Whether they can reduce it to a single word to be attached to Biden’s first name, one consistent message from President Trump and his campaign is that Biden is a puppet of the “radical left,” so captured by those bent on destroying America that should he be elected our beautiful country will be immediately transformed into a hellscape of burning cars and smashed windows.
“He will be run by a radical fringe group of lunatics that will destroy our country,” Trump said recently on Fox News. “Sleepy Joe Biden and the Radical Left Democrats want to ‘DEFUND THE POLICE’ ”, he tweeted. And here’s what Trump said at his recent rally in Tulsa:
If the Democrats gain power, then the rioters will be in charge and no one will be safe and no one will have control. Joe Biden is not the leader of his party. Joe Biden is a helpless puppet of the radical left. And he’s not radical left. I don’t think he knows what he is anymore. But he was never radical left, but he’s controlled by the radical left, and now he’s really controlled.
Trump is right: Biden isn’t himself “radical left.” Even Trump admits that’s a tough case to make. But the attempt to paint him as a puppet of the radical left will probably fail just as badly, because the country just witnessed a long primary campaign pitting Biden against the left.
The fact of that primary campaign may be more important than Biden’s own record or ideological beliefs. That’s because while most voters may not have a secure handle on the positions Biden has taken over the years, they know what they just saw. Had it not been for the primary campaign, it would have been far easier for Trump to take a vote here and a statement there and weave them into a tale in which Biden founded the Symbionese Liberation Army and was best friends with Pol Pot.
But consider what we just witnessed: A year or so of a primary campaign that was characterized by pretty much everyone as an argument between two wings of the Democratic Party. On one side was Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and others who wanted profound and fundamental change. On the other was Biden, and to a far lesser extent people such as Pete Buttigieg.
With just about every issue, the left candidates argued for more comprehensive and faster change, while Biden disagreed. They criticized him for being too cozy with Republicans. He insisted that he could work with them. They proposed Medicare-for-all; he wanted something more modest.
And Biden won, a victory that was characterized by almost every observer as a triumph of pragmatic moderation over ambitious ideology. Even if you don’t pay close attention to politics, you know that he fought with the left and beat them. So when Trump comes along and says Biden is the left’s puppet, it makes no sense.
And Biden continues to reinforce the contrast between him and the left in ways that attract attention.
His first impulse is usually to reject symbolic gestures to the left, which often arise quickly, before complicated policy questions are worked out. This is something candidates regularly have to deal with: A new demand or even a new slogan emerges, and they’re asked to accept or reject it, often before they’ve had much opportunity to think it through.
We saw this in the primaries, for instance, with “Abolish ICE,” a striking slogan that was a bit misleading (its advocates didn’t want to stop enforcing immigration laws, only to dismantle an abusive agency and redistribute its responsibilities). A few candidates, including Sanders and Warren, didn’t start shouting the slogan but did endorse the basic idea.
Biden didn’t, because he has conservative inclinations: When confronted with an idea that sounds radical, his first reaction is to say, “Whoa there, let’s not be too hasty.” That’s why, for instance, he quickly rejected the “Defund the police” idea when it emerged — not, I’d argue, because he doesn’t want to see fundamental police reform, but because he instinctively shies away from anything that sounds too disruptive.
That leads to (often quite reasonable) criticism from the left, which only reinforces the idea that the Biden campaign is quite happy to see repeated as often as possible, that leftists are unhappy with Biden because he’s too moderate.
But hasn’t Biden moved to the left on substance? Yes, he has, and he may continue to do so. And because he’s so widely perceived as not just the opposite of a wild-eyed radical but someone who is in constant conflict with the left, he has plenty of room to do so.
But for Biden to be the left’s “puppet,” they have to seem like the ones with power, and he has to be the one at their mercy. After he just beat them to take the party’s nomination, it’s just not a story most voters are going to believe.