Democrats running for president have long employed the same basic strategy — run to the left to win over Democratic primary voters, then run back to the center to win over the broader electorate.
Joe Biden, who will accept the Democratic nomination for president this week, has taken a very different approach. He ran to the center to win his party’s nod and has since pivoted to the left.
Biden’s path to his virtual acceptance speech on Thursday night is a reflection not just of Democrats’ overwhelming desire to end the presidency of Donald Trump, but of the equally powerful desire among party activists to ensure that a Biden presidency will amount to more than four years of treading water. Come January 2021, Democrats might get both of those wishes granted.
Supporters and critics of Biden’s candidacy can agree that there is something highly incongruent about a 77-year-old white man and creature of the political establishment becoming the standard-bearer of an increasingly “woke” political party defined more and more by the voices of women and people of color. It’s particularly striking when one considers that the 2020 Democratic field was the most diverse, by gender and ethnicity, in modern American history.
Yet, Biden’s victory was largely the result of those same female and minority voters. After dismal showings in the Iowa caucus and New Hampshire primary, Biden’s strong support from Black voters propelled him to victory in the South Carolina primary. In subsequent contests, his chief rival, Bernie Sanders, relied on support from men while Biden’s support was disproportionately female.
For both women and Black voters, the motivation to support Biden seems to have come from a similar place: the belief that a white, male, mainstream candidate would fare best against President Trump in November. It is hardly a coincidence that Biden’s campaign took off after Sanders, a self-avowed democratic socialist, emerged as the early favorite to be the Democratic nominee.
It’s precisely because Biden is seen as a pragmatic moderate — and not a controversial liberal — that he was able to capture the nomination.
But since then, Biden has moved increasingly leftward. He is pushing for $4 billion in higher taxes; has rolled out a $2 trillion plan to fight climate change; has a $700 billion plan to invest in US manufacturing; and has even hinted that he would support an effort in the Senate to scrap the filibuster. He endorsed Elizabeth Warren’s bankruptcy reform plan and worked out a compact with Sanders to back a host of progressive policy priorities. If Biden follows through on his plans he would be, as Sanders has argued, one of the most progressive presidents in American history. Last week he recognized the changing face of the Democratic Party by selecting Senator Kamala Harris as his running mate — the first Black woman to appear on a major-party presidential ticket. Rather than expect Democrats to get in line behind him, Biden has spent the past several months getting himself in sync with them.
Biden’s untraditional approach is a reflection of the nation’s political polarization. Just as Republicans have moved increasingly rightward, Democrats have moved left. While once there were two distinct wings in each party — one moderate and one more ideological — the parties increasingly cater to their activist wings. Even Senate Democrats running in red states this cycle are toeing the more progressive party line. Most Democrats, for example, support a public option for health care, have prioritized addressing climate change, and are calling for gun control. A growing number back filibuster reform. A decade ago, when the moderate wing of the Democratic Party was more powerful, these positions would have been considered politically toxic. Now they are the norm.
The result is that a party that once seemed in a constant state of disarray approaches its quadrennial convention more united than ever — not just in support of its presidential ticket, but its policy agenda.
The question for Democrats is whether the current feelings of unity will hold after a victory in November. A reviled political enemy has a way of bringing a party together. The challenge of legislating is usually what tears it apart. This time, however, feels different. The expectations of liberal Democrats — and of the nation — have changed and Biden and the party’s elected leaders seem inclined to meet them.
Joe Biden took a surprising route to the Democratic nomination. If he becomes president he might have a few more tricks up his sleeve.
Michael A. Cohen’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.