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Why Biden Is Rejecting Black Lives Matter's Boldest Proposals

“The police,” he was told.

“Oh, great, I just won the election!”

The data suggest otherwise. In fact, since the killing of George Floyd at the hands of a white police officer on May 25 and the rise of protests against police brutality and systemic racism, including activist calls to defund the police, Joe Biden’s average polling lead over Trump has doubled from 5 to 10 points. The day after Trump’s Arizona event, The New York Times published a poll showing Trump down by a staggering 14 points.

Trump might be forgiven for his misreading of the political situation. Some of Biden’s advisers had the same initial view of the politics of the protests. Biden’s campaign is led by an older and whiter group of operatives who came of age during a political era when many Democrats saw large-scale protests for racial equality as inherently alienating to many white voters. In some quarters of the party, street protest brought back the traumas of 1968 and Nixon’s 32-state landslide.

“The first thought of someone my age is Nixon and law and order,” said an adviser to Biden, who is white and in his late 60s and admitted concern early on that the protests could benefit Trump. The person was granted anonymity in order to speak candidly. “But as long as we don’t have a reversion to looting and lawlessness, as long as it’s peaceful and about the inequality of society and the treatment of African Americans, this has seen a shift in Biden’s direction—and more than we thought it would be.”

Biden did not endorse the controversial activist slogan, steering clear of Trump’s attacks. On June 10, he wrote an op-ed for USA Today laying out his views on police reform and stated unequivocally, “I do not support defunding police.”

The spasms of vandalism and theft that marked some of the early protests have diminished, replaced by the targeted toppling of statues memorializing the Confederacy. Mitt Romney marched in Washington and said, “Black Lives Matter.” Polls reflected a seismic shift in the electorate’s attitudes: 76 percent of the public say racism and discrimination is a major problem, up from 68 percent in 2016. Seventy-one percent of white people agree. The Black Lives Matter movement now has majority support.

The expected revolt of white suburbanites against the protests hasn’t materialized. Instead, they’ve joined them.

“This is no longer a traditional wedge issue because all of a sudden white Americans, particularly college educated whites, understand that racism is real,” said Cornell Belcher, a veteran Democratic pollster who worked for Barack Obama. “Those white suburban women now understand that they have skin in the racism game as well. And that changes everything.”

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But the question remains: What is Biden’s role as the Democratic nominee, as America reckons with racism?

Despite his consistent edge in polls, there are risks for Biden. Though he has endorsed banning chokeholds and reforming qualified immunity, his promotion of community policing has left activists and organizers in key states angry and concerned that he’s missing a moment to be bolder. Internally, Biden’s campaign is balancing how to best respond to the transformational demands of protesters while maintaining his commanding lead over Trump. Biden gained the lead by staying largely out of the spotlight as Trump has praised the “beautiful heritage” of the Confederacy and called protesters “thugs.”

If elected president, Biden must force a “frank, truthful, painstaking conversation” about America’s racism, said Rep. Bobby Rush (D-Ill.).

“I’m not sure if he has the understanding, but he has to become a transcendental president,” Rush said. The opportunity is here; the question is, can he rise up to it?”

Dismissing the social media left

Biden’s advisers point out that racial justice is at the heart of why he’s running for president. He has often said that Trump’s 2017 comment praising “very fine people” at a pro-Nazi rally in Charlottesville is what pushed him into the 2020 race.

“He’s been very clear he wouldn’t be running unless Donald Trump were president,” said Symone Sanders, a senior adviser to Biden.

During the primaries, Biden bet everything on winning overwhelming support from African American voters, who eventually reversed the near collapse of his campaign in the first three states.

Biden’s advisers were often less attentive—and sometimes downright dismissive—of certain obsessions of the social media left. Biden did not discuss white privilege the way Kirsten Gillibrand did. He didn’t endorse reparations or the legalization of marijuana when some of his chief rivals did. He stubbornly insisted that the two most important primary constituencies were political moderates and older working-class African Americans, two groups without much influence online. The Biden campaign’s unspoken primary slogan could have been, “Twitter isn’t real life.”

This cautiousness and skepticism has spilled into the general election. One way to think of the Biden campaign’s navigation of racial issues is that he and his advisers care a lot more about addressing policy demands than they do about addressing cultural issues.

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“There is a conversation that’s going on on Twitter that they don’t care about,” one Democratic strategist observed. “They won the primary by ignoring all of that. The Biden campaign does not care about the critical race theory-intersectional left that has taken over places like The New York Times. You can be against chokeholds and not believe in white fragility. You can be for reforming police departments and don’t necessarily have to believe that the United States is irredeemably racist.”

Sanders offered a slightly more nuanced view. “It’s not that we’re dismissing anyone’s voice, because we hear the voices, we hear the feedback,” she said. “We are, though, laser-focused on making sure that we’re not running a campaign that only caters to the internet.”

Twitter is one thing. But what happens when the largest racial movement in 50 years—in response to the killings of Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor—collides with the campaign of a politician best known for hammering out cloakroom deals in the Senate?

One view of how Biden sees his role is that he is self-aware enough to understand what an unlikely leader he is of a Democatic Party that has been characterized in the Trump era by the women’s movement that greeted his inauguration, the antiracism movement that is defining the final year of his term, and the millennial left that has risen in the years in between.

“It’s important to remember what Vice President Biden said in the last couple of months that he intended to be a transition figure for the Democratic Party,” said Sen. Brian Schatz, the 47-year-old Democrat from Hawaii who is a favorite of progressives. Schatz argued that unlike Obama, who was a singular personality who “blocked out the sun” when it came to other Democratic leaders, Biden’s goal—as contradictory as it may seem—is to help raise up the new generation of Democrats, many of whom are to his left.

“He’s certainly at the helm as our nominee and as our party leader,” Schatz said. “But I think he understands that there is a movement that undergirds the left right now which is deeper and wider and more likely to last into the future regardless of who’s the titular head of the party.”

A similar view comes from some activists who often have the most clear-eyed view of politicians, seeing them not as heroic shapers of history but merely as instruments who respond to pressure.

“I think Democrats didn’t know what to do at this moment and that’s typical,” said Maurice Mitchell, national director of the Working Families Party and a social movement strategist. “Movements operate with different prerogatives than traditional electoral politics. Mass movements always lead—they come up with new ideas and surface problems that aren’t new but the surfacing of the problem makes visible something that had been invisible because we’ve tolerated it for so long and the problem has become woven into the fabric of the country.”

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From this perspective, the fact that Biden is a relatively nonideological politician who has continuously shifted with the political tides to remain close to the consensus view of his party might be a feature, not a bug. “Nobody expects Vice President Biden to organize a direct action,” Mitchell said. “That’s not his job.”

‘Joe Biden doesn’t have to be a revolutionary’

Just as Mitchell would expect, Democratic candidates across the country are recalibrating their positions on police reform and racial justice to catch up with the public. One Democratic campaign operative working on a Senate race said he was blown away by a recent poll his candidate commissioned.

“Racial issues were one of the top three concerns of the Democrats we polled,” he said. “It was right there with health care.”

Biden was quick to embrace two previously controversial positions: banning chokeholds and reforming qualified immunity for law enforcement officers, a change that Obama opposed as president. “Symone was like you gotta do this and he did it,” said a prominent Democrat who advises the campaign. “And he did it pretty quickly. The police hate it.”

But other issues highlighted by the Black Lives Matter movement and its allies have not been embraced by the Biden campaign. And some Democrats worry the presumptive nominee’s reluctance could dampen enthusiasm for him among African American voters who have suffered disproportionately through the trio of 2020 crises: the coronavirus pandemic, the subsequent economic collapse and the epidemic of anti-Black policing.

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