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The Man in the Middle

July 17, 2019
The Man in the Middle
(Photo by Hunter Martin/Getty Images)

Joe Biden has already won one of the major tracks toward the Democratic party’s presidential nomination—perhaps even the decisive track.

He is the only leading candidate for the label of “moderate Democrat.” Pete Buttigieg has the manner and style of a moderate—but in substance, he backs the entire fantasy agenda of the far left, from court-packing to free college to reparations for slavery. Andrew Yang’s claim to moderation is that he once published in Quillette and occasionally says some nice things about intellectual diversity—while he proposes a new federal agency to regulate social media.

To be sure, there are a few other genuine moderates in the Democrats’ 2020 field, like maybe that guy from Montana, you know, what’s-his-name. But Joe Biden is the only big, recognizable figure who can claim the mantle of the “moderate Democrat.” The poor sucker.

In a way, this might be a case of catastrophic success. There is no real competition over who can position himself as the leading moderate, but there is a battle royale for who will be the leading far-left “Progressive” candidate—for who can out-Bernie Bernie. The way the “progressives” have chosen to do this is to compete over who can take the best potshots at the moderates. And by “the moderates” they mean “Joe Biden.” That’s how Kamala Harris vaulted herself into the top rank of candidates during the first Democratic debates by attacking Biden for opposing the forced busing of schoolchildren in the 1970s.

All of which has forced Biden to grapple with the basic dilemma of the “moderate”: by definition, the moderate is the man in the middle. His position is always defined by a middle ground between radical alternatives, and it is the radicals who set the terms. The farther out to the left they move, the more he has to move in order to follow them. Hence the dodging and weaving as Biden tries to figure out what a “moderate” Democrat looks like in 2019, so he can become that.

This is not to say that Biden is doomed. His leading position in the polls so far indicates that the rank and file of the Democratic party likes a moderate and that the upper-middle-class woke white people who dominate Twitter are not the same as the average Democratic primary voter.

Yet the woke brigade, by virtue of being activists and donors, have a disproportionate influence in the primaries, so Biden feels the need to appease them. The most notable example (so far) has been his cave-in on the Hyde Amendment. This is an old political compromise from way back in 1976, named after Henry Hyde, a then-prominent Republican congressman. The compromise was that Congress did not ban abortion, but it banned the use of federal funds to pay for abortions.

A lot of people on the religious right these days are bad-mouthing the “libertarians,” but this was actually a pretty straightforward libertarian solution: government won’t ban it, but it won’t make you pay for it with your taxes. Yet for everybody else, the Hyde Amendment was always just a compromise, one that has survived for so long only because neither party has been politically strong enough to move the issue their way.

Joe Biden was around for the original Hyde Amendment, and because he is a creature of compromise, he has supported it ever since—until a month ago, when he hastily reversed himself under pressure from the left.

This in itself will not be a problem for him politically. Few people who are not already partisans even know what the Hyde Amendment is, and this flip-flop is happening so early in the election cycle that the average primary voter will have no knowledge of it by the time the voting really starts.

The danger to Biden is if this becomes a pattern: if he keeps staking out what used to be the “moderate” position, then keeps caving in when the far left screams. If he keeps doing that, then what’s the point of a Democrat voting for him in the primaries when they could just vote for one of the candidates who are actually calling the ideological shots?

Which brings us to Harris’s attack on school busing, the aftermath of which played out over the July 4 weekend. Harris, oddly, reacted by moving closer to Biden on the issue, saying that busing should not be federally mandated but should be a local decision—which, given what we know about the decisions actually made on the local level, means she is abandoning the very idea she used to attack Biden. It’s almost as if this was never a real issue but just a tool, to be dropped when it had served its purpose.

What’s curious is that Biden has subsequently moved closer to Harris’s original position, saying that he never opposed busing as such but merely opposed it as a federal mandate—a claim that seems to have scant support in his actual record.

You see the dilemma of the man in the middle. Biden was a leader in the opposition to busing—back when that was a safe position for a “moderate Democrat.” Now that enough time has passed that people have forgotten the apocalyptic unpopularity of grabbing people’s kids and sending them off to distant and unknown schools, busing can be portrayed merely as an attempt to desegregate schools, and what Democrat would dare be in favor of segregation?

So the “moderate” position has shifted, and it has shifted retroactively, so Biden needs to rewrite his own positions—also retroactively—to find the new “moderate” middle ground.

It is easy to mock Biden as a chameleon, and opponents looking to do so will find some grist in the speech Biden gave on July 6 responding to his critics.

America in 2019 is a very, very different place than the 1970s. And that’s a good thing. I’ve witnessed an incredible, incredible amount of change in this nation, and I’ve worked to make that change happen, And yes, I’ve changed also. I’m not the same person [entering the] Senate at age 29. I don’t pretend to have gotten everything right. I don’t pretend that none of my positions have changed. I’ve grown, and I think it’s good to be able to grow, to progress.

Instead of being a man for all seasons, Joe Biden is a different man in every decade.

And yet, there is still something appealing about the moderate politician, because in a real and substantial way, he is someone who believes in the American system. He is a politician who is committed to persuasion and to the actual process of politics, rather than some form of authoritarian diktat. Here is how Biden expresses it:

At a distance, those decisions, to get involved, to lead, seem simple, so simple to accomplish. You make no compromises, you work only with those with whom you agree, and you live in the world you want. But the reality as you all know is quite different. To get things done, you have to work with people who were elected long before you, and it requires some people who you have to engage with, who don’t see the world the way you see it. Some may be downright repugnant to everything you stand for. Sometimes it gets messy. But to adjust, you have to. And slowly but surely, you begin to make progress. To find common ground without yielding on principle. Accepting some compromise on things you don’t support in order to get things that are really important done for your people. . . .

I chose to work within the system, to make it better, to get things done for the least among us.

More important, as Biden put it earlier, this means, “You have to go out and beat these folks if they don’t agree with you, by making your case—and that’s what presidents are supposed to do: persuade the public.”

What a novel idea.

By contrast, the agenda of the most of the “progressives” seems to be based on the dangerous theory—the same theory as Trumpism, in fact—that the president can perform some sort of end-run around the process of persuasion and political compromise.

I’m all in favor of the bold and principled visionary who stands for what he believes is right, no matter what the consequences. But the president is not elected to be a philosopher-king who imposes what he thinks is right. More important than any particular agenda he pursues is the president’s willingness to seek the consent of the governed, which means that he cannot move very far without rallying a broad consensus behind him.

To be sure, Biden’s actual agenda is not as blandly inoffensive as all this talk about persuasion and compromise might imply. Like I said, he’s feeling out the position of the new moderate Democrat, which is somewhat to the left of the old moderate Democrat. (With one exception: through the magic of reflexive partisanship, Biden and most other Democrats are in favor of free trade now.)

But don’t underestimate the appeal of the moderate, both to actual Democratic primary voters (as opposed to the Twitter primary) and in the general election. If the man in the middle has the disadvantage of not knowing exactly where he stands, voters might still like someone who accepts that political solutions should be matters for negotiation, cooperation, and persuasion.

I may not agree with much of what Biden wants to do—but how he wants to do it seems like a refreshing change from the way we’re trying to do things now.

Robert Tracinski

Robert Tracinski is editor of Symposium, a journal of liberalism, and writes additional commentary at The Tracinski Letter.