Most conservatives share the same opinion of Joe Biden’s agenda: It’s extreme. On the other hand, Biden looks to be all things to all liberals.
Anne Applebaum of the Atlantic wrote on Friday, “The Democrats’ choice of Joe Biden as their candidate seems to me solid proof that the party’s most active supporters—the people who vote in its primaries—wanted a moderate leader. Nothing in Biden’s decades-long record as a public servant indicates that he is a communist, a radical, or anything other than a small-l liberal.”
Vox’s Ezra Klein wrote in Dec. 2019, in the middle of the Democratic presidential primary, that “All the lead contenders are running on the most progressive agendas to ever dominate a Democratic primary,” saying that if Biden were to win, “[he] will be running on the most progressive platform of any Democratic nominee in history.” In September, the publication used the same superlative to describe Democrats’ police reform agenda.
The Washington Post’s Dana Milbank wrote of Biden in a recent column, “Compared with some of his rivals in the Democratic presidential primary, he is moderate — a practical politician, not an ideologue, eschewing left-wing favorites such as the Green New Deal, Medicare-for-all and defunding the police.” (Don’t forget that he picked one of his comparatively “less-moderate” primary rivals as his running mate). Milbank follows up, “But this obscures the dramatic ways in which the country has shifted since 2016, and the ways in which the Democratic Party, and Biden as the leader of it, have shifted with it. It is no exaggeration to say, as former president Barack Obama did, that Biden’s is ‘the most progressive platform of any major-party nominee in history.’”
That’s not the only thing Obama has said. “The caution I always have for progressives is making sure that, as you push for the most you could get, that at a certain point, you say, ‘All right. You know what? Let’s get this done, and then, let’s move on to fight another day,” he recently said on the podcast Pod Save America.
How is it that some liberals view Biden as a moderate, and others see him as the most progressive Democratic presidential candidate ever? In Milbank’s head, Biden is somehow both. The question actually reveals a problem, one that could really bloom if Biden becomes president. Obama wouldn’t have said what he said on that podcast if he didn’t think the same.
The dilemma for Biden is attracting moderates — he has an election to win — and appeasing “progressives” — again, he has an election to win. Bernie Sanders and all those in Congress who have tethered themselves to ideas like his have amassed an extraordinary amount of influence in the Democratic coalition, especially among young people. Those people are wary of Biden because he isn’t Sanders. He doesn’t support “Medicare for all,” and he hasn’t adopted the Green New Deal (though his platform calls it a “crucial framework,” and Sen. Kamala Harris co-sponsored the bill in the Senate). Both of those things are “progressive” calling cards.
Biden has also repeatedly rebuked the “socialist” label, presented by his opponents as a smear, while Sanders supporters wear it as a badge of honor. He says he wants to (gasp!) work with Republicans. That would make him a relative moderate.
The ambiguity that might explain why Biden is so progressive to other liberal commentators is that he does seek to take the Left’s cause further than his predecessors have — further than even he ever has. Biden used to oppose taxpayer-funded abortion, and now he supports it. He initially suggested that packing the Supreme Court was a dangerous escalation and a “bonehead” idea. Now, he wants a special commission to look into it. His climate change plan is quite ambitious. He is on record opposing fracking, and so is Harris. Now, he doesn’t oppose it, so perhaps this point belongs in the “moderate” column.
Biden is not a moderate. He is far from being like Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin or Rep. Dan Lipinski, often thorns in the party’s side. Biden is perhaps moderately less radical than his party’s leftmost coalition — but that does not make him a moderate.
If Biden wins, the need to court voters will fall away for a time, but he will have a tough road ahead to appease progressives. Appeasing moderates will not be the same challenge — they are much less vocal, much less organized, much less angry and forceful about their moderateness than are “progressives” about their progressiveness. Perhaps they can’t see it, but as Biden stands now, he is hardly in the middle of the road.
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