Part of President Trump’s reelection strategy is labeling his Democratic foe Joe Biden as “radical,” “extreme” and “socialist.” But Trump is actually giving Biden a chance to demonstrate the kind of pragmatic centrism he hopes will win Independent voters and maybe even some Republicans, giving him the margin to defeat Trump.
At the first presidential debate on Sept. 29, Trump claimed Biden was aligned with Bernie Sanders and other leftist Democrats on issues such as health care, climate policy and taxes. “Joe, you agreed with Bernie Sanders on … socialized medicine,” Trump said early in the debate. Later, he said Biden’s tax plan would cause a “depression.” And he claimed Biden’s climate plan would cost $100 trillion, which is nearly five times the size of the entire U.S. economy.
In the Democratic primaries, Biden ran as a moderate opposed to huge government programs favored by the left, such as a Medicare for all and the Green New Deal. As the Democratic presidential nominee, however, Biden has tried to unify the party and make sure the most liberal Democrats support his candidacy instead of breaking off, like some of them did in 2016. Trump forced Biden to make a choice before a huge TV audience: stick with the Sanders wing or disavow him.
Biden stiff-armed Sanders and his fellow leftists, much as he did during the primaries. “I beat Bernie Sanders,” Biden said once, never mentioning his former competitor again. When Trump said Democrats favor socialized medicine, Biden declared, “I am the Democratic party.” And on climate policy, Biden said, “I don’t support the Green New Deal,” perhaps his most overt break with the Democratic left during the debate.
None of those Biden positions are new, but he’s now addressing a larger audience than he did during the primaries, and he needs to convince some of them he’s not a radical in moderate clothing. Biden made headway. “The Trump campaign had this ready-to-go campaign against Bernie Sanders and the radical left, but Joe Biden just doesn't fit that mold,” Ben Koltun of Beacon Policy Advisers says in the latest episode of the Yahoo Finance Electionomics podcast. “It just falls flat. It’s failing to tie Biden to the radical left.”
[Check out other episodes of the Electionomics podcast.]
Oh health care, for example, Biden favors a new public health care option for poor Americans who can’t get insurance any other way. But he rejects Medicare for all, the single-payer plan that would eliminate private insurance and make the government responsible for everything.
Biden has an aggressive climate plan, but it’s not laden with progressive wish-list items as the Green New Deal is. Biden, for instance, wants to reach carbon-neutral power generation by 2035, which is a very tough goal. But he doesn’t want to ban fossil fuels and his plan doesn’t include externalities that are in the Green New Deal, such as a guaranteed job and free health care for everybody.
Biden’s tax plan isn’t particularly crazy, either. He’d raise the top individual rate back to where it was before Trump cut it in 2017. And he’d raise the corporate tax rate from 21% to 28%, still lower than the 35% rate businesses paid until 2017. Sanders & Co. favor much higher taxes on businesses and higher earners, plus a wealth tax to collect more money from multimillionaires.
The risk for Biden is that distancing himself from policies favored by the left could depress his support among these voters, who may simply not feel Biden represents their views. That was a problem for Hillary Clinton in 2016, when about 12% of people who voted for Sanders in the primaries actually voted for Trump in the general election, helping him nail down a narrow victory.
Trump’s latest tactic is trying to drive a wedge between Biden and the Sanders leftists. “Nobody wants Sleepy Joe as a leader, including the Radical Left (which he lost last night!),” Trump tweeted the day after the debate. “He disrespected Bernie, effectively calling him a loser!” But this gambit probably won’t work. Sanders and his adherents have largely made peace with Biden, hoping first to vanquish Trump and then push Biden to the left once he takes office.
The day after the debate, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a close Sanders ally, tweeted “This isn’t news,” in response to one jibe about Biden not supporting the Green New Deal, which she drafted. “Our differences are exactly why I joined Biden’s Climate Unity Task Force – so we could set aside our differences & figure out an aggressive climate plan.” If Biden can reach out to moderates while keeping AOC on board, that’s a trick Trump should truly be worried about.
Rick Newman is the author of four books, including “Rebounders: How Winners Pivot from Setback to Success.” Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman. Confidential tip line: firstname.lastname@example.org. Encrypted communication available. Click here to get Rick’s stories by email.