Finley: Just stay in the middle, Joe Biden

Nolan Finley
The Detroit News
Democratic presidential candidate, former Vice President Joe Biden speaks during the Human Rights Campaign Columbus, Ohio Dinner at Ohio State University Saturday, June 1, 2019.

Joe Biden entered the Democratic presidential nomination race a month ago with a Day One substantial lead in the polls over Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and the rest of the donkey herd.

The former vice president has seen that lead shrink somewhat recently. But it’s still substantial enough that Biden can afford to be himself and doesn’t have to follow nearly every other Democratic hopeful in lurching to the left to appease the party’s progressive wing.

He’s facing enormous pressure to do so. Last weekend in Iowa, his primary opponents castigated for his “safe” middle lane stance. After saying he wouldn’t change his position on the Hyde Amendment, which bans federal funds for abortions, Biden flipped flopped to come in line with progressive orthodoxy.

If he keeps shifting to be more like his competitors, he’ll keep falling in the polls. Biden has built a center-left political career and a reputation for empathy with the needs of blue-collar Americans. A union Democrat, he’s never been a detached-from-reality liberal ready to destroy jobs and lifestyles in the name of the greater good.

His appeal doesn’t lie with the socialists, radical environmentalist and social justice warriors who have become the voice of the Democratic Party, but not necessarily its real base. Trying to appease these impossible-to-satisfy ultra liberals is a losing game.

“Way too much attention in the Democratic primary race is being paid to young, progressive voters,” says Detroit News pollster Richard Czuba of the Glengariff Group.

While they may be setting the agenda today, they won’t be the voters who decide the nominee next year.

“Black voters and older voters hold the keys to nomination,” Czuba says. “Those voters really like Joe Biden. He’s unusually well positioned with them.”

Their issues center on economic opportunity and financial security. They’re more interested in saving Medicare than in saving the planet. More concerned with finding and keeping a job than in waiting in line for all the free stuff Democratic candidates are promising.

“He doesn’t need to engage progressive voters in the same way Sanders does,” Czuba says.

Not tying himself to the progressive agenda will give Biden a better shot at defeating President Donald Trump in the general election. Democratic voters recognize Biden is more electable, and that explains his current lead.

“The message that is resonating with the broader Democratic base is, ‘I can win,’” Czuba says. “There’s an unusual thing happening on the Democratic side of the aisle; they just want someone who can win.

“Young Democrats want to fall in love with someone. Older Democrats want to win this time. They want change and will ride the horse that can take them to change.”

Independent voters and Republicans disenchanted with Trump have little use for the hard-left Democratic hopefuls. Biden is the only candidate viewed favorably by independent voters in Michigan, according to last week’s Detroit News/WDIV-Ch. 4 poll. His favorable/unfavorable rating is plus 12 percentage points in the state. Liberal Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, by contrast, is negative 19 points.

That should tell Biden to stick to his script. He should avoid moves that take him away from the center — such as his version of the pricey Green New Deal unveiled last week — and present himself as stable, moderate and ready to lead the entire country, not just one extreme segment of it. 

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