Polls show Joe Biden faces a troubling voter enthusiasm gap, and has not succeeded in bringing over significant support from Republican voters. That means he will need to generate major Democratic voter enthusiasm — and it means he should stop triangulating against the base of his party and publicly dunking on the millions of Democratic voters who supported Sen. Bernie Sanders in the party’s last two presidential primaries.
During an interview with a local Fox affiliate in Wisconsin today, Biden took a shot at Sanders in response to a reporter’s loaded question about “voters that are worried about socialism and you raising taxes.”
There are plenty of ways to answer that question. You can reject the arguments over labels. You can pivot to talking about expanding health care and fighting the pandemic -- two issues that are top concerns to Wisconsin voters, according to the latest Ipsos poll.
Instead, Biden used the opportunity to dunk on Bernie Sanders -- the third most popular Democrat in America, ahead of Biden, according to YouGov’s national poll.
“I beat the socialist. That’s how I got elected. That’s how I got the nomination,” Biden said. “Do I look like a socialist? Look at my career, my whole career. I’m not a socialist.”
That’s certainly true -- Biden has tried to cut Social Security, supported bank deregulation and is opposed to Medicare for All. The only part of Biden’s record that could be called socialist was his vote to bailout Wall Street executives -- but that was a form of corporate socialism that enriched the wealthiest and most powerful people in the country after they ruined millions of Americans’ lives.
So yeah, while Biden is no socialist, none of his record proving that is anything to brag about. More important, Biden’s instinct to crap on progressives, rather than energizing them, is totally counterproductive to the effort to defeat Donald Trump. It not only helps Trump by validating his red-scare framing of the election, it also tells progressives that Biden may not be the ally he is promising to be.
“Bernie Sanders carried my district in the heart of Silicon Valley. He won a district known for our support for entrepreneurship, markets and innovation,” said Rep. Ro Khanna, a former co-chair of Sanders’ presidential campaign. “Why? We voted for him because you cannot have a resilient economy without investing in people’s health and education. Bernie’s message really was that simple. Our party should not validate Republican talking points by falsely marginalizing Bernie, his supporters and his agenda. During this pandemic, we should be promoting the principle that healthcare is a human right — a message that has drawn millions.”
A Pattern That Needs To End
Now sure, Biden did go on to focus the latter part of his response on income inequality and billionaires paying their fair share of taxes. That’s good. And if his reflex to crap on the left was a one-off, fine. Candidates make mistakes or go off script. No biggie.
But this is part of a pattern, and it has to end.
A few weeks ago, Biden’s campaign made headlines echoing Republican talking points about the deficit and insinuating that a Biden administration wouldn’t follow through on its budget promises. Biden also told his Wall Street donors that despite his public promises, “I’m not proposing any” legislation to change corporate behavior. That followed his previous promise to his big donors that “nothing would fundamentally change” for them under a Biden administration.
Right now, most of the progressive movement has set aside its deep policy differences with Biden in order to prioritize defeating Trump. There’s a whole #NotHimUs initiative working to mobilize former Sanders supporters behind Biden’s campaign.
All of that is laudable -- as I’ve written before, it’s exactly what needs to happen, and Biden’s campaign needs to be helping those efforts help his candidacy.
Dunking On Bernie & Socialism Is Dumb Politics
That’s the problem with comments like the one Biden made today. When he publicly stomps on those initiatives and Sanders voters, he’s doing the opposite: He’s making it more difficult for progressive groups to mobilize the voters he will need in this election.
And for what purpose? To try to attract a handful of affluent Republicans who are worried about socialism?
The latest YouGov poll suggests that far more people are worried about losing their corporate-run health care coverage than they are about some academic debate about taxes and socialism. Indeed, 70 percent of voters said that health care is an important issue to them right now -- less than half say the same about taxes and government spending. A separate Marist poll found 34 percent of voters said coronavirus, climate change and health care are their top issues -- higher than the 21 percent of voters who said the economy is their top issue.
While I’m not suggesting Biden go out and campaign explicitly on the socialism label, let’s remember that a Gallup Poll shows 4 in 10 Americans actually say they support some form of socialism. It is not the deadly political kryptonite that some imagine it to be -- which means there is no political imperative for a Democratic presidential candidate to proudly boast to voters about how much he hates it.
And let’s remember: The relatively small group of people who are genuinely worried about socialism are not a large set of persuadable voters -- more typically, they are hard-core Trump supporters.
The people who are persuadable are young voters and disillusioned voters who need to be energized and mobilized.
Kicking Sanders and progressive voters doesn’t help accomplish that.
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