The day after his dismal showing in the first Democratic debates, former Vice President Joe Biden said in Chicago: “Folks, the discussion in this race shouldn’t be about the past.”
He’s right, of course. American politics is always about the future. But Biden doesn’t take his own advice. The candidate and his surrogates seem obsessed with talking about his resume: 36 years in the Senate, eight years as Barack Obama’s vice president. The effect is to reinforce his advanced age — he’ll be 78 on Inauguration Day 2021 — and his disconnection from current trends and topics.
Even as a younger and more vigorous figure, Biden was a deeply flawed presidential candidate in 1988 and 2008. And all his weaknesses, aggravated by age, were on full display during the debate in Miami. A post-debate poll by CNN saw him dropping 10 points, from 32 percent to 22 percent, while two younger female senators, Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren, surged upward.
Here’s the huge and growing problem staring Democrats in the face: Biden might be a miscast messenger, but his political position as a pragmatic progressive gives the party its best chance of defeating Donald Trump. If the Democrats abandon the middle ground and veer too far to the left, they are doomed to four more years of Trump in the White House and a generation of conservative justices dominating the Supreme Court.
The debates in Miami showed that’s exactly where the party is headed. On a range of issues from immigration and health care to tax rates and climate change, the loudest voices espoused policies far outside the American mainstream. For example, many of the leading candidates embraced proposals for universal health care that would eliminate private insurance — a position endorsed by only 21 percent of Americans in the CNN poll. Just about every candidate agreed that undocumented immigrants should qualify for health insurance, but 3 in 5 voters reject that idea.
And then there’s busing, the least effective and most unpopular method of achieving school integration. There’s no recent polling on the issue, but 20 years ago, Gallup found only 15 percent of Americans favored “transferring students to other schools to create more integration.” Busing as an issue tore communities apart and helped elect Ronald Reagan in 1980. A Democratic party that embraces that idea — no matter what Kamala Harris preaches about its virtues — is committing suicide.
Rick Tyler, a conservative Republican strategist, accurately summed up the main lesson coming out of the Democratic debates for the Washington Post: “They are not talking to the blue-collar workers that I understand that vote in Pennsylvania and Michigan. Are they seriously capable of choosing a nominee who is going to beat Donald Trump? Right now I have my doubts.”
The Wall Street Journal editorial page was even pithier when they wrote: “President Trump is a lucky man.”
That judgment is reinforced by the facts, not the fantasies feeding liberal dreams of glory. The exit polls in 2016 and a recent Gallup survey came to the exact same conclusion: Only 26 percent of Americans call themselves liberals. And their voting power is even less than that, because they tend to cluster in urban areas and coastal states like New York and California, where many of their votes are wasted.
Trump’s base remains fervently loyal, but stuck at about 35 percent to 37 percent. And his apparent strategy, maximizing the votes of his loyal followers while not reaching beyond his core support, makes little sense.
But the Democrats seem determined to make the same mistake, rushing to extremes and abandoning the moderate middle. And their liberal base, about 1 in 4 voters, is even smaller than Trump’s tribe of true believers. As James Carville, a key architect of Bill Clinton’s 1992 victory, told The New York Times, “This is an election that Trump can’t win but Democrats can lose.”
Democratic voters understand this. By 2 to 1, they told CNN that they prefer a candidate who can defeat Trump, as opposed to someone who shares their views on issues. And 43 percent still see Biden as their best hope for a victory — 30 points ahead of anybody else.
But after Miami, the party faces many questions. Can Biden pull it together and reinvigorate his campaign? Is there another moderate who can effectively take up that banner? If the answer to both questions is no, the party is in deep trouble. And Trump is indeed a lucky man.
Steve and Cokie Roberts: can be reached at email@example.com.