President Biden and his closest allies are largely ignoring Cornel West, the third-party progressive challenger, even as some Democrats warn about his possible effect on the 2024 race.
West is running against Biden as a Green Party candidate, criticizing him for failing to deliver on a sweeping leftist agenda. His candidacy comes amid signs in polls that Biden is losing steam among must-win demographics like independents and nonwhite voters.
For many fearful Democrats, West’s bid carries uncomfortable echoes of Jill Stein’s 2016 third-party campaign, which drew blame after Donald Trump defeated Hillary Clinton. Some worry Biden is being too cautious about not addressing the real threat West could pose next year should he go up against former President Trump in the fall.
“They ignore him at their own peril,” said Nina Turner, a West ally who worked with him on Sen. Bernie Sanders’s (I-Vt.) 2020 presidential campaign. “He is running, and that should be acknowledged and respected even if they don’t like it.”
West, a renowned scholar on race and class, so far maintains he is unconcerned that the president has yet to address his campaign in a way that signals serious intimidation.
“They do what they do!” he told The Hill on Tuesday in a text message when asked if he believes the White House should be paying more attention to his moves. “And we do what we have to do to serve poor and working people … !”
The longtime justice activist has been fairly low-key on the campaign trail until recently. His most notable showing of one-upmanship came last week, when Biden and the White House were grappling with how to handle thousands of United Auto Workers striking, weighing the pros and cons of standing by workers to appeasing corporate interests.
West said he planned to stand alongside strikers on the picket lines in a not-so-subtle contrast with his opponent. His unbothered text about Biden’s allies dismissing his bid came as he joined striking workers in Tappan, N.Y., where he became the first presidential candidate to join the picket line. Shortly afterward, he announced plans to visit the Wayne Stamping and Assembly Plant in Wayne, Mich.
Biden’s decision to join the picket line came days later and only after Trump, the potential Republican 2024 nominee, announced he would do the same.
“They should acknowledge the fact that Dr. West is running and that he has been a consistent force for justice his entire career,” said Turner, who like West has urged Biden to govern in a more progressive fashion.
The unsettling sentiment that Biden is apathetic to voters’ concerns has become clearer as recent polling looks even bleaker for the president. Black and other nonwhite voters have signaled a lack of enthusiasm for him just more than a year out from Election Day.
A survey by Morning Consult taken among registered voters this month shows the Democratic Party is nose-diving in how much voters believe it’s invested in people. Voters ranked the party just 2 points higher than Republicans when asked how much it “cares about people like me,” slipping from a previous 13-point lead.
“Imagine the level of arrogance it takes to ignore this Black man and at the same time expect the Black community in particular to do the same,” Turner said about Biden’s response to her fellow progressive activist.
West, she countered, “uniquely captures and communicates the pain that ‘everyday people’ are feeling. He unabashedly calls out this injustice and is very clear about his intentions to force the arch to bend towards justice.”
Another prominent political outsider added his voice to the debate this week: Ralph Nader.
Nader, the former 2000s-era Green Party presidential contender who built a reputation by critiquing the two-party system, offered his support for Biden, seeing him as the only person with a real shot of beating Trump. And that includes West, who he praised.
“We are stuck with Biden now,” Nader told The Washington Post. “In a two-party duopoly, if one should be defeated ferociously, the logic is that the other one prevails.”
Nader, like scores of other prominent political figures from across the ideological spectrum, is terrified of Trump gaining enough traction to win for the second time.
“I know the difference between fascism and autocracy, and I’ll take autocracy any time,” Nader said, according to the outlet. “Fascism is what the GOP is the architecture of, and autocracy is what the Democrats are practitioners of. But autocracy leaves an opening. They don’t suppress votes. They don’t suppress free speech.”
Nader and even Democratic strategists believe West, just like any other hypothetical third-party candidate, could impact Biden’s chances in states where just a handful of uncertain voters could shake things up.
“Cornel West has the most complete progressive agenda. It almost doesn’t have any progressive aberrations,” Nader told the Post. “The problem is that the Greens are not that organized. It is hardly a secret. And you can’t run a presidential campaign if you don’t have local candidates and some kind of organization ’round the country.”
Still, some argue Biden shouldn’t drastically change own playbook. After all, Democrats are quick to note Biden won against a progressive challenger in the 2020 primary and later defeated Trump in the general, albeit by a fairly close margin. The down-ballot gains in the midterms two years later have further added to the party’s optimism, even as polling shows voter discontentment with Biden at the top of the ticket.
The smarter move, say voices who believe Biden should stay away from direct attacks, is to emphasize their accomplishments rather than focus on candidates who are on the fringes over a year out from November.
“Even though it can be an issue, there is nothing really to be gained and probably more to lose if the White House or campaign are spending time and effort bashing him because it isn’t going to impact his behavior,” said one Democratic operative and campaign veteran.
“The best thing to do, which is what they are doing, is to make the positive case now for Biden’s reelection and closer to the election when it’s a clear choice between Biden and Trump,” the strategist said. “Let Super PACs and independent expenditure groups handle any [attacks and] don’t let Trump win messaging to third-party supporters.”
Democrats acknowledge, however, there’s reason for Biden allies to be concerned — and it’s not just because of West. Rep. Dean Phillips (D-Minn.), a moderate who is largely unknown and untested on the national stage, said he’s still considering running against Biden, telling conservative commentator Steve Schmidt he’s “concerned that there is no alternative.”
And a yet-to-be-determined No Labels candidate is also consuming time among strategists who would rather focus their efforts on getting Biden reelected against a likely Trump general election rivalry.
While West is ramping up his efforts, increasing his video, social and alternative media footprint and even hiring Peter Daou, a prominent progressive strategist, to run his campaign, others in the party believe both campaigns can exist in tandem, with Biden as the front-runner having little to no role in West’s bid.
“Democrats are smart to give Cornel West zero oxygen,” said another Democratic strategist who worked on a presidential campaign last cycle. “Anyone seriously considering voting for Cornel West never intended to vote for Joe Biden in the first place.”
“That’s okay, in Joe Biden’s America we live in a democracy,” the strategist said. “Cornel West is a nice guy but does he think that his campaign is bigger than our democracy?”