Progressive Democrats have a fragile alliance with Joe Biden. But they're readying for internal party warfare if he wins the election.

  • Progressives largely have nominee Joe Biden's back, even as he skirts around topics they care deeply about like adding more justices to the US Supreme Court, eliminating the Senate filibuster, and enacting the Green New Deal.
  • But the Democratic in-fighting will kick off "the moment that they're sure that Donald Trump has lost and Joe Biden has won," one Democratic strategist told Insider this week.
  • "It's a choice between Trump and democracy," a former aide for Sen. Bernie Sanders said.  "And I think a lot of people feel that way. It's not even about Biden."
  • Democratic insiders say their side learned a lesson after 2016 when internal bickering may have helped put Trump into the White House. The prospect of another four years of Trump is enough to make them put their differences on hold — at least for now.
  • "You've got to win the presidency before you try and start World War III within the party," said Jim Manley, a Democratic strategist and former aide to then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.). 
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There's a fragile alliance uniting Democrats behind Joe Biden that party insiders expect to shatter the instant he takes office.

For now, progressives and more centrist Democrats have a common enemy. They want to limit President Donald Trump to just one term, and that's allowing them to showcase uncharacteristic discipline despite deep policy disagreements. 

On the campaign trail and the media airwaves, the Democrats' left flank largely has Biden's back even as the nominee skirts around topics they care deeply about, like packing the US Supreme Court, eliminating the Senate filibuster, and advancing the Green New Deal. They say they are staying in line because the stakes are too high right now for liberal infighting. 

"It's a choice between Trump and democracy," a former aide for Sen. Bernie Sanders said.  "And I think a lot of people feel that way. It's not even about Biden."

But if Biden's elected, it will be about Biden. And the eight Democrats interviewed for this story said they don't expect kumbaya to last for long. 

"You've got to win the presidency before you try and start World War III within the party," said Jim Manley, a Democratic strategist and former aide to then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.). 

Lessons from the 2016 loss to Trump

The Biden campaign earlier this year made very public showings of unity by creating task forces that blended the Sanders and Biden worlds on key issues like climate change, criminal justice, and healthcare. 

Some of their ideas have even found their way to the top of the nominee's agenda.

In March, Biden tweeted that he would be adopting Sen. Elizabeth Warren's bankruptcy plan, as well as Sanders' proposal that would make public colleges and universities free for families whose income is below $125,000.

Politics are driving everything. Democratic insiders say they've learned a lesson after 2016 when Trump and his unorthodox campaign emphasized their opponent's internal bickering as a way to dampen enthusiasm for Hillary Clinton en route to a shocking White House upset. 

Trump is at it again in 2020. He tied Biden to Sanders during their debate last month, saying "So you agree with Bernie Sanders, who's left on the manifesto we call it, that gives you socialized medicine." Biden interjected: "Look. The fact of the matter is, I beat Bernie Sanders." 

Democrats counter that their differences can be put on hold — at least for now — despite the president's attempts to highlight those gaps. 

Democratic in-fighting will kick off "the moment that they're sure that Donald Trump has lost and Joe Biden has won," a Democratic strategist told Insider this week. 

Intraparty warfare, of course, is nothing new in Washington. 

Infighting among various factions seeking influence flares out into the open whenever the party controlling the White House or chambers of Congress flips.

Conservative Republicans led by then-Rep. Mark Meadows emerged with the election of Donald Trump in 2016 and helped drive into retirement Paul Ryan, the House speaker who had been Mitt Romney's vice presidential running mate in 2012.

Back in late 2008, Nancy Pelosi and one of her longtime allies, then-Rep. Henry Waxman, orchestrated a power play that led to the ouster of Rep. John Dingell as chair of a powerful House committee that would go on to write major healthcare and climate bills at the center of the Barack Obama agenda.

What's most notable now in 2020 is the Democrats' willingness to keep their beef with Biden to themselves after an extremely contentious primary contest. 

'Progressives want Joe Biden to win' 

Democratic insiders are extremely cautious right now about saying anything that might disrupt Biden's chances next month. 

"I think progressives want Joe Biden to win and don't want to do things that would prevent that," said the former aide to Sanders, one of the standard bearers of the party's left flank. 

Criticisms and frank discussions about policies are happening, to be sure, but they're largely happening behind the scenes. The public message: Trump has to go. 

"Trump doesn't believe in the rule of law or democracy," said Jeff Hauser, founder and director of the Revolving Door Project, an executive branch watchdog group. "That's incredibly frightening, and I think progressives want to keep front and center that fact when they're communicating with the press." 

The lack of widespread Biden complaints from progressives doesn't mean they aren't defending their own. When Biden is forced to respond to Trump's accusations that he's a "radical socialist," he has often said, "I beat the socialist," referring to Sanders. 

That's an irritating claim to Sanders supporters and former aides, who have seen the Vermont senator go out of his way to deliver statements and speeches in support of Biden's candidacy. Sanders, an independent who caucuses with the Democrats, has never hid the fact that he doesn't always agree with Biden's policies.

"Now, it is no great secret that Joe Biden and I disagree on a number of issues," Sanders said in a pro-Biden speech in Michigan on Oct. 5. "But there is no question that the economic proposals that Joe Biden is supporting are strong and will go a long, long way in improving life for working families," he added. 

There are times when progressives "feel they need to push and because of that, it doesn't just end with his election," the former Sanders aide said. "They also want concrete policies to come out of it as well." 

The aide, now a strategist, said there are still issues within the Biden campaign that scream out for a response, and they're still doing so.

During Wednesday's vice-presidential debate, Vice President Mike Pence said the Biden administration would ban fracking, which would lead to the loss of thousands of jobs. Sen. Kamala Harris, a California Democrat who has co-sponsored Green New Deal legislation with Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Sen. Edward Markey, countered, "Joe Biden will not end fracking. He's been very clear on that."

She added that a Biden-Harris administration would focus on renewable energy and clean energy, but not ban fracking. 

That prompted response from AOC: "Fracking is bad, actually," she tweeted. 

Just like Sanders, AOC has publicly said she doesn't agree with all of Biden's policies. But she's still rallying support for him. The influential New York progressive took to Instagram Live for 40 minutes last month after the announcement of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg's death. 

"This election, voting for Joe Biden is not about whether you agree with him," Ocasio-Cortez said. "It's a vote to let our democracy live another day."

'They can't say, "Look, we have a mandate for Bidenism"'

Biden's left flank says it will be watching closely if he wins the presidency. They want to see who lands coveted Cabinet jobs, who's on staff in his White House and what early policy signals he'd send during the transition from the Trump era. 

Keeping the party's factions together won't be easy, considering how little substantive public debate there's been dating back to the open nomination race and now through the general election around what Biden would actually do if he succeeds Trump. 

"I think the Biden team has a very complicated task because they won the primary on a message of electability and that's not a governing message," Hauser said. "So they can't say, 'Look, we have a mandate for Bidenism.'" 

It's less clear what happens if and when the Democrats' common enemy is gone. 

"Donald Trump is the gift that keeps on giving to the Democratic Party," Manley said. "He has done nothing to expand his base while doing everything to unify Democrats, whether he intended to or not." 

 

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