Biden continues to lead in large part because he is the only one who can draw on both African Americans (usually pulling well over 30 percent in a 24-person field with two African Americans) and whites. His reservoir of good will with old voters gives him additional support from some of the most dependable voters.
Biden's debate performance certainly rattled supporters, raised doubts and punctured the air of inevitability, but it may ultimately put his footing on sturdier ground. He might want to look at the debate as an example of "what does not kill you makes you stronger." In Biden's case that can play out in a couple of ways.
First, a phony sense of "electability" is gone, but a better one has emerged. Biden is not more electable because he is a white male or even because he was President Barack Obama's vice president. He's electable, and one consistently beating President Donald Trump outside the margin of error, because he is accessible to the broadest array of voters.
Quite simply, he hasn't followed Sanders and others over the cliff on Medicare-for-all, free college for everyone and the other positions that prove popular with a narrow stratum of voters but are irrelevant to or actually turn off others. He's ideologically center-left (much as Obama was) and embraces popular positions among Democrats without sacrificing ground in the general election. Quite simply, no one can plausibly call him "socialist." (As for the notion he's some closet Republican, consider his position on everything from expanding Obamacare to comprehensive immigration reform to support for the Iran nuclear deal to free community college to more federal education spending to an aggressive green energy plan.)
Second, his top competitors are all talking about big, fundamental, life-altering change. However, we have learned over the past few years that voters can be risk averse. They didn't want to give up the Affordable Care Act for the unknown. There is something to be said for "normalcy," when voters were not on edge about the next scandal and the next possible military confrontation. That may not be what progressive activists want, but a lot of older voters and a lot of African Americans are not in favor of throwing the game board up in the air and starting a whole new game that might or might not benefit them. This doesn't mean Biden cannot be or should not be "bold," but there is bold and then there is the Sanders agenda.
Biden may figure out he need not to be defensive about his broad appeal or his significant (but not hair-raising) policy ideas. He can embrace his authentic, familiar self and make his competitors defend their positions. If Harris got to show how she'd take on Trump, Biden can show how Trump would paint them as extreme and unrealistic.
Biden should ask Democratic opponents why the vast majority of Americans without a college education should subsidize the education of a minority of the population, a minority that is whiter and richer than the rest of America. He should make clear that the wealth tax is a poor way to raise revenue compared with his ideas (e.g. ending the step-up for those inheriting appreciated property and stock, narrowing the gap between rates for salary income and capital gains income). He should point out that there is no button marked "End long wars," but there is a way to reduce forces in Afghanistan and transition to a counter-terrorism role. He should explain that no one is in favor of mandatory busing, but they sure do favor increasing Title I funding for schools with poor students. Double down on moderation.
He said it himself: "What I've seen around the country is the vast number of Democrats are where I am on the issues." If he believes that, use his center-right standing as a sword, not a shield.
Biden might take a page from Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., and project himself as a grownup willing to say no. Others are offering pie-in-the-sky stuff; he's offering meat and potatoes that will build up working and middle class voters. Borrow Sen. Sherrod Brown's "dignity of work" message - and make certain voters understand "working people" includes nonwhites. Yes to overtime rules, yes to easier union organizing, yes to shoring up Obamacare, Medicare and Medicaid. No to Rube Goldberg policy contraptions.
This is not going to thrill the Twitterverse. Progressives will say this post is one more NeverTrumper trying to make the Democrats into something they are not. No, this is a strategy for how Biden wins the primary.
It's simple math. He differentiates himself from the showy, radical agendas others present and lets the three of them carve up the progressive vote. As they fight over the same group of very liberal voters, he'll reinforce his relationship with African American voters, especially older African Americans, who aren't as radical as mostly white uber-progressives. He grabs all the primary voters to the right of Harris/Warren/Sanders.
It's not a sure-fire thing, but it is a solid approach designed to show off who Biden actually is. If he loses the nomination, he'll at least have prepared the nominee and his party to fend off "socialist" charges. Make no mistake - those are coming.
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