“Less is more” doesn’t have the ring of “It’s the economy, stupid” but it sums up the Biden campaign’s rope-a-dope strategy, engaging as little as possible with the media and the public as other Democratic primary candidates punch themselves out. And why not, when the most recent RealClearPolitics average of national polls has Vice President Joe Biden more than 16 points ahead of his nearest rival, Bernie Sanders, in the crowded field?
One longtime Democrat put it this way, “For what is widely considered an establishment campaign, they’ve gone quite dark at the top.” And for good reason, he says: They figure time is on their side; some of these candidates will shake out; and they don’t want to waste any resources on this stage of the race. They want to wait until they can see the proverbial whites of the surviving candidates’ eyes, when the race has more shape and feel to it.
Biden skipped a state Democratic convention in California last weekend where former Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper got booed for saying socialism is “not the answer” if Democrats want to defeat President Trump and advance bold progressive ideas. Biden had a good excuse, he was in Ohio at an LGBTQ event. But he would not have been warmly received in a venue filled with activists working to push the party to the left.
Biden’s challenge over the coming weeks and months is to burnish his aura of electability, and avoid faux fights. The desire to win among Democrats is so strong that even the most highly ideological among them have to factor that in. But there’s no wishing away the divide in the party, compounded this time by generational conflict. The booing in California offers a hint of what lies ahead as the Twitter universe of Democrats, mainly liberal activists, jockey for media attention and threaten to drown out the broader rank and file of Democrats and independents that Biden is counting on.
“The crowd in California is not representative of the Democratic Party, but some Democrats are OK with socialism,” says Jack Pitney, a professor of American politics at Claremont McKenna College. “And if I were in my old job of Republican opposition researcher, I would hope for their continued prominence,” he told the Daily Beast.
Democrats have a long history of forming a “circular firing squad,” as President Obama recently referred to it, “where you start shooting at your allies because one of them is straying from purity on the issues.”
He warned: “And when that happens, typically the overall effort and movement weakens."
Going back to failed challenger Ted Kennedy declaring at the 1980 Democratic Convention, “The dream shall never die,” to Sanders urging his followers to “continue the revolution” in 2016, the vanquished soldier on to damage the victor.
Keeping their eyes on the prize, defeating Trump, as opposed to turning on each other is a lot to ask of ambitious politicians, but this is no ordinary election. “It’s like one of those action movies, a bunch of misfits on a mission, and they have to put aside their personal quarrels to achieve the mission,” says Pitney, who adds that, while there are many legitimate debates to be had with frontrunner Biden, “flyspecking votes and quotes from the '70s is not helpful” to the mission, or relevant to most voters.
Biden surprised his rivals with a $1.7 trillion plan to combat climate change that goes beyond what he advocated for as President Obama’s vice president and should blunt attacks from the left that he is “mushy” on the environment. Some lines in the 22-page proposal directly lifted from advocacy groups revived old charges of plagiarism, and the campaign quickly added appropriate attributions to correct the sloppy staff work.
Biden supporters breathed another sigh of relief when their candidate moved quickly to reverse himself on the Hyde Amendment, after initially reaffirming his support. In a statement at a Democratic Party event in Atlanta, he said “circumstances have changed,” and he could no longer back Hyde, which bans federal funding to pay for abortions for poor women who receive Medicaid. Biden said the onslaught of Republican governors curtailing reproductive rights made him realize, "if I believe health care is a right, as I do, I can no longer support an amendment that makes that right dependent on someone's ZIP code.”
Biden supporters see these tests on climate and abortion as evidence that Biden can change and be more nimble. “He slipped the noose twice this week,” said a Democrat familiar with the Biden camp’s thinking, demonstrating he has the ability to outmaneuver his competitors and keep the focus on President Trump. “That’s where the heart of the party is, to take on Trump,” he says. “They don’t want to see a circular firing squad. He’s playing where the party is. He’s talking over the heads of his rivals and competing on an equal level as a former vice president.”
The question ahead is how much room for error does Biden have? Social media is ready to pounce at any perceived verbal slip, and Biden’s gift for gab is a gaffe waiting to happen. Pitney is working on a book about the 1988 presidential election, and points out that Biden was forced out of that race by technological advances. It was a videotape of a speech by a British politician, Neil Kinnock, whom Biden referenced without credit, and that a rival campaign operative turned into an attack tape. And it was the first campaign where C-SPAN, launched in 1979, had the resources to cover candidates outside of Washington and into a living room in New Hampshire where Biden could be seen exaggerating his college record.
Getting out of that race saved Biden’s life. He had been ignoring headaches which turned out to be an aneurysm. This time, at age 76, “he’s rope-a-doping and why not,” says Matt Bennett, a co-founder of Third Way, a moderate Democratic group. “This is not Jimmy Carter in the Rose Garden,” where he limited his campaigning in 1980 because of the Americans taken hostage in Iran.
“He doesn’t have to strain like the others. His camp is prosecuting this campaign on its own terms, and that’s probably smart.”
Just as Biden is intent on assembling a broad coalition to dethrone Trump, House Speaker Pelosi is focused on maintaining the Democratic majority in the House, and that means protecting 44 frontline members in districts Trump won by varying margins or lost by a small enough margin that the seat is not considered safe.
“The only thing worse than a second Trump term is a second Trump term without Democrats controlling the House,” says a Democratic strategist. That goal has prompted moves by the DCCC (Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee) that progressive activists find offensive. The DCCC chair, Illinois Democrat Cheri Bustos, backed out of attending a fundraiser this month for anti-choice Democrat Dan Lipinski, saying the timing wasn’t great with the wave of bills banning most abortions, but insisting the DCCC’s mission remains the same: protecting vulnerable incumbents. The DCCC won’t work with consultants who sign on with primary challengers, which activists say amounts to a blacklist.
The party needs its activists, who have moved Democrats left on climate change, healthcare and gun violence. But for a party that professes to be inclusive, purity tests should not be how Democrats determine which among them advances to the final rounds of the primary race ahead. The California Convention that Biden skipped this year, endorsed Senator Dianne Feinstein’s Democratic challenger last year, giving former state lawmaker Kevin De Léon more than 65 percent of the vote to just seven percent for the four-term incumbent. That November, Feinstein beat him by nine points.
It’s a mistake to judge the electorate even in bright blue California by its activists. The California primary, moved up to March 3, 2020, the earliest it’s ever been, will be semi-open, meaning Independents can vote. That’s where Biden is planting his flag.
They will be Biden voters together with Democrats seeking a winner. Their strategy: Keep it simple, stay in the fight, but don’t fight.