Poor Joe Biden. On one side, he is being pressed by progressives who are rallying behind the slogan, “Defund the police.” On the other side, he faces withering blasts from Donald Trump, who vows to uphold “law & order, not defund and abolish the police.”
This squeeze comes during a moment of intense national turmoil. Biden can’t make a move without risking anger among those in the left wing of the Democratic Party or inviting trouble with voters worried about violent unrest. There’s even the risk he could antagonize both sides. On the battlefield, it can be fatal to let your forces be caught between armies advancing from either direction.
But politics is different from war. Sometimes, the middle is the safest place to be. On the issue of the day, Biden occupies a sensible spot: in favor of reforming police, not abolishing them.
Yes, moderation dooms you to being attacked from opposite directions, for contradictory reasons. Yes, you will be disparaged in terms similar to those used by Jesus of Nazareth: “Because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth.”
But you will also be surrounded by the great mass of Americans who inhabit neither extreme. You will be in a position to attract voters who are to your left and to your right. You may thrill few but satisfy many.
Ideologues have no use for moderates, and ideologues tend to dominate both parties. But a 2014 Pew Research Center survey found that only 9% of adults were consistently conservative on issues and only 12% were consistently liberal. Those in the middle — “mixed” — accounted for 39% of the total, with 18% mostly conservative and 22% mostly liberal.
Biden is not likely to get many votes from committed Republicans. But among independents, he has great potential. Trump, by contrast, gets low ratings from not only from independents who lean toward the Democratic Party but also from independents who lean toward neither party. Among independents as a group, 38% see Biden as more moderate than Trump, compared with 28% who disagree.
Being seen as a moderate is an advantage right now, if only because the president frequently sounds so extreme that even congressional Republicans shy away from defending him — as when Trump portrayed an elderly man who was knocked down and seriously injured by Buffalo police as a dangerous radical, or what he called “an Antifa provocateur” who may have cleverly “set up” the cops.
Sen. John Cornyn of Texas begged off comment: “You know a lot of this stuff just goes over my head.” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell did everything but duct tape his mouth. Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah was the rare Republican unwilling to appease Trump: “It was a shocking thing to say.”
It’s hard to detect an election strategy behind Trump’s more intemperate tweets. They can’t fortify his support among his loyal supporters any more than it is already cemented. They can only alienate voters who are open to the general Republican policy agenda but dislike having a raging ignoramus in the Oval Office.
Meanwhile, the president’s behavior provides fuel to mobilize voters who already lean Democratic but didn’t vote in 2016 because Hillary Clinton failed to rouse their enthusiasm. Turnout among African-Americans fell from 66% in 2012 to 59% in 2016. Trump’s broadsides against Black Lives Matter protesters could hardly be better designed to boost turnout in a group that is overwhelmingly against him.
Progressives find plenty of faults in Biden: his role in the 1994 crime bill, his vote for the Iraq War, his intrusive behavior with women and his opposition to “Medicare for All.” Against a different Republican, those disagreements might induce some to stay home or vote for the Green Party.
But Trump forces them to heed the wisdom of Biden’s father, who told him, “Joey, don’t compare me to the Almighty, compare me to the alternative.” If voting Biden into the presidency is not a leftist dream, evicting Trump is. Any progressive who saw little difference between Clinton and Trump has learned a valuable lesson: The lesser of two evils may not be so bad.
Even Trump’s favorite nickname for his opponent may backfire. “Sleepy Joe”? After four years of Trump, a lot of Americans can only look forward to some peaceful slumber.
Steve Chapman blogs at chicagotribune.com/news/opinion/chapman. Follow him on Twitter @SteveChapman13 or at facebook.com/stevechapman13.