Politics

The Radicalism of Joe Biden

Dem frontrunner's 'moderate' messaging obscures how far left he's been dragged

Joe Biden
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Joe Biden's astonishing reversal of electoral fortune, which culminated Tuesday in primary victories in Idaho, Michigan, Missouri, and Mississippi, has depended on his reputation as the "moderate" choice for Democrats.

That reputation comes by way of comparison to opponents like self-identified democratic socialist Sen. Bernie Sanders (I., Vt.), who has promised an enormous, unfundable expansion of the federal government. Moderate compared to Sanders, however, is not moderate per se. A closer look at Biden's platform reveals that by comparison to past Democratic nominees, and to his own past views, Biden is far from "moderation."

Rather, Joe Biden's seeming moderation only reflects the standards of an increasingly radical Democratic Party. As the former vice president closes in on the nomination and prepares for a general election, the left turn he has taken in the primary may make it more difficult for him to defeat President Donald Trump.

Biden's newfound radicalism is apparent in his spending proposals. An analysis by the left-leaning Progressive Policy Institute captures the yawning gap between Biden and Sanders: The Vermont senator has floated more than $50 trillion in new government spending, making Biden's $5.9 trillion appear paltry by comparison.

PPI notes, however, that an added $5.9 trillion in spending is "still significantly more than recent Democratic nominees for president." Lawrence Summers, director of the National Economic Council under Barack Obama, specified to CNN just how much more. Summers estimated that recent Democratic nominees John Kerry and Hillary Clinton proposed a spending increase equal to about half a percent of GDP at the time, while Obama proposed about 1 percent of GDP. Biden's spending amounts to 1.5 percent of GDP—substantially less than Sanders, but still three times what Clinton proposed to spend.

Biden's big spending plans are not his only hints of radicalism. Key planks of his platform reveal a candidate more aligned with the preferences of the Democratic Party's activist base than either the general public or his own past stances.

The 2020 frontrunner's most prominent flip-flop is on the divisive issue of abortion. Biden once voted for a constitutional amendment that would allow states to overturn Roe v. Wade, saying the Supreme Court went "too far" in its 1973 decision. But in the 2020 cycle, Biden has not only called for Roe to be enshrined in federal law, but backed down on his decades-long support of the Hyde Amendment, which prohibits the use of federal funds for abortions. That stance puts him out of step with the plurality of Americans, who regularly oppose public funding.

Biden has also drawn criticism in the primary for spearheading the 1994 crime bill, widely (albeit inaccurately) blamed by many on the left for a surge in incarceration. Biden's 2020 criminal justice plan, however, takes the opposite tack, aggressively targeting police officers and prosecutors while curbing punishment. A President Biden would reimplement the use of federal consent decrees to control the actions of local police departments judged to be racist, establish a task force to investigate curbing prosecutors' independent discretion, and eliminate mandatory minimums, which have existed since before the Founding. Biden would abolish the death penalty and cash bail, changes more in line with liberals' priorities than the average voter's.

Biden's emergent progressivism on these and other issues is at odds with his moderate image. In this, however, he mirrors other 2020 "moderates." Pete Buttigieg, for example, competed with Biden for centrist voters despite a hard-left platform that would have abolished the Electoral College, repealed the Hyde Amendment, and paid reparations for slavery.

Within the Democratic Party, the meaning of the word "moderate" has changed over the past 10 years. A 2017 analysis from the Pew Research Center found that the growing partisan gap on major issues was driven largely by rapidly increasing liberalism among self-identified Democrats. A New York Times linguistic analysis of parties' platforms produced a similar finding—the Republican platform has remained roughly constant in ideological lean since 2000, while the Democratic platform has veered sharply, and is now to the left of the median party in Europe.

Credit: New York Times

That shift has been driven by highly educated white Democrats, who have moved left on a number of social issues in what University of Georgia doctoral student Zach Goldberg has identified as a "great awokening." Biden's pivots on criminal justice and abortion may reflect the demands of the party's growing "professional class" base. Biden's perceived moderation relative to his primary opponents, by contrast, may reflect his support among black Democrats, who are on average more conservative than their white peers, and who propelled Biden to victory in Missouri and Mississippi Tuesday.

Nonetheless, Biden's move leftward may jeopardize his chances in the general election, particularly among the blue-collar swing-state voters who helped propel Trump to victory in 2016. Recent polling shows the two neck-and-neck in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, states that previously handed Trump an Electoral College win. Biden will need to court these states' Obama-Trump voters, a proposition made all the harder by the silent radicalism Trump will no doubt put on display.