Sep 4, 2020 - Politics & Policy

Biden’s centrist mirage

 Illustration of Joseph Biden as a mirage in a desert
Photo illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios. Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images

Joe Biden spent a career cultivating the image of a deal-making centrist — and is making this a key selling point for swing voters in 2020. But the modern Biden has been pushed left by his party's insurgent progressives.

Why it matters: Biden has moved to the left to accommodate party activists on crime, climate, education, immigration and health care. His central challenge with many swing voters: Prove he didn't move too far, too fast. 

Between the lines: Biden wants many suburban voters to associate him with his persona as a white, firehouse Democrat — over a more woke 2020 Democratic primary candidate who navigated through his rivals to win his party’s nomination.

  • Biden has to confront the nation's new dynamics by addressing police violence head on. At the same time, he subtly courted western Pennsylvania by saying his call in March for “no new fracking” only applied to public lands.

What's happening: Biden’s moves to the left drew relatively little notice in the big primary field. This fall, Biden will try to use that to his advantage, hoping swing voters forget how he got here.

  • “Do I look like a radical socialist with a soft spot for rioters?” Biden asked in Pittsburgh this week.
  • Matt Bennett, a founder of Third Way, the centrist Democratic think tank, said Biden "has shown the ability to move in the direction that the party is heading without lurching."

Flashback: Biden's platforms and record shows how he has changed.

Crime: Leading up to his signature 1994 Crime Bill, Biden called criminals violent thugs and talked of “predators on our streets.”

  • This June he repudiated some of his 90s impulses: “We shouldn’t be building any more prisons.”
  • Biden's shift reflects a fundamental change in the Democratic party, away from incarceration and towards rehabilitation — a move that has only accelerated in the last two months with move evidence of racial disparities in policing.

Climate: As Barack Obama's vice president, Biden touted the economic and environmental benefits of natural gas. 

  • Today, that's more controversial in the Democratic Party, and Biden's praise for natural gas is almost non-existent, according to Axios' Amy Harder.
  • The Biden campaign has a goal of net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, far more aggressive than Obama and Biden's 2016 plan to cut carbon emissions 80% by 2050.

Immigration: As vice president, Biden supported Obama’s effort to deport 3 million undocumented migrants. In February, he called that support a “big mistake.”

  • “I saw the pain in the eyes of so many people who saw their families being deported," Biden to confessed to Univision's Jorge Ramos.
  • But Biden hasn't gone as far as many in his party and does not support decriminalizing border crossings.

Health care: VP Biden triumphantly called the passage of the Affordable Care Act a “Big f—cking deal,” on a hot mic.

  • Now he wants to add a public option that would allow many Americans to buy into a Medicare-like program — an idea that was too far to the left to pass the Senate in 2009, when the Democrats held 60 seats.
  • He also wants to lower the Medicare eligibility age to 60 — a move to appeal to Bernie Sanders supporters who wanted Medicare for All.

Education: On supporting free college tuition, Biden has heralded his policy changes as proof positive that he’s evolved with his party.

  • “One of the things I’ve changed my mind on,” he said in April. “I’ve proposed to forgive debt for low-income and middle class individuals for community college.”

The bottom line: Voters are choosing between a composite of Biden that spans 48 years — or the undiluted Trump of the past four.

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