Smart minds immediately begin to wonder what Biden is playing at. It’s Republicans, after all, who are driving all matter of unpopular initiatives, from ceaseless attempts by Congress to repeal the Affordable Care Act to laws at the state level that would ban abortion in almost all circumstances. Does Biden believe in his own powers of persuasion? Or is he attempting to woo prized Obama-to-Trump voters, not to mention upscale white suburbanites reported to be appalled by Trump’s behavior?
But there’s another crowd this stuff appeals to as well, a group that would rather not discuss the economic issues that contributed to Trump’s victory. That would be the donor class of the Democratic Party.
It’s likely no coincidence that Biden made this statement to a room full of the big-money people. His candidacy is driven in many ways by the donor class — wealthy men and women who are loath to examine their role in our political meltdown. Wall Street interests let it be known early on that they would be thrilled if Biden entered the presidential fray. Billionaire former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz, who had been pondering a presidential run as an independent, has suspended that exploration since Biden’s entry. This small but obscenely wealthy cohort was essential to Biden’s rollout: The Wall Street Journal reported that the former vice president, fearful he would be unable to match other candidates’ online fundraising immediately after their announcements, asked a small group of supporters to help line up big donors ahead of time. It worked — Biden beat competitors’ first-day totals with a big assist from a fundraiser held at the house of Comcast’s top lobbyist.
Unlike his other Democratic rivals, Biden isn’t hitting the public hustings hard. He has skipped a number of candidate forums. Instead, he’s letting voters in on the mechanics of raising money from big fish by permitting pooled reporters to attend his fundraising events — which is how word of what he is saying at these small gatherings is getting out.
And it’s the ultrawealthy and corporate interests — the people who can write $2,800 checks on a whim, or commit to raising $100,000 for Biden by the end of the year — who are afraid that their own personal financial gravy train will come to an end courtesy of Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s proposed wealth tax or Sen. Bernie Sanders’s proposal to offer all high school graduates free tuition at public colleges. These are the interests who would like to discuss cures for cancer, while playing down the fact that more than 4 in 10 people with the disease will run through all their money within two years of discovering their illness.
Sanders introduced legislation this year that would buttress the Social Security system by eliminating the payroll tax cap on all income in excess of $250,000, including now exempt dividends and capital gains. On the other hand, as recently as last year Biden suggested that he would be open to means-testing Social Security. That’s not a popular position with ordinary voters, but it does enjoy outsize support among the type of wealthy people who describe themselves as fiscally conservative and socially liberal, the same sort who are less likely to support implementing laws and regulations that would make it easier for unions to get a foothold in the workplace.
Candidates routinely let their guard down with donors in ways they don’t in more public settings. No surprise, more than a few campaign gaffes have emanated from these meetings. Hillary Clinton’s “basket of deplorables” comment came at a fundraising event, as did Mitt Romney’s dismissal of “47 percent” of voters.
Few of us — Trump excepted — are so cynical that we will say or promise anything in pursuit of a goal. There’s lots of evidence to suggest that Biden really does think he brings unique skills at bipartisanship to the presidential table. He did make deals with the Republicans aplenty in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s. But they were deals like the Hyde Amendment and bankruptcy “reform” that made life harder for people in financial trouble or struggling with student debt, though not for the wealthiest. If members of the Democratic donor class are putting their faith in Biden, it’s hard to blame them. The real question is whether voters will continue to support Biden as it becomes clearer and clearer that his promise of bipartisanship is simply another, more politically palatable way of saying that the rich will continue to come first.