The Biden Inversion

Joe Biden speaks at an event at the Mississippi Valley Fairgrounds in Davenport, Iowa, June 11, 2019. (Jordan Gale/Reuters)
The Democrats’ presumptive presidential nominee ran as a centrist in the primary. Now he’s taking a turn to the left before the general election.

NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE F or the longest time, presidential campaigns followed a pattern: In the primary, the candidate ran to the wings in order to court the party faithful and then, having secured the nomination, ran to the center in order to appeal to as wide a swath of the general electorate as possible. The value of broad coalition-building was understood: In 1984, Ronald Reagan was the candidate of William F. Buckley Jr. and the Teamsters — a winning combination that carried the Republican candidate to a 49-state landslide.

Joe Biden has inverted that model: a centrist in the primary who is taking a turn to the left before the general.

In the Democratic primary, Biden stuck to the center both in terms of his notional policy program (e.g., defending the ACA regime over universalizing Medicare) and in terms of his mood and affect. Perhaps that was the course of least resistance: It is easy to look like the sensible and sober fellow on the stage next to Senator Bernie Sanders. In any case, it was the winning course, assuming that nothing dramatic happens between today and Biden’s formal nomination.

Having locked up the nomination, Biden is leaning left.

Why?

There are basically two ways for Biden to beat Trump: One is to galvanize Democrats and increase turnout in key states, and the other is to poach Trump voters. And here is what you need to understand about 2020: Moving to the middle would not help Joe Biden with either of those projects.

The Trump voters who are up for grabs are not disaffected Republicans. Republicans are generally contented, because the substance of what Trump has delivered in office has been, for the most part, conventional Republican stuff: He signed into law a tax bill that President Ryan might have endorsed, nominated many of the same judges President Cruz would have put forward, followed a deregulatory agenda that might as easily have been the work of President Romney, etc. There is not much opportunity for Biden to go prospecting in that territory.

And Biden would have a hard time reaching disaffected Republicans by emphasizing the character issue, too: Setting aside the accusation that he violently sexually assaulted a Senate aide, Biden at the very least has cynically lied about his first wife and infant daughter being killed by a drunk driver, is a habitual plagiarist, is enough of a cheap demagogue to tell a largely black audience that a Romney government would seek to “put y’all back in chains,” and much more. Biden is no more rhetorically responsible than Trump is; he is simply incontinent in a way that is less transgressive to Washington’s sense of propriety. That’s a slender reed. In fact, most Republicans are going to see their 2020 decision as, at worst, choosing between a morally compromised jackass who is going to be with them 80 percent of the time and a morally compromised jackass who is going to be against them 80 percent of the time. The Democrats are doing their very best to make the case that it is morally illegitimate for those voters to pursue what they understand to be their own political interests through the ordinary means of voting for the candidate they believe most likely to advance their goals, but that is not going to play.

Where Trump is vulnerable is not among conservatives but among welfare chauvinists, i.e., people who tend to share the Democratic Party’s preference for a more expansive welfare state but reject the Left’s dotty cultural agenda — they rejoice about bigger Social Security checks and job guarantees, not transgender Barbie dolls. A survey conducted by the Center for American Progress (apply your own ideological discount) suggested that about 9 percent of those who voted for Trump in 2016 are planning to vote for Biden in 2020. Those Trump-to-Biden voters are the opposite of the “fiscally conservative, socially liberal” unicorns the libertarians are forever hunting. “They sound a lot like the Obama-to-Trump voters,” Ramesh Ponnuru writes, “and some of them are surely the same people.”

Study authors John Halpin and Ruy Teixeira write:

Nearly 6 in 10 Trump-Biden voters support steps to ensure students can graduate from college debt-free or to enact a jobs guarantee, respectively. More than 7 in 10 voters back expansive steps to combat global warming through new clean energy investments. More than 70 percent support paid family leave, and about two-thirds support a $15 per hour minimum wage. On health care, they support a public option for government health insurance, at 70 percent; less than half support a Medicare-for-all proposal.

The Biden campaign has announced a series of “unity task forces” composed of activists nominated by the Biden team and by Senator Sanders, the socialist from Vermont from Brooklyn. The climate task force will be chaired by Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, another confessing socialist. Karl Rove, writing in the Wall Street Journal, argues that this is a mistake for Biden, that his campaign will be dragged to the left. But many of the “extreme” views that worry Rove — expanded health-care benefits, tuition-free college, student-debt forgiveness, etc. — are right there in the sweet spot for those Trump-to-Biden voters. Giving illegal aliens full access to welfare programs might not float those voters’ boat, and Trump surely will do his best to wrongfoot Biden on such issues, but many of those big-spending proposals are going to be much more useful to the Biden campaign than would any plausible outreach to voters with conservative views on welfare, entitlements, or higher education.

The incentives for Biden are mostly pushing him to the left. More broadly, the incentives on both sides currently privilege relative extremism over relative centrism, even if they do not do so to such an extent as to make it possible for Senator Sanders to have avoided another second-place finish. And the fact that we have layered Kulturkampf on top of practically every policy question and political disagreement from taxes to social distancing makes the headwinds pushing against any operational politics of bipartisanship or consensus that much more powerful.

Joe Biden has never had an original idea or voiced an interesting thought. If he ever had any independent principle or agency, that atrophied long ago — 50 years in national politics has hollowed out better men than he. Joe Biden will go where the wind blows him, currently in the general direction of Burlington.

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