Almost halfway through Chris Wallace’s July 19 interview with Donald Trump, an exchange occurred that encapsulates the current state of the presidential race. The president claimed that his Democratic rival, Joe Biden, “wants to defund the police.” Wallace contradicted him, which led a furious Trump to instruct his press secretary, Kayleigh McEnany, to “get me the charter” of the unity task force that the Biden campaign had created with Bernie Sanders supporters. After riffling unsuccessfully through the document, Trump muttered, “We’ll find it.” But, as Wallace told viewers, “The White House never sent us evidence the Bernie-Biden platform calls for defunding or abolishing police—because there is none.” On Fox News, Trump’s home turf, the president looked like a fool.
The incident illustrates one of the reasons that Biden has proved such an elusive target. Despite embracing an agenda that is further to the left than that of any Democratic nominee in decades, he’s avoided the specific policy proposals and catchphrases that Republicans find easiest to attack. As a result, he appears more centrist than he actually is. In Biden, Democrats have a nominee who is promising FDR-style change, yet is avoiding the political backlash that an ambitious progressive agenda often brings.
Polls suggest that Americans are more comfortable with candidates close to the ideological center. In surveys this year, respondents consider Biden more moderate than Trump. That’s a reversal from 2016, when Americans viewed Trump as more moderate than Hillary Clinton. One reason for this shift is that Trump’s image has changed. By November 2016, after a campaign in which Trump had publicly opposed cutting Social Security and Medicare, slammed the Iraq War, and denounced America’s campaign-finance system as corrupt, voters perceived him as less conservative than every other recent incoming Republican president except George H. W. Bush. But by early 2018, after a first year in office in which Trump promoted a hard-right economic and cultural agenda, his moderate reputation had already faded. It has never returned, which makes Biden look more moderate by contrast.
Biden also appears more moderate than Clinton because, as I’ve previously argued, Americans generally deem male candidates less threatening. In gauging a candidate’s ideology, voters often seize on cultural cues. In his book Politics Lost, the journalist Joe Klein notes that in focus groups during the 1976 campaign, white voters insisted that Jimmy Carter opposed school busing even after being shown a speech in which he said he supported it. They claimed he was lying to win black votes. Carter overperformed among culturally conservative white voters because those voters couldn’t imagine that a white male governor of Georgia was truly progressive on race.
Biden benefits from stereotyping in a similar way. His race, gender, and age incline voters to view him as moderate. But race, gender, and age don’t explain everything. Despite being old, white, and male, Bernie Sanders still convinced Democratic-primary voters that he was significantly further left than Elizabeth Warren.
The other reason voters perceive Biden as moderate is that on issue after issue, he’s adopted policies that are strikingly progressive while stopping just shy of the specific formulations that might leave him vulnerable to Republican attack. On criminal justice, for instance, Biden has proposed abolishing cash bail and mandatory minimum sentences, and creating a national roster of police officers who abuse their position—all policies that place him to the left of the 2016 Democratic platform. But, to Trump’s dismay, he hasn’t proposed defunding the police.
On education, Biden has proved more skeptical of both standardized testing and charter schools than the Obama administration. He’s also called for tripling federal assistance to schools that educate poor kids, and for making college free for families earning less than $125,000—pledges Clinton did not make four years ago. But he has refused to adopt Sanders’s controversial call to make college free for everyone.
On issue after issue, it’s the same pattern. Biden now embraces a more generous public option than he did during the primaries, and wants to allow Americans to enroll in Medicare at age 60. But he doesn’t support Medicare for All, which polls during the primary campaign found wasn’t popular.
He now calls for making all new buildings carbon neutral by 2030 and ending the use of fossil fuels for creating electricity by 2035. But he won’t endorse a ban on fracking, which local Democrats have warned would hurt the party in Pennsylvania. And his unity task force on climate change, despite being co-chaired by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, doesn’t include the words Green New Deal.
On immigration, Biden wants to let in more refugees. And, unlike Barack Obama, he supports a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants without linking it to tougher border enforcement. But he doesn’t support decriminalizing illegal border crossings or abolishing Immigration and Customs Enforcement, two policies floated during the Democratic primary that don’t poll well.
By repeatedly stopping short of the left’s most ambitious—and most politically incendiary—proposals, Biden has created an agenda that is less progressive than Sanders’s or Warren’s would have been. (On foreign policy, the contrast between Biden and Sanders is even greater.) But as Waleed Shahid, the communications director for Justice Democrats, told Vox’s Matthew Yglesias, Biden is still running on “the most progressive platform of any Democratic nominee in the modern history of the party.”
It’s a shrewd strategy. Biden is allowing progressive activists to push him left—just not so far left that he’d be an easy mark for the GOP. No wonder Trump is sputtering with rage.