The number of Republicans speaking at the Democratic National Convention had progressives on edge.
They shouldn’t have fretted. Even if a handful of estranged Republicans are along for the ride, the left is steadily moving the Democratic Party in its direction. Would progressives prefer winning the optics at a virtual convention, or the substance over the longer term?
The Democratic Convention was, for the most part, bereft of policy, focusing instead on President Donald Trump’s character failings — rehearsed at length — and Joe Biden’s personal decency. Together with all of the speakers with a Republican pedigree, this reinforced Biden’s image of being more moderate than he is, which is perhaps his greatest political strength.
There is obviously no percentage in him running as the most progressive presidential nominee in a couple of generations. It’s much better for him to portray himself simply as a good guy whose tent is so broad it stretches from AOC to the former secretary of state for a Republican president many progressives think was guilty of war crimes.
It’s not as though Biden pulled from the Republican A-Team, though. At this point, it’d be shocking if Colin Powell didn’t endorse the Democratic candidate for president. Christine Todd Whitman, the former governor of New Jersey, found former President George W. Bush too divisive for her taste. John Kasich, a Republican presidential candidate in 2016 and the two-term governor of Ohio, was more of a get, but still, if all of these figures were collectively asked to go build an audience of Republican voters, they probably couldn’t fill out a moderately sized Zoom call.
In his speech, Kasich fulsomely endorsed Biden the man without getting close to endorsing any of his plans. He cited Republicans and independents who might believe that Biden “may turn sharp left and leave them behind. I don’t believe that. I know the measure of the man. Reasonable. Faithful, respectful, and no one pushes Joe around.”
Then, Kasich was followed on the program by Bernie Sanders, who boasted to his supporters, and not unreasonably, “Many of the ideas we fought for, that just a few years ago were considered ‘radical,’ are now mainstream.”
While Sanders excoriated Trump, he also focused, more than others, on Biden’s agenda and implicitly took credit for his embracing more far-reaching measures on issues ranging from the minimum wage to universal pre-K.
So, who’s right? Kasich, who makes assurances that Biden will not turn left? Or Sanders, who says he’s already turned?
It is true that Biden has avoided the most extreme and easily attacked versions of progressive proposals, whether the “Green New Deal,” “Medicare for All” or defunding the police. But Biden is to former President Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton’s left on most domestic questions. Bernie Sanders and others shifted the Overton window of Democratic politics, and Biden moved to stay smack in the middle of it.
The Biden campaign is, in this respect, trying to do what Hillary Clinton did four years ago, except even more so. As The New York Times columnist Ross Douthat pointed out at the time, the Clinton campaign wanted to reach out to Republicans who couldn’t abide Trump, but gave them nothing of substance, and in fact ran to the left of where she’d been most of her career.
This approach probably has a better chance of working this time, since Biden isn’t as radioactive as Hillary and Trump can’t run again as a take-a-flyer-on-me outsider.
If Biden can actually pull off tacking Bernie’s way on issues while running as a boring moderate, maybe he doesn’t get the credit for political canniness that he deserves.
Yet, this is an evasion that represents a major vulnerability. The question is whether the Trump campaign can exploit it. If Biden is allowed to coast through the fall with his current image not being seriously contested, well then, campaign malpractice will have to be added to the long litany of charges against Donald Trump.