Six weeks ago, when Sen. Bernie Sanders dropped out of the presidential race, it seemed like the Democratic Party’s left wing suffered a major and potentially long-lasting defeat. Not only had Sanders lost, but former Vice President Joe Biden had won while casting many left-wing ideas as both unrealistic and detrimental to Democrats’ chances of winning elections.
But if Biden is elected in November, the left may get a presidency it likes after all — or at least one it hates less than anticipated. The coronavirus outbreak and the resulting massive surge in unemployment has moved American political discourse to the left: Ideas that would have been considered too liberal for most Democrats a few months ago are now being proposed by Republicans. And if American politics is moving left, expect Biden to do the same. Biden was often cast as a centrist or a moderate during the Democratic primaries, but those labels don’t really describe his politics that well — he doesn’t really seem to have any kind of set ideology at all.
Instead, Biden’s long record in public office suggests that he is fairly flexible on policy — shifting his positions to whatever is in the mainstream of the Democratic Party at a given moment. So if Biden wins the presidency and his fellow Democrats are still clamoring for more government spending to help the pandemic recovery, Biden is likely to be a fairly liberal president, no matter how moderate he sounded in the primaries.1
Biden positions himself in the center of the Democratic Party
Biden is a centrist in a certain way — he has historically positioned himself in the center of the Democratic Party, between the party’s most liberal and most conservative members. (And he does that positioning generally on foreign policy, economics and social issues.) The center of the party is a moving target of course.
“The best way to understand Biden is as a reflection or reaction to the party’s main planks throughout the last 40 years, rather than leading or shaping it,” said Lily Geismer, a history professor at Claremont McKenna College who has written extensively about the Democratic Party and liberalism. “I don’t see Biden as embodying any of the ideological terms or positions of centrist or liberal, certainly not center-left and not really neoliberal either. Instead I see his ideology as first and foremost a Democrat. He has throughout his career toed the party line rather than an ideological one.”
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Serving in the Senate from 1973-2009, Biden was always more liberal than at least 44 percent of his Democratic colleagues but always less liberal than at least 43 percent of his colleagues, according to DW-Nominate scores of his Senate votes. Put another way, he ranged between the 44th and 57th percentile in terms of liberalism among Democratic senators in his Senate years — smack dab in the middle of the party.2
Liberal Democrats have been sharply critical of some of Biden’s votes in the Senate, mostly notably his support for the 1994 anti-crime bill that increased penalties for some offenses and the 2002 resolution to authorize war with Iraq. But on both issues, Biden was within the Democratic Party consensus at the time. Nearly all Senate Democrats (54 of 56) backed the crime bill, as did 188 of the 252 House Democrats who voted on the measure, which was signed into law by a Democratic president (Bill Clinton). A majority of House Democrats (126 of 207) opposed the Iraq War resolution, but the majority of Biden’s Senate Democratic colleagues were in favor of it (28 of 49).
Biden’s tenure as vice president also suggests that he would govern from the middle of the Democratic Party. There is not a clear record — akin to Senate roll call votes — of the positions Biden took in internal policy debates within the Obama administration. And the role of a vice president essentially requires him to publicly praise whatever decision the president ultimately makes. But Biden has described himself as an “Obama Democrat” and strongly defended the administration’s record. And while Obama himself and the Obama administration are somewhat hard to categorize ideologically, the former president and his team generally took approaches that did not satisfy the most liberal elements of the party but were fairly liberal.
When Biden did publicly separate himself from the Obama administration, it was to stake out a position that was within the Democratic mainstream. Take Biden’s announcement in 2012 that he supported same-sex marriages — though Obama had not yet come out publicly for legalizing same-sex unions, the majority of Democratic voters already held this position. And Biden also supported the Obama’s administration push for more lenient criminal justice policies, even as Sen. Biden had been a key figure in the Democrats’ tough on crime posture in the 1980s and 1990s.
That willingness to change with the times was also evident in Biden’s 2020 primary platform. Biden adopted fairly liberal policies — not as liberal as those of Sanders and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, but more liberal than his pre-campaign record suggested. The Democratic Party is more liberal now than it was when Bill Clinton took office, or even when Obama was inaugurated, and Biden’s platform reflects that shift. Some of Biden’s 2020 policy proposals are notably to the left of the Obama administration’s stances when it left office in early 2017, including Biden’s support for the abolition of the death penalty, halting nearly all deportations of undocumented immigrants in his first 100 days as president and free four-year college for Americans in households with incomes up to $125,000 a year.
The Democratic Party’s center is moving left
It’s hard to measure the precise center of American politics and how it has changed over the last few months. But it’s certainly moved left in response to the COVID-19 crisis — toward way more federal spending. Sen. Mitt Romney, a Republican, recently proposed using federal dollars to temporarily boost the pay of grocery store clerks and others in “essential” jobs by $12 per hour. Republicans in Congress supported a $2 trillion economic stimulus provision, which gave many Americans a one-time payment of $1,200 and boosted unemployment benefits by $600 per week. More moderate House Democrats, usually wary of being cast as too liberal, backed the $2 trillion bill and a subsequent $3 trillion economic stimulus bill .
Mirroring the shift in his party, Biden and his advisers are now reimagining his candidacy and presidency — rolling out more liberal policy plans, speaking in increasingly populist terms and joining forces with the most progressive voices in the party. Biden himself has invoked the idea that he might be entering the Oval Office facing a crisis on the scale of the Great Depression.
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He recently told Politico that he supported a stimulus that was “a hell of a lot bigger” than the $2 trillion provision passed in March and that he was annoyed with Wall Street firms because “this is the second time we’ve bailed their asses out.” The former vice president is also reportedly considering Warren as a potential running mate more seriously than before because of her experience on economic issues. Last week, he appointed some of the party’s most prominent liberal figures, including Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Congressional Progressive Caucus co-chair Rep. Pramila Jayapal, to a team advising him on policy.
“What I’ve heard the vice president say over and over again is this crisis is shining a bright, bright light on so many systemic problems in our country, and so many inequities. It is exacerbating and shining a light on environmental-justice issues, racial inequalities, so many other problems,” Stef Feldman, a top Biden policy adviser, recently told New York magazine.
“It seems clear that Biden gets the seriousness of the moment and the need to change directions in an American economy that was systemically unfair even before it was broken to pieces by a pandemic,” said Jeff Hauser of the left-leaning Center for Economic and Policy Research, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank whose proposals are generally more in line with Sanders and Warren than Biden.
But don’t expect Biden to move too far left
We should note three important caveats here. First, some of these shifts leftward from Biden are probably best explained by his need to woo Sanders’s supporters, rather than as a response to COVID-19. Sanders handily won “very liberal” voters and voters under the age of 45 during the Democratic primary — and Biden probably wants those two blocs to be enthusiastically behind him in the general election. It’s likely that Biden, for example, would have tried to appeal to Ocasio-Cortez in some way even if the coronavirus outbreak had never happened.
Secondly, it’s not clear how notable or long-lasting these shifts are. You could argue that Biden is calling for a bigger federal response to a massive pandemic and elevated unemployment levels, and that this leftward shift isn’t particularly striking. And since the former vice president often calibrates his views to match the current consensus, you could see him backtracking from his newfound liberalism when the crisis recedes and/or if polls start showing a majority of Americans are leery of more government intervention to help with the COVID-19 recovery. Those are two fairly unlikely scenarios right now, but at some point more moderate Democrats might shift away from supporting more federal spending in the wake of the coronavirus. If a big bloc of Democrats shifted right, I would expect Biden to follow suit.
Thirdly, Biden’s leftward shifts will likely be constrained by both his own instincts and those of his top advisers. Both Biden and his inner circle are perpetually worried that the Democrats will move too far left on policy issues and scare off swing voters. Some of his top advisers, electoral politics aside, are just somewhat centrist and wary of liberal ideas. Biden himself seems deeply invested in the idea that he can cut deals with Republicans and tamp down the partisan divide in Washington, a vision that is probably in tension with a more leftish presidency.
“Does he stay on the 50-yard line, splitting the difference between anti-government conservatism and progressive populism, and cutting bipartisan deals,” David Dayen of the left-leaning The American Prospect wrote recently. “Or does he surge toward the end zone with ‘Roosevelt’ written on it, transforming the nation through ‘bold, persistent experimentation’ that fills in all the cracks the coronavirus exposed?”3
“Joe Biden is running on the most progressive platform of any Democratic nominee in recent history. But given the pandemic, he has to look at the New Deal and Great Society traditions in the Democratic Party and go bigger,” said Waleed Shahid, the communications director for Justice Democrats, a left-wing group aligned with Ocasio-Cortez and other very progressive Democrats.
All that said, it seems fairly likely that Biden, if he wins, will enter the Oval Office with Americans struggling through a recession and the public and his party clamoring for the federal government to do more to help those who are struggling. In that scenario, we might look back at how Biden won the Democratic primary — by emphasizing his moderation — and marvel that he became the most liberal president in recent history.