Joe Biden is no “moderate” but compared to many in his party, he’s the soul of accommodation. For that reason, the rise of the “Biden Democrat” will pose particular challenges for Republican candidates who will seek to portray all Democrats as radical, frothing-at-the-mouth socialists.
In fact, they are not. Joe Biden learned his political obfuscation skills at the side of the master triangulator: Barack Obama. He has become quite skilled at hiding his agenda behind soothing words and an aw-shucks grin while his more radical associates tear down the fabric of the nation.
But this isn’t 2008 and Biden is certainly not Barack Obama. His “success” will be limited because of the constant push-pull of the radical wing of the party. The center of gravity in the party is moving ever leftward and Biden hasn’t the skill to reverse course even if he wanted to.
On Tuesday, Democrats dodged a bullet. A special election in Ohio to replace HUD Secretary Marcia L. Fudge almost sent a bomb-throwing, fire-breathing, radical potty-mouth to the House. Nina Turner was a huge Bernie Sanders booster in the 2020 primaries and had been endorsed by Rep. Ocasio-Cortez and every major crazy nutjob socialist in Congress. Instead of Turner, the mild-mannered Shontel Brown, backed by the Democratic establishment, won fairly easily.
Turner hates moderate Democrats. She cast a protest vote against the 2020 Democratic Party platform comparing the choice in the election between Trump and Biden to eating a full bowl or half bowl of human excrement. She was a radical’s radical, pushing Medicare-for-all, increasing the minimum wage, canceling student debt, environmental justice, racial justice, defunding the police — the works.
Brown backed Biden in 2020, and voters in the 15th Congressional District of Ohio, which encompasses parts of Cleveland and Akron, preferred her support for the president to the fire-breathing Turner.
“This is about making progress, and sometimes that takes compromise,” she said during her victory speech in a Cleveland suburb. “Because when you demand all or nothing, usually you end up with nothing.”
Biden couldn’t have said it better.
Biden has to be attentive to the left, given Democrats’ slim House majority. But Tuesday’s results suggest he doesn’t need to contort himself to placate the party’s progressive wing — as he’s doing with the extension of the eviction moratorium — as much as they demand or he has often deemed necessary.
A single special election shouldn’t be over-interpreted. But in the latest proxy war for the soul of the party, the pragmatists again beat the ideologues. After failing to win the presidential nomination in 2020, the party’s progressives have suffered a string of high-profile primary losses to moderate alternatives this year, from another House special election in Louisiana to the governor’s race in Virginia and the mayoral contest in New York City.
The danger for the GOP is that the Democrats may have finally decided they want to win elections rather than be “right” on the issues. You will probably not hear more than a handful of Democratic candidates in 2022 talking about “defunding the police.” That’s a losing issue, as Democrats found in 2020, much to their chagrin.
Representative Hakeem Jeffries of New York, a top member of House leadership, said in an interview Wednesday that Democratic voters were clearly rejecting candidates from the party’s most strident and ideological flank.
Where some primary voters welcomed an angrier message during the Trump years, Mr. Jeffries said, there is less appetite now for revolutionary rhetoric casting the Democratic Party as a broken institution.
“The extreme left is obsessed with talking trash about mainstream Democrats on Twitter, when the majority of the electorate constitute mainstream Democrats at the polls,” Mr. Jeffries said.
The messaging will be toned down to reflect the times. After going through a pandemic and tumultuous aftermath to the 2020 election, most people don’t want to fight anymore — even among themselves.
Republicans will have some built-in advantages in 2022, including a friendly congressional map and a history that tells us the party in control of Congress and the White House does very poorly the first big Joe election after taking power.
But precedent can’t be relied on in these uncertain times. And if Democrats are successful in muzzling their radicals, anything is possible.