Biden Has the Right Strategy

Even if the former vice president is the wrong candidate, voters like his centrist approach.

Joe Biden speaks into a microphone. He's wearing aviators and a polo.
Joe Biden at the Iowa State Fair on Thursday. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

A lot of Democrats worry about nominating Joe Biden for president. Part of it is that the former vice president is old and gaffe-prone. But much of it is that he seems timid and boring. Biden doesn’t support the “Medicare for All” bill in Congress. He doesn’t support repealing the law that makes unauthorized immigration a criminal offense. Instead, he talks about bipartisanship, decency, the middle class, and the glory days of the Obama-Biden administration. He thinks he can beat President Donald Trump not with a bold, progressive agenda, but by appealing to moderates and Republicans who don’t like Trump.

There’s a good chance he’s correct. Even if Biden is the wrong candidate, he has the right strategy.

Two weeks ago, in a debate among the Democratic presidential candidates, Biden defended the center against the left. He opposed abolishing private health insurance and warned that Medicare for All would require a big tax increase on the middle class. He argued that we should protect immigrants who follow the law, not those who break it. Then, after this week’s horrific attack in El Paso, Texas, by a white nationalist, Biden delivered a speech in which he slammed Trump for fomenting racial hatred. Biden distinguished Trump from previous Republican presidents, whom he praised for defending Islam and standing up to gun violence.

That’s the Biden game plan: hug the middle, propose incremental changes such as a public option in Obamacare, and drive wedges between Trump and uneasy Republicans. Focus on the president’s overt bigotry, his encouragement of violence, and his abuse of power. Don’t run against corporations or the rich. Run against Trump.

If you want more ambitious changes, this strategy won’t thrill you. But polls support it. Look at surveys taken since July 14. That’s the day Trump tweeted that four Democratic congresswomen—Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley, and Rashida Tlaib—should “go back” to the countries from which their families came. Since Trump’s eruption, pollsters have measured public reactions to his race baiting, as well as to Democratic proposals on health care and immigration.

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The first poll, a Marist survey taken from July 15 to 17, asked Americans whether “the economy is working well for you personally.” Two-thirds of respondents, including more than 60 percent of nonwhites and independents, said yes. That’s good news for America. But it’s bad news for anyone running a campaign based on economic unrest.

The Marist respondents strongly preferred moderate to radical ideas. Fifty-four percent opposed a Medicare for All program that “replaces private health insurance,” but 70 percent supported “Medicare for all that want it,” a program that would let people “choose between a national health insurance program or their own private health insurance.” Two-thirds supported a “pathway to citizenship” for undocumented immigrants, but 66 percent opposed “decriminalizing illegal border crossings,” and 62 percent opposed a “national health insurance program available for immigrants who are in the US illegally.”

These centrist respondents aren’t just white folks. Nearly two-thirds of nonwhites in the Marist poll opposed border decriminalization. Most nonwhites opposed the inclusion of unauthorized immigrants in a national health insurance program. A plurality of nonwhites opposed replacing private health insurance with Medicare for All. Nonwhites also opposed “reparations for slavery” (50 percent to 40 percent) and “a Universal Basic Income of $1,000 per month” (61 percent to 31 percent).

A Fox News survey, taken from July 21 to 23, found the same pattern. A plurality of voters, 48 percent to 43 percent, opposed “getting rid of private health insurance and moving to a government-run health care system for everyone.” But 65 percent favored the moderate alternative: “changing the health care system so that every American can buy into Medicare if they want to.” Majorities opposed “providing health insurance coverage to undocumented immigrants” or “decriminalizing entering the United States without proper documentation.” By a 20-point margin, Democrats said it would be good “to move away from capitalism and more toward socialism.” But voters as a whole, by an equally big margin, said it would be bad.

An Economist/YouGov poll, taken from Aug. 3 to 6, confirmed the wisdom of fighting Trump where he’s weakest. Most respondents—53 percent to 26 percent—said that a national health insurance program shouldn’t cover undocumented immigrants. (A plurality of Hispanics said it should. A plurality of nonwhites, as a whole, said it shouldn’t.) But a strong majority, 61 percent to 26 percent, disapproved of “separating undocumented immigrant families, some with very young children, and holding them in custody” at detention centers. Democrats are much better off sticking to the latter issue.

Many progressives have written off Republican voters, deeming them unpersuadable. That’s a mistake. In the YouGov survey, 42 percent of Republicans disapproved of separating undocumented immigrant families. In the Marist survey, 35 percent of Republicans supported a pathway to citizenship, and 46 percent endorsed “Medicare for all that want it.” In the Fox survey, 51 percent of Republicans favored “changing the health care system so that every American can buy into Medicare if they want to.”

Biden isn’t just playing smart defense. He’s playing smart offense, by targeting Trump’s racism. In the Fox poll, 63 percent of voters agreed that the president’s tweets against the four congresswomen “crossed the line.” Fifty-six percent agreed that “go back” was a racist thing to say, and 57 percent said Trump didn’t respect minorities. In three other late-July polls—one by Quinnipiac, another by YouGov, and a third by Morning Consult for Politico—most voters said that the tweets were racist and that Trump himself was racist.

A lot of folks don’t like to state bluntly that the president is a racist. The percentage willing to use those words remains in the low 50s. But when the question is put more gently, the consensus against Trump’s bigotry is broad. In the Fox poll, 60 percent of whites, 57 percent of rural whites, and 56 percent of whites without a college degree said Trump’s tweets “crossed the line.” Whites also agreed by a 24-point margin (and noncollege whites agreed by an 11-point margin) that “go back” was a racist thing to say. Pluralities of whites, rural whites, and noncollege whites said that Trump didn’t respect minorities.

In the Politico survey, whites narrowly agreed that the president was racist. In the Quinnipiac survey, whites didn’t agree that Trump was racist (50 percent said he wasn’t, 46 percent said he was), but independents, white women, and most voters did. In the July YouGov survey, whites agreed by a 10-point margin that it was “racist to tell a naturalized citizen of the U.S. to ‘go back where you came from.’ ” Twenty-one percent of Republicans said the comment was racist, and 40 percent said it was inappropriate, compared with 39 percent who said it was appropriate.

That’s why Biden, at the Iowa State Fair on Thursday, pledged again to “restore the soul of this country.” It’s why he harps on Trump’s racial demagoguery, rebuffs progressive demands on immigration, and steers a middle course on health care. It’s why he speaks kindly of Republicans, even when he knows Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell would try to screw a Biden administration. Maybe Biden is the wrong candidate to carry the Democratic banner. But whoever does carry that banner would be wise to follow his lead.