Vote breakdown could bolster Biden’s centrist instincts

By CARL P. LEUBSDORF | The Dallas Morning News | Published: November 11, 2020

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During the dayslong count that climaxed with Joe Biden becoming president-elect, some pundits noted that, for a politician who sought the White House for nearly four decades, four days might seem like a short added time to wait.

In fact, in the nation’s 232-year history, no serious aspirant had run for president so many times over so long a period — three times in 32 years — before ultimately succeeding.

By winning, Biden separated himself from candidates with multiple failed bids — like Henry Clay, William Jennings Bryan and Bob Dole. He joined Ronald Reagan (also successful on his third try), Bill Clinton and Franklin D. Roosevelt in unseating an elected president over the past century.

But there is one big difference. Biden brings a degree of experience unequalled by any of the other three, none of whom won any federal elective office before the presidency. Since his first Senate victory at age 29, the 77-year-old president-elect has spent a mind-boggling 44 years in national office, 36 in the Senate and eight as vice president.

Before his eight years as President Barack Obama’s vice president, he chaired Senate committees dealing with foreign policy and the judiciary. He truly is — as the ads for the elder George Bush proclaimed a generation ago — “a president we won’t have to train.”

That experience is one of the biggest assets Biden will bring to the White House, along with his own centrist political instincts and a history of coalition building.

He’ll need them all to cope with the unusually dire circumstances he will inherit: a nation beset by a once-in-a-century pandemic, a resulting crippled economy, bitter partisan gridlock and the political handicap of being the first new Democratic president since 1884 with a majority in just one chamber of Congress.

But in the past 18 months, Biden showed he was unexpectedly deft at negotiating treacherous political terrain, surviving a complicated nominating process with rivals on both his left and right, the determined opposition of a well-funded and organized opponent, barely concealed internal party frictions and a unique general election where a pandemic limited traditional campaigning.

In celebrating his triumph, Biden made clear that, like most winning candidates, he sees the result as “a mandate” for the steps he outlined in the campaign: to limit the COVID-19 pandemic and restore economic growth.

But more than any specific issue, he sought to set a tone that contrasted sharply with the past four years. “It is time to put away the harsh rhetoric, to lower the temperature, to see each other again, to listen to each other again,” Biden said.

“Let’s give each other a chance,” Biden told the nation, a plea to both the more fervent of his own supporters and his opponents. “They want us to cooperate.”

To succeed, he’ll need to maintain internal Democratic unity and attract enough Republican support — or even acquiescence — to provide the specifics supplementing that welcome change in tone. As is becoming more the rule than the exception for presidents, he’ll likely do administratively some of what he will be unable to legislatively.

Already, there are signs of the problems he’ll face from both sides.

Many Republicans are making the case that GOP success in cutting the Democrats’ House majority and likely maintaining their own Senate margin was a signal against such progressive-pushed policies as the Green New Deal and “Medicare for All,” neither of which Biden backed. Those making that point included both Trump backers and foes, like former Gov. John Kasich, of Ohio, who backed Biden, and Sen. Mitt Romney, of Utah, who didn’t.

Meanwhile, progressive Democrats, led by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, of New York, are staking claim to responsibility for Biden’s majorities in major metropolitan areas. Two of her fellow Squad cohorts, Reps. Ilhan Omar, of Minneapolis, and Rashida Tlaib, of Detroit, made extensive efforts in their majority minority districts to turn out their supporters for Biden.

Biden does owe a lot to minority voters, and especially four prominent black supporters: Barack Obama, who helped spur African American voting in Atlanta, Detroit and Philadelphia; Stacey Abrams, whose intensive registration efforts apparently turned Georgia blue; Rep. James Clyburn, whose support played a major role in Biden’s crucial South Carolina primary victory; and running mate Kamala Harris, who will become the first Black and Asian American vice president.

On the other hand, the president-elect did slightly less well in some major urban areas than Hillary Clinton in 2016. His stronger performances in the suburbs were the reason Democrats regained Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.

Amid these conflicting pressures, the split general election verdict could bolster Biden’s own more centrist instincts. As in the Democratic primaries, there is a strong case he would not have won if he had moved further left.

The venerable Jim Hightower, the former Texas agriculture commissioner and for decades a leading progressive voice in the state, used to say, “There’s nothing in the middle of the road but a yellow stripe and dead armadillos.” But for President-elect Joe Biden, that’s the place that got him to the White House, and it’s the place where his experience can help him to succeed.

Carl P. Leubsdorf is a former Washington bureau chief of The Dallas Morning News.