The Ripon Forum

Volume 55, No. 1

March 2021

Why Staying Centered is Biden’s Best Bet

By on March 17, 2021

by JON COWAN & MATT BENNETT

At the dawn of his presidency, conventional wisdom has it that President Biden is bowing to pressure from the far left or even that he is “governing as an activist liberal.” He is doing neither. Joe Biden ran as a centrist Democrat, and he won because voters saw him that way. He has appointed moderates to run his administration, and his initial policy ideas all have been decidedly center-left.

That does not mean, however, that President Biden’s actions in his first term will mirror those of another avowed centrist like President Clinton in 1993. The animating principles of Democratic centrism – a belief in free but fair markets that provide equality of opportunity, a vision of a big-tent politics, and a commitment to placing bold and pragmatic policy above ideological litmus tests – are timeless. But the times and the nation’s challenges have changed dramatically in 30 years, and so have centrist Democrats’ governing ideas.

So, Biden will govern as he ran: as a moderate, but the activist, 21st century model. Because this moment demands urgent and aggressive steps to respond to the cascading series of crises he inherited from his maligned and incompetent predecessor. These crises – in public health, the economy, climate change and racial justice – must not be met with old, small, or pie-in-the-sky ideas. It is a time to think anew, go big, and most crucially, get things done.

Almost reflexively, the political chattering classes have mislabeled Biden’s actions, because they are conflating policy boldness with far-left liberalism.

Yet almost reflexively, the political chattering classes have mislabeled Biden’s actions, because they are conflating policy boldness with far-left liberalism. During the last presidential campaign, Senator Bernie Sanders tried to corner the market on audacity, claiming only those committed to his vision of Democratic Socialism – in which government would take over health care and the energy sector and provide a guaranteed federal job for everyone – were up to the task of governing effectively in this new era.

That is nonsense. Democratic centrists, led by Biden, have plenty of big ideas – and it is those ideas, not the ones espoused by the far-left, that will provide the foundation for what gets done under Biden. Senator Bennet’s American Family Act will cut child poverty in half. Senator Coons’ national apprenticeship program will bring to the development of middle skills the scale of our public university system. Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester is working with Third Way on a cost caps proposal that will finally make health care affordable.

Similarly, Third Way’s center-left approach to climate change provides the roadmap for meeting our planet’s existential challenge. This modern and moderate climate agenda, which Biden’s plan tracks closely, eschews liberal shibboleths like renewables-only, while investing trillions to drive a clean energy innovation revolution.

Indeed, what we will not see under Biden is an embrace of the far-left’s signature ideas. Democrats thoroughly debated things like the Green New Deal, Medicare-for-All, abolishing ICE, and eliminating all student loans over the past two election cycles. And the mandate from Democratic primary voters (not to mention the general electorate) was clear: run and govern from the center. The far left’s ideas proved so politically toxic, that they have no chance of moving in this or any Congress in the foreseeable future. And Joe Biden has no interest in tilting at windmills.

By governing from the Democratic center, with an ambitious and actionable agenda, Biden will be best positioned to reach across the aisle, as he promised he would do.

Moreover, by governing from the Democratic center, with an ambitious and actionable agenda, Biden will be best positioned to reach across the aisle, as he promised he would do. In fact, one of his first White House meetings was with Senate Republicans, seeking the ten GOP votes needed to pass a pandemic relief package through regular order. The Republicans came to the table with an offer that was far too low, but the attempt signals that Biden is committed to trying.

Importantly, Biden’s view of bipartisanship is not narrowly confined to hunting for GOP votes on legislation. The consensus he values most is outside the Beltway. His pandemic relief bill may be passed on party line votes in Congress. But as the Washington Post has reported, there are plenty of Republican mayors – and even a few governors – who strongly favor a big package of aid to states and localities, despite what their GOP colleagues are saying in Washington. And support for the package among Republican voters is running at 64%.

At his inaugural, Biden pledged to “fight as hard for those who did not support me as for those who did.” That sentiment, perhaps more than any one policy idea, marks Biden as a centrist Democrat, especially at a time when much of the Republican Party has abdicated its commitment to this core (small d) democratic ideal. In his campaign, and in his presidency, he is standing firmly in that vital American center.

Jon Cowan is President and Matt Bennett is an Executive Vice President of Third Way.

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