Biden’s Balancing Act Is Getting Much Tougher

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In poker, it’s known as a “tell.” It’s an inadvertent signal — perhaps rapid blinking or a raised eyebrow — that tells other players you have a good hand or bad one. Last week, when Joe Biden rolled out his new policy positions, he virtually shouted one out in the high-stakes game of presidential campaigning.

Biden’s first tell came on the issue of abortion; a second, lesser one came on environmental policy. Predictably, he moved to the left on both. That tells us something about Biden, the primary process, and the 21st century Democratic Party.

First, it says that Biden expects hard slogging to win the nomination. Publicly, the former vice president is positioning himself as the inevitable nominee, the obvious successor to Barack Obama. The key words are “obvious” and “inevitable.” The national polls, like those in Iowa, where he campaigned Tuesday, paint a different picture. They show Biden ahead, but hardly inevitable. About one-quarter of Iowa Democrats currently favor Biden, compared to roughly 15% each for three more progressive candidates: Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and Pete Buttigieg. That’s a strong lead, but the Iowa battle is just getting started, and it’s still wide open. The same is true in New Hampshire, the site of the first real primary.

To win in either place, Biden must stay abreast of the party’s leftward lurch. That’s what his “tell” is all about. But it’s a slow, awkward dance, weighed down by his years of moderate (and quite sensible) policy positions — all on video, all recorded in his Senate votes. His new policies won’t win over the party’s most ardent feminist and environmentalist factions, but he does hope to blunt their opposition and prevent them from coalescing around an alternative candidate.

Biden’s new positions are designed solely for primary voters; they would hurt him in the general election. Of course, his chief opponents face the same problem. Their common predicament tells us two things. First, the Democrats’ activist base is increasingly divorced from the more temperate voters who decide close presidential elections. Second, the party base demands ideological conformity on a wide range of issues, even if it weakens their chances in the general election. They may chant that defeating Trump is their top priority, but their insistence on progressive policies that are unpopular with the wider electorate says something else. How much ideological purity the base demands is the key to Biden’s hopes. His strongest argument, after all, is that his center-left positions give Democrats the best chance of retaking the White House.

Will Biden have to jettison that stance to survive the primaries? His abrupt about-face on abortion suggests he might. For decades, Biden had supported the “Hyde Amendment,” a 1976 law prohibiting federal payments for the procedure except for cases of rape, incest, and peril to the life of the mother. Important details of the law have changed over the years, but one thing remained constant: Joe Biden’s support. He framed that support in very personal terms, speaking of his Catholic faith.

Biden’s position was always a moderate one — a compromise, not a hard line. He personally opposed abortion, he said, but believed women should be able to make their own choices. What he opposed was taxpayer funding. That stance matched the Hyde Amendment. It also meant he was increasingly isolated among Democratic politicians and presidential hopefuls.

Last week, Biden fell in line with the others. He was unwilling to defend his old position through the gauntlet of Democratic primaries, where advocates for the poor and women’s reproductive choice are such major players. They say the Hyde Amendment discriminates against anyone without private health insurance, which includes many African Americans and Latinas. That view dovetails with their positions on income inequality and comprehensive, federally subsidized health insurance.

Biden’s shift means that he is far from confident he can win the primaries without moving left on key issues.

The trade-off between the primaries and general election is obvious. Biden’s shiny new positions are bound to alienate 2020 swing voters in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Michigan, whom Democrats need to win the White House. They won’t like the $1.7 trillion price tag on Biden’s new environmental proposals or his vow to eliminate fossil fuels by mid-century. They won’t like his proposed high-speed, cross-country rail system, especial after California’s costly failure to build one from Los Angeles to San Francisco. Live and don’t learn. These policies may be moderate by current Democratic standards, but most voters consider them a Bad Green Deal.

The central issue here is not Biden’s flip-flopping on abortion. That’s commonplace for politicians. And political parties change with the times. A successful pol knows when to go along with it or when to try and put the brakes on. When he ran for president the first time, Bill Clinton called out a rapper named Sister Souljah for lyrics such as “If black people kill black people every day, why not have a week and kill white people?” Back in 1992, Clinton could confront this kind of hypocrisy and still win over both activist Democrats and independents.

Today’s Democrats refuse to condemn Rep. Ilhan Omar after she makes openly anti-Semitic remarks. They refuse even to single out anti-Semitism. When activists demanded politicians repeat the phrase “Black lives matter,” and denounced the seemingly innocuous sentiment that “All lives matter,” few Democrats dared buck them. Those who did so were subsequently forced to grovel. The same is true on economic issues, where few are willing to condemn socialism and endorse capitalism. When former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper tried, delegates at the California Democratic Convention booed him. He would have done better to endorse Chick-fil-A.

Biden sees that change and its peril for his candidacy. His old, center-left positions, from abortion to crime to judicial nominees, might appeal to swing voters. But for party activists, they form a giant “kick me” sign on his back.

The same issues and the same trade-offs between party activists and swing voters arise for Republicans. Their hot-button issues are the same as those for Democrats: gun control, immigration, abortion, tax cuts, public-sector unions, and school choice. So, too, are the demands for ideological purity, despite the costs in November. The latest example are laws passed by several Republican state legislatures to prohibit abortion after a fetal heartbeat has been detected.

This growing list of litmus-test issues says something profound about contemporary American politics. It signals an ideological chasm at its heart, a deepening divide between party activists and average voters. That divide goes beyond Joe Biden, beyond the voting booth. It has become a major driver of political and social discord, compounded by social media as well as an aggressively partisan mainstream media.

Biden’s “tell” signals that this tug of war between party activists and general election voters will be central to the 2020 race. His shifting positions also says who’s winning. It’s not the average voter.

Charles Lipson is the Peter B. Ritzma Professor of Political Science Emeritus at the University of Chicago, where he founded the Program on International Politics, Economics, and Security. He can be reached at [email protected].

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