. She went on to become the Biden campaign chair.

“The Democratic Party now functions through foundation-funded advocacy organizations, and without the kind of self-funded mass membership groups that had a genuine voice with real power when the labor and civil rights movements were strong,” journalist David Dayen wrote in early July for the American Prospect. “If you read the polls, the interests of the public and the donor class are actually aligned in favor of Biden’s withdrawal. But given who’s making that case, it sure doesn’t feel that way, nor does it feel particularly small-d democratic. That makes it easy for Biden to fall back on the will of ‘the people’ who voted in Democratic Potemkin primaries, because outside of that, the people are voiceless.”

Money in Charge

Alan Minsky, executive director of Progressive Democrats of America, had this to say when I asked him to describe the party’s political culture: “While the Democratic Party is a complex organization with a lot of dimensions, I think the role of money — and, more specifically, the never-ending need to raise more money — has become its central organizing principle. This, of course, skews the priorities of the party in a conservative direction. Democrats who can raise money comparable to the levels raised by the GOP are seen as indispensable to the party, and grow in power and influence… In turn, these powerful money-raising Democrats have little use for anyone inside the party who is perceived as jeopardizing the flow of money — such as left-progressives and other advocates for the poor and working class.”

Minsky added:

“As these dynamics became central to the party over the past few decades, the rich and powerful grew in influence, and the general political culture reflected the priorities of the professional class rather than the working class, a sharp contrast to the mid-20th century, which was the height of the party’s power and influence.

“However, since the GOP only turns ever more to the right, progressives and working-class advocates continue to stake a claim in the Democratic Party. Paradoxically, since these non-wealthy groups represent the majority of the population, they also provide the best opportunity for the party to regain its majority status. However, from the point of view of the party’s dominant faction, and their legions of highly compensated consultants, this is an unacceptable outcome as it would shut down the gravy train.”

The Democratic National Committee building on South Capitol Street in Washington is a monument to the funding prowess of multibillionaire Haim Saban, who became the chair of the capital campaign in late 2001 to raise $32 million for the new headquarters. He quickly donated $7 million to the DNC, believed to be the largest political donation ever made until then.

Haim Saban has long been close to Bill and Hillary Clinton. By 2016, Mother Jones reported, Saban and his wife Cheryl — in addition to hosting “lucrative fundraisers” — had given “upward of $27 million to assorted Clinton causes and campaigns.”

Saban and Joe Biden also bonded. When Saban had an appointment at the White House last September, “the visit was supposed to last an hour, as part of lunch, but in practice he spent three hours with the president and his people,” the Israeli newspaper Yediot Ahronoth reported.

Reasons to reaffirm warm relations with the likes of Haim Saban were obvious. Presumably, the president remembered that a single virtual fundraiser the Sabans put together for the Biden-Harris campaign in September 2020 brought in $4.5 million. In February 2024, with the Gaza slaughter in its 135th day, the Sabans hosted a reelection fundraiser for the president at their home in Los Angeles. The price of a ticket ranged from $3,300 to $250,000. An ardent Zionist, Saban has repeatedly said: “I’m a one-issue guy, and my issue is Israel.”

This summer, while Biden fought to retain his spot as nominee, fervent support from the Congressional Black Caucus seemed pivotal. The CBC has changed markedly since the 1970s and 1980s, when its leadership came from visionary representatives like Shirley Chisholm, John Conyers, and Ron Dellums. Then, the caucus was antiwar and wary of corporate power. Now, it’s overwhelmingly pro-war and in willing captivity to corporate America.

With President Biden in distinct denial about his unfitness to run again, the role of the Congressional Progressive Caucus was accommodating. Its chair, Pramila Jayapal, endorsed him for 2024 gratuitously early — in November 2022 — declaring herself “a convert.” Since then, some high-profile progressives went out of their way to back Biden in his determination to run for reelection.

Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who endorsed Biden a year ago, went in front of journalists 10 days after his debate disaster to make a vehement pitch for him as the nominee. In a similar mode, Senator Bernie Sanders was notably outspoken for Biden to stay on as the party’s standard-bearer, even implausibly claiming on national television that, with a proper message, “he’s going to win, and win big.”

When some of the best progressive members of Congress fall under the spell of such contorted loyalty, it’s an indication that deference to the leadership of the Democratic Party has come at much too high a price.

Featured image: Joe Biden by Prachatai is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 / Flickr

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