SAN FRANCISCO ― No fewer than 14 Democratic presidential candidates were slated to speak at the California Democratic Party’s convention over the weekend. Eight of them did double duty at MoveOn.org’s Big Ideas forum a few blocks away.
And a fifteenth contender, spiritual guru Marianne Williamson, attended the convention without a speaking slot.
The preponderance of candidates made former Vice President Joe Biden’s decision not to attend the West Coast gatherings all the more conspicuous.
Biden, who consistently leads the crowded primary field in the polls, chose instead to speak at a Human Rights Campaign dinner in Columbus, Ohio, on Saturday kicking off LGBTQ Pride Month.
Biden campaign spokesman Jamal Brown said in a statement that Biden would travel to the Golden State in the near future “to meet with voters, learn firsthand about their concerns, and ultimately, compete strongly in the state.”
In Biden’s absence, however, some candidates took subtle jabs at his consensus-seeking agenda, illustrating the hazards of a presidential campaign that has emphasized appeal to moderate swing voters and limited its candidate’s public appearances.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Rep. Eric Swalwell of California took the toughest shots at Biden in their remarks at the Democratic convention, even as none identified Biden by name.
“Some Democrats in Washington believe the only changes we can get are tweaks and nudges. If they dream at all, they dream small,” Warren told a crowd of thousands in the convention hall. “Some say if we all just calm down, the Republicans will come to their senses. But our country is in a time of crisis. The time for small ideas is over.”
We don’t need a crime bill ― we need a hope bill. Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.)
Later in her remarks, Warren went further, scorning Democrats who warn against the implausibility of bold policy proposals.
“Here’s the thing ― when a candidate tells you about all the things that aren’t possible, about how political calculations come first, about how you should settle for little bits and pieces instead of real change, they’re telling you something very important: They are telling you that they will not fight for you,” she argued, drawing cheers from the crowd. “Not me. I’m here to fight.”
Buttigieg used his time to turn the conventional wisdom that Biden would be the most electable against Trump on its head, arguing that restoring the pre-Trump status quo, as Biden suggests, would not be enough to prevail.
“The riskiest thing we can do is try too hard to play it safe,” Buttigieg said. “There’s no going back to normal right now.”
And while Buttigieg’s shot at Washington politicians could have applied to any number of members of Congress seeking to occupy the White House, Biden is by far the most experienced of the bunch.
“[Trump] wins if we look like more of the same. He wins if we look more like Washington,” Buttigieg said.
Even Swalwell, a little-known congressman who has failed to break through in the polls, took a veiled blast at Biden.
Speaking about the need to curb gun violence in underprivileged communities, Swalwell declared, “We don’t need a crime bill ― we need a hope bill.”
Biden was a principal author of the 1994 crime bill that experts believe contributed to a massive uptick in incarceration in the U.S., particularly among African Americans and Latinos.
Since entering the presidential race in April, Biden has defended the legislation, noting that states were responsible for mandatory minimum sentencing rules that filled prisons with non-violent drug offenders for longer periods of time.
But the legislation did tighten punishments for federal offenders and encouraged states to lock people up for longer by making federal funding contingent on long sentences.
In an interview with HuffPost over Memorial Day weekend, Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), who helped shepherd a bipartisan criminal justice reform bill through Congress in December, rejected Biden’s defense of the 1994 law.
“That crime bill was shameful, what it did to black and brown communities like mine [and] low-income communities from Appalachia to rural Iowa,” he said. “It was a bad bill.”
The California Democratic convention and MoveOn candidate forum presented Biden with a difficult dilemma.
He was almost certain to receive a cooler reception than many other candidates in the overwhelmingly liberal arenas.
While the California Democratic Party remains dominated by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and other nationally prominent Democrats, the relative ease with which rank-and-file voters can become convention delegates has increased the clout of left-leaning activists within the party.
Last year, the state party shocked observers by endorsing Kevin de León’s progressive Senate run against incumbent Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.). (Feinstein went on to defeat de León decisively in the general election in November.)
What’s more, Biden was not alone in skipping at least one of the weekend’s events. Buttigieg was invited to the MoveOn forum and declined for scheduling reasons, according to MoveOn organizers. And entrepreneur Andrew Yang, a candidate whose embrace of the universal basic income has earned him a cult following, did not make it to the state convention.
But Biden’s strategy of steering clear of environments where he is likely to be less welcome carries risks for his candidacy.
His long legislative record ― from support for international trade agreements and the Iraq War to sponsorship of tough-on-crime policies ― inspires contempt from diehard progressives. Those liberal activists could play an outsize role in California’s Democratic primary, which allows the participation of independent voters. And the primary is due to take place on Super Tuesday, March 3, granting California greater significance than in the 2016 cycle when it was held in June.
I think he missed a good opportunity. Christine Pelosi
Several Democrats at both of Saturday’s events expressed disappointment that Biden chose not to attend.
“I guess I understand strategically why maybe he wouldn’t even show up to this. But I would have liked to have seen him,” said Giles Giovinazzi, a California state employee attending the state convention. He said he is undecided about who to vote for in the primary.
“I wish [Biden] were here today,” said Gerald Grudzen, a philosophy professor who drove up from San José to attend the MoveOn forum. “He can’t get by just by saying he was the vice president” in President Barack Obama’s administration.
Christine Pelosi, the chair of the California Democratic Party’s women’s caucus and a daughter of the House speaker, gave Biden the benefit of the doubt, noting that he would visit the state soon.
But, she added, “I think he missed a good opportunity.”
Other, more left-leaning attendees said they did not need to hear more from Biden to know that they were not backing him.
“He is the last person I would vote for in the Democratic primary,” said Amber Akemi Piatt, an Oakland resident who works for a public health nonprofit and attended the MoveOn forum.
Lara Kiswani, a nonprofit executive, shared Akemi Piatt’s disdain. They both said they would feel conflicted about voting for him even in the general election.
Biden “can’t take for granted” that the left would rally behind him if he were the Democratic nominee, Kiswani said.