The Memo: Biden faces balancing act
Joe Biden is under pressure from two sides, even as he holds a significant lead over President Trump in opinion polls.
On one hand, the Trump campaign is seeking to portray Biden as beholden to the most left-wing elements in the Democratic Party — a gambit that it clearly sees as having the potential to restore the president’s damaged standing with suburban voters.
On the other, Biden needs to give progressive voters enough reason to actually vote for him, just in case antipathy toward Trump is not enough. Democrats are haunted by the memory of Hillary Clinton’s loss four years ago, regardless of how favorable the polls look for Biden now.
In the RealClearPolitics national polling average Tuesday evening, Biden led Trump by more than 7 percentage points.
The issue of Biden’s ideological positioning has been given new salience as the Trump team retools its strategy following the replacement of Brad Parscale by Bill Stepien as the president’s campaign manager.
The Trump camp took the unusual step of pausing its advertising before returning to the airwaves on Monday with two commercials suggesting Biden is an unsafe bet for middle-of-the-road voters.
It is a strategy that faces several challenges.
Biden is a very familiar figure to the American public, having served two terms as President Obama’s vice president following more than 30 years in the Senate. He ran and secured enough delegates for the Democratic presidential nomination as the standard-bearer for the center-left, vanquishing more militant alternatives such as Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.).
Still, the Trump campaign is making a determined effort to suggest that, if elected, Biden would stray from the moderate positions that have defined most of his career.
One of the new Trump ads opens with a collage image of Biden, Sanders and two of the leading congressional voices of the left, Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.). Biden, the ad’s narrator says, has “embraced the policies of the radical left.”
In the other ad, a woman wordlessly holds up pieces of cards expressing her unease with the prospect of a Biden presidency. “I’m afraid to say this out loud…” is the message on one of the cards.
The attempt to suggest that Biden is some kind of closet radical seems in some ways incongruous with the president’s repeated insistence that he is “sleepy” and lacks mental acuity.
But Republicans argue the strategy is less about portraying Biden himself as a radical and more about suggesting he can be pushed around by an ascendant left within his party.
“From the focus groups that I’ve seen, there is real concern among Midwestern swing voters that Biden could be an empty vessel for left-wing, liberal policies,” asserted GOP strategist Ron Bonjean. “They are not sure who is actually going to be in control if he were to be in the Oval Office.”
Biden has substantive grounds to rebut these attacks. On immigration, for example, the Trump team alleges he will offer an “amnesty” to all undocumented people. This seems to be a reference to Biden’s pledge of a 100-day moratorium on deportations if elected — a policy that does not equate with what is commonly understood as amnesty.
Still, Biden has made a concerted effort to keep the left on board as well.
In 2016, tensions between Clinton and the left festered for months after the nomination fight was over and marred the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia.
Biden’s most high-profile effort to avoid such a rift was a policy task force comprising his allies and people nominated by Sanders.
A group dealing with environmental issues was headed by former Secretary of State John Kerry, the Democratic 2004 presidential nominee, and Ocasio-Cortez, one of the leading advocates of the Green New Deal, for example.
The results were proposals that nudged Biden a step or two toward the left without, in general, fully endorsing the positions favored by Sanders and his allies.
On health care, the group proposed lowering the age at which people would become eligible for Medicare and provided more detail on how a government-run “public option” would be made available — but it did not endorse “Medicare for All.”
On the environment, the task force offered a more detailed path to net-zero emissions by 2050 — but did not adopt the ban on fracking that many on the left favor.
The left has stayed solidly on board with Biden so far. Meanwhile, others in the party believe that Biden is correct not to shift too far to mollify progressives.
“If the Sanders-type voters believe there is enough of them to win a presidential election, they do not know election math,” complained one Democratic strategist who asked for anonymity to speak candidly.
“This is not a far-left country. There is not a single poll that suggests that we are,” the strategist added. “We may have become more progressive, but there is a difference between that and the notion that somehow we’re Sweden. We’re not.”
Among Democrats, there is widespread belief that a fierce policy fight could come after the election, if Biden wins. Sanders has predicted that his primary rival could become “the most progressive president since FDR.” But it’s not clear that is the role Biden sees for himself.
For now, however, Trump is the glue that holds the Democratic coalition together more firmly than anything else.
Moe Vela, who was a senior adviser in Biden’s office during his vice presidency, described himself as a “moderate, centrist Democrat” but added that he was not worried about leftist discontent becoming a problem.
The left “understands what is at stake” in November, Vela said. “To not support Joe Biden would be to defeat any hope for their agenda. They have made it clear they understand the gravity of this election.”
The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency.
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