By Perry Bacon Jr. – FiveThirtyEight
Six weeks ago, when Sen. Bernie Sanders dropped out of the presidential race, it seemed like the Democratic Party’s left wing suffered a major and potentially long-lasting defeat. Not only had Sanders lost, but former Vice President Joe Biden had won while casting many left-wing ideas as both unrealistic and detrimental to Democrats’ chances of winning elections.
But if Biden is elected in November, the left may get a presidency it likes after all — or at least one it hates less than anticipated. The coronavirus outbreak and the resulting massive surge in unemployment has moved American political discourse to the left: Ideas that would have been considered too liberal for most Democrats a few months ago are now being proposed by Republicans. And if American politics is moving left, expect Biden to do the same. Biden was often cast as a centrist or a moderate during the Democratic primaries, but those labels don’t really describe his politics that well — he doesn’t really seem to have any kind of set ideology at all.
Instead, Biden’s long record in public office suggests that he is fairly flexible on policy — shifting his positions to whatever is in the mainstream of the Democratic Party at a given moment. So if Biden wins the presidency and his fellow Democrats are still clamoring for more government spending to help the pandemic recovery, Biden is likely to be a fairly liberal president, no matter how moderate he sounded in the primaries.1
Biden positions himself in the center of the Democratic Party
Biden is a centrist in a certain way — he has historically positioned himself in the center of the Democratic Party, between the party’s most liberal and most conservative members. (And he does that positioning generally on foreign policy, economics and social issues.) The center of the party is a moving target of course.
“The best way to understand Biden is as a reflection or reaction to the party’s main planks throughout the last 40 years, rather than leading or shaping it,” said Lily Geismer, a history professor at Claremont McKenna College who has written extensively about the Democratic Party and liberalism. “I don’t see Biden as embodying any of the ideological terms or positions of centrist or liberal, certainly not center-left and not really neoliberal either. Instead I see his ideology as first and foremost a Democrat. He has throughout his career toed the party line rather than an ideological one.”
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