Pence’s gambit came as no surprise to anyone who has been paying attention. Democratic progressives have embraced a host of proposals that polls show are unpopular with moderate voters, such as Medicare-for-all and paying reparations to Black Americans whose ancestors had been enslaved. Just as President Barack Obama tried to hang unpopular tea party proposals around Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney’s neck in 2012, Pence knows that Joe Biden is potentially vulnerable to the charge that he will bend sharply to the left once in power.
Indeed, Biden has already lurched leftward since he started his presidential campaign. He had been a lifelong supporter of the Hyde Amendment, a provision that Congress enacted more than 40 years ago that prevents government funds in Medicaid and other health programs from paying for abortions. Under pressure from the left, however, Biden renounced that position in June 2019. He also set up joint commissions with party progressives after clinching the nomination to ensure they could agree on a common platform. They did, and the resultant proposals were often to the left of those Biden himself had preferred during the primaries.
Take, for example, Biden’s refusal to reveal his current position on the potential packing of the Supreme Court after the election. Last year, Biden unequivocally opposed the idea, saying that if Democrats added justices to the court, Republicans would do the same when they got power. He correctly noted that this would weaken the separation of powers and the independence of the judiciary. Now, however, Biden won’t say what he believes, arguing that clarifying his position would be a distraction. In a sense, he’s right; it would be a distraction, but not from the pending nomination hearings for Judge Amy Coney Barrett. Revealing his true thoughts on court packing would be a distraction from his campaign’s most important effort: consolidating the center and the far left behind his candidacy.
Biden can’t hide from this insuperable challenge forever. Once in office, he no longer has the bad man in the White House as a unifying target. He will have to lead and take positions. He will have to choose whether to tilt to the center or to the left on a host of policies. The Democratic Party’s recent history suggests he’ll go left, and hard.
That’s what both Bill Clinton and Barack Obama did after their initial victories. Clinton campaigned as a “New Democrat” who could be compassionate about government while fighting crime, combating welfare abuse and limiting government. In office, however, he proposed policies far to the left of American opinion at the time, such as a tax on energy and a government health-care plan even more ambitious than Obamacare. That wasn’t what Americans had voted for, and they didn’t like the bait-and-switch. The 1994 elections were a historic rejection of the Democratic Party, allowing Republicans to win control of the U.S. House for the first time since 1952.
Obama, too, campaigned as a centrist. Indeed, the speech that propelled him to national prominence conspicuously drew a bipartisan tone. In office, however, he pushed a climate change agenda that was a progressive priority but of little import to many people whose lives had been upended by the Great Recession. He spent his considerable political capital on passing Obamacare rather than making economic improvement job one. The Republican victory in 2010 was even larger and more historic than the 1994 wave.
If a Biden-Harris administration takes office, it will do so because millions of people who voted Republican for most of their adult lives will cross party lines to rid themselves of President Trump. These voters are surely to the left of the Republican Party, but no polling data suggest they share progressive priorities. Progressives, however, have been winning Democratic primaries in unprecedented numbers this year, giving them more bargaining power than ever before. There’s every reason to believe that once in office, Biden and Harris will listen more to these Democrats than to the swing voters who elected them. That means we’re looking at yet another bait-and-switch that will surprise and disappoint the people who yearn for unity.
Pence likely didn’t dent Biden’s big lead by reminding Americans of what the Democratic left really wants. But if he keeps doing this, he might lay the groundwork for a quick Republican return to power — and perhaps his own.