Election 2020

Joe Biden and the Limits of Moderate Politics

He's a centrist compared to Sanders, but he's also a classic big-government liberal.


In the expanded progressive universe of the Democratic 2020 presidential field, Joe Biden plays the part of the moderate. In this role, he's a squishy, sensible centrist with long ties to the party and its leadership, an average joe and a conventional, professional politician in an era where unconventional, unprofessional politics seems to have taken over.

That makes for a marked—and useful—contrast with his competitors, a motley crew of democratic socialists and ambitious progressives with socialists tendencies, eager to deliver the sort of political fan service the party's online activist class increasingly demands. And it has helped him stand out in the crowded primary field, rising quickly to the top of the polls and drawing fire from President Trump, who spent the morning tweeting, or rather retweeting, anti-Biden comments sparked by pro-Trump provocateur Dan Bongino's remark that he knows not a single fireman supporting Biden. (May we live in interesting times.)

But Biden's moderation, such that it is, is as much a stylistic tic as an ideological outlook, a sense that he's a practical politician and dealmaker who can connect with blue-collar voters.

Biden launched his campaign with an appeal to labor unions and promised he'd end the GOP tax cuts. In his speech, he attacked "Wall Street bankers, CEOs, and hedge fund managers," echoing the class-focused rhetoric of Sen. Elizabeth Warren. He's not for the single-payer vision of Medicare for All favored by his 2020 rival, Bernie Sanders. But like Sanders, Biden has called for making health care a "right for for all," and he wants to both prop up Obamacare and allow more people to buy into Medicare. He's previously backed increasing the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour, and he supports making tuition free at community colleges. Although he's been quiet on climate change so far (he's been officially running for less than a week), he backed a climate bill all the way back in 1986, and in recent years has continued to cast it as an existential threat.

So, while Biden may not support the most expansive and expensive aspects of the progressive agenda as it exists on Twitter, he is still very much of the modern left's mold, in part because he has adapted to the times, and in part because the idea that the role of government should be steadily expanded, especially when it comes to economics, is an idea to which he's long subscribed.

That doesn't make him a stealth democratic socialist, but it does make him something rather familiar in American politics, a type that was once viewed as far from moderate: He's what people used to refer to as a big-government liberal.

In the context of Democratic politics and the 2020 primary race, that probably does make him a moderate, at least compared to most of the rest of the field. But to understand that is to understand the limits of moderate politics, and the ways in which the moderate label can mislead, even while being correct in the moment. As the social climate changes, what once looked like strong ideological commitments have a tendency to slip silently toward the center.

It's not that Biden hasn't changed at all, nor that there is no upside to the Democratic party's leftward drift. In particular, on criminal justice issues, Biden has backed off from some of the harsher and more aggressively punitive stances he took near the peak of the crime wave in the 1980s and 1990s. On this issue, at least, he appears to have moderated, at least a little) and moved toward an understanding of sentencing policy that is simultaneously a bit more libertarian and a bit more progressive. (The specifics of what he supports, however, remain vague enough that it's worth remaining somewhat suspicious of his underlying commitments.)

But the sense that Biden is a moderate is largely an artifact of his personal style—the role, and it is a role, he plays—and how he stacks up to the other contenders in the race. It's a relative distinction, in other words, rather than something fixed. And it's all too easy to imagine a future in which the definition of moderate, on both the left and right, slips even further, in which Trumpian trade and immigration policy and Sanders-style economic ideas become the milquetoast middle-ground, pushed closer to the relative center by the radicals at the fringe.