With Democrats in a mad dash to the progressive left (see Bernie Sanders wanting to cancel all student debt and Elizabeth Warren pushing reparations for same-sex couples), the question of the moment is this: Can Joe Biden survive the debates without being dragged in their direction?
The challenge is unique to the former vice president. This political all-star version of “Survivor” may have Biden fighting to kick 20-plus Democrats off the island. Meanwhile, Donald Trump will sit back on Mount Apprentice and gloat over having no real conservative opposition.
In an attempt to dethrone the presumed Democratic nominee, and in search of a breakout moment, Biden’s competitors—starting with Bernie Sanders, who needs to score at least one direct hit on Biden—are sure to relitigate his past stances and statements that were more appropriate in the ‘90s (the 1890s, in some cases). The incentives are tantalizing. But the unknown is this: How will Biden react when they attack him while the cameras are rolling this week?
Does Joe want to abolish ICE? Does he think what is happening on the southern border, as horrific as it is, constitutes a “concentration camp”? And how does he feel about socialism?
Joe can try to run out the clock, apologize, or change the subject. Or he can punch them in the nose. After all, that’s how you defend yourself against a feeding frenzy when there’s blood in the water.
By caving on his decades-long support for the Hyde Amendment, Biden has demonstrated that—on one issue, at least—he can be bullied (by the base, by his staff, and by his opponents). His decision to cave almost guarantees additional derision and provocation.
Biden still hasn’t apologized for romanticizing an era of senatorial civility that involved working with segregationists (segregation, apparently, being more acceptable than opposition to mandatory taxpayer funding of abortion). But even if he doesn’t completely retreat from his stupid nostalgia, the countdown clock for the next Biden gaffe is already running short.
The potential for things (new or old) to trickle out, and for Biden to waffle when they do, is, perhaps, the only thing keeping this juggernaut candidacy from complete domination.
Indeed, Biden has yet to close the deal. The greatest danger he faces isn’t being perceived as too progressive, but that, by virtue of being forced to change positions, he would cede his greatest attribute: authenticity.
To be fair, the rules have changed since Biden first entered politics. Ever since Richard Nixon, conventional wisdom suggests you run to the base to win the primary, and then back to the center to win the general election. But modern Americans are now on to it. People can see through the political bullshit. The jig is up.
And so, my advice to Joe would be this: This tacking to the left is fool's gold. It may feel good. It may get you applause in a debate, but it makes you more vulnerable to Trump in the general election.
Moreover, it's not all that clear that voters even want this. Voters don't care as much about policy as they do authenticity. They are willing to forgive past missteps in your record, as long as you don’t act like a phony about it. You don't have to sell out to win their hearts and their votes.
What I’m saying is that the smarter move for Joe Biden is not to pander not to “woke” Twitter, but instead to the silent majority of rank-and-file Democratic voters who are more moderate and pragmatic than the loudest voices on cable news and social media.
The problem is that, unlike, say, the Iowa caucuses (where success is clearly defined by turning out the most caucus-goers), the progressive wing of the Democratic Party has an outsized influence on how the debates are perceived.
There will be immense pressure put on Joe Biden (by blue checkmarks, activists, agitators, his fellow candidates, and maybe even his own staffers) to lurch leftward. Doing so will hinder his chances of winning the presidency and tarnish his brand (a mainstream Democrat who is, at least, authentic).
A small dose of introspection and evolution is tolerable and possibly even salutary. For example, Biden may have to concede that his support of the 1994 crime bill, though well-intentioned, also delivered some negative, if unintended, consequences. But there may come a tipping point where the new Joe Biden, in order to live to fight another day, will have abandoned all the arguments and attributes that might have made him a refreshing alternative to Donald J. Trump.
Does Joe Biden have to lose the general election to win the primary? Stay tuned.