PHILADELPHIA — Former vice president Joe Biden defends his support for the 1994 crime bill that many blame for mass incarceration of blacks. He declares that most Americans are “satisfied” with a private insurance system reviled by the left. He justifies the North American Free Trade Agreement as a pact that “made sense at the moment.”
And to the dismay of many liberals, he won’t call for a study of slavery reparations, saying the nation has other ways to fight racism.
In his opening weeks as a presidential candidate, Biden has rejected much of the conventional wisdom that drove the first stretch of the Democratic nomination fight, refusing to play to the party’s liberal wing, focus on the wrongs of the past or call for revolutionary transformation.
To the surprise of many, he has been rewarded with a lead in the polls that, so far at least, has proven durable and steady. As a result, his candidacy is challenging assumptions about what Democratic voters want in the era of President Trump.
At its heart, Biden’s campaign is a gamble that his rivals are wrong in seeing the current Democratic Party as liberal, angry and ready for revolution — a case he made in unusually pointed terms at a rally in Philadelphia on Saturday.
“I know some of the really smart folks say Democrats don’t want to hear about unity,” he said. “They say Democrats are so angry that the angrier a candidate can be, the better chance he or she has to win the Democratic nomination.
“Well, I don’t believe it.”
For Biden’s team, the Democrats jockeying for ever more dramatic solutions to the nation’s problems are missing the point. They think the Democratic Party is already fundamentally different from the GOP, which shifted rapidly to the right on many issues in recent years, and say there's no need to answer that with a lunge to the left.
A January poll by the Pew Research Center found that 58 percent of Republicans wanted their party to become more conservative. In contrast, 53 percent of Democrats wanted their party to become more moderate.
That raises the question of whether the party’s center of gravity lies less with vocal activists than with a quieter group of voters that is less likely to join Twitter or show up at campaign events. “His candidacy may be different,” says Biden’s campaign pollster John Anzalone, “But it is the one that is working.”
Biden has the support of 35 percent of Democratic primary voters, according to a recent Fox News poll, putting him 18 percentage points ahead of his closest rival, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).
Many of Biden’s rivals have a very different message. Candidates like Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) say Trump’s rise is not an aberration, but the culmination of deeper rot in the American political system that requires major surgery.
“The man in the White House is not the cause of what is broken,” Warren said in her campaign announcement. “He is just the latest and most extreme symptom of what has gone wrong in America — a product of a rigged system that props up the rich and powerful and kicks dirt on everyone else.”
Others have offered similar diagnoses. “You don't even get a presidency like this unless something’s wrong,” South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg said at a recent campaign stop. “A promise to return to normal ignores that normal hasn’t been working for a lot of people.”
For Biden, though, the problem is largely Trump himself. The country just needs to get back to basics, he says — arguably an unsurprising view for a man who was at the center of power before Trump was elected.
“Four years of this presidency will go down in history as an aberration,” Biden has said at multiple fundraisers across the country.
Biden’s more liberal critics say his current lead in the polls is temporary and doesn’t reflect support for his approach, just his name recognition and the association with his former boss.
“What he’s showing is that Barack Obama is popular among the primary electorate,” said Waleed Shahid, a spokesman for Justice Democrats, a group that helped elect Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), one of the leaders of the party’s liberal wing.
Shahid pointed to polls suggesting that Democrats support policies like Medicare-for-all, a health policy that Biden is not backing, along with the Green New Deal, a sweeping climate agenda. Nearly 70 percent of Democrats and independents said they want a nominee who backs Medicare-for-all, according to a recent Suffolk-USA Today survey.
“There are a lot of voters who both support those policies and support Joe Biden, because they don’t know where Joe Biden is on these policies,” Shahid said, predicting that when voters learn more about his record they will drift away from him.
Biden’s record, his critics say, includes positions that hurt Hillary Clinton’s presidential bids in 2008 and 2016, including his support for the Iraq War, his perceived coziness with Wall Street and his support for NAFTA and other multilateral free-trade deals.
But there’s another explanation for Biden’s early polling lead in Iowa, New Hampshire and nationwide: primary voters are not as focused on litmus tests as the activists are, instead seeking a more centrist candidate who they think can attract independent and Republican voters and beat Trump. In the Suffolk-USA Today poll, 48 percent of Democrats and independents said they wanted a candidate who could win, 10 points more than those preferring a candidate aligned with their priorities.
“The left makes a lot of noise. They get lot of press,” said Elaine Kamarck, a Democratic National Committee member who is neutral in the Democratic contest. “When people vote in primaries and they know the general election is competitive, there is plenty of evidence to show they make sophisticated judgments about who can win.”
Others argue that Democrats above all want a return to the country they knew before it was corrupted, as they see it, by the Trump presidency — and Biden represents that.
“Joe Biden is not a risky choice,” said Patti Solis Doyle, a Democratic strategist who managed Clinton’s 2008 campaign. “Democrats are not willing to take a risk this time around.”
Symone Sanders, a Biden spokeswoman, said the base of the party does have one common goal and argued that her candidate is in the best position to achieve it. “If you ask Democrats across the country, their number one thing across the board is that people want to get Donald Trump out of office.”
But Biden’s critics contend that it’s the former vice president who’s the greater risk for the party. His potential weaknesses haven’t been widely litigated yet by other candidates, though several have taken swipes at Biden in recent days, foreshadowing a larger brawl.
When he has had to answer detractors, he has sometimes appeared dismissive of the concerns of the left.
Responding to criticism of the 1994 crime bill, which he helped pass, Biden said flatly: “It did not generate mass incarceration.” (The Washington Post’s Fact Checker awarded him two Pinocchios for that.) The same issue dogged Clinton during her 2016 campaign, and even her husband President Bill Clinton — who signed the 1994 bill into law — said it went too far during her most recent campaign.
Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.), asked by reporters in New Hampshire about Biden’s remark, said, “I disagree, sadly.”
And though Biden hasn’t unveiled a climate change proposal, he took heat from the left after an adviser described his plan to Reuters as one that would take the “middle ground.” Sanders responded on Twitter: “There is no ‘middle ground’ when it comes to climate policy.”
During his rally on Saturday, Biden said the “first and most important plank” of his climate policy is to defeat Trump.
Biden earned some early union support in the form of an endorsement from the International Association of Fire Fighters. But other labor leaders are uncomfortable with his recent comment that NAFTA, which they consider harmful to U.S. workers, “made sense at the moment.”
Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants, which has not yet endorsed a presidential candidate, predicted that more attention will be on NAFTA in coming weeks.
“Once we have a real debate among the Democratic candidates, and you start to talk about the things that people care about, I think he’s going to have a harder time defending where he is on this issue,” Nelson said of Biden.
The former vice president has taken more liberal stances on some issues. He supports a $15 minium wage, like most of the other Democratic candidates, and wants to modify the Affordable Care Act to include a public option. He has said he wants to decriminalize marijuana.
And he has vocally embraced many economically populist themes. He regularly rails against the greed of corporate executives, saying they punish workers in hard times but reward Wall Street in times of plenty.
That sentiment dovetails with his longtime political identity as a champion of ordinary working people who were his neighbors in Scranton, Pa. “They are squeezing the life out of workers,” he said at his announcement speech in Pittsburgh.
The Biden campaign casts many other liberal causes, in contrast, as issues that may electrify left-wing social media feeds but are less important to most Americans.
When a recent article highlighted the disconnect between the political views of those who tweet and those who vote, Kate Bedingfield, Biden’s deputy campaign manager, shared a link on Twitter.
“So important for Dems to remember,” she wrote.
Chelsea Janes and David Weigel contributed to this report.