It was right around this point in March 2012, just after Mitt Romney won the Illinois primary, that his senior advisor Eric Fehrnstrom publicly discussed how the Republican candidate soon would erase the conservative positions he had adopted during primaries. “It’s almost like an Etch A Sketch: you can kind of shake it up, and we start all over again,” Fehrnstrom said.
Joe Biden will likely win the Illinois primary this Tuesday, but it looks like he is waiting a little bit longer to shake his Etch A Sketch. Sunday evening’s debate did not find Biden pivoting toward the center, as he seemingly marches inexorably to the Democratic nomination. If anything, he was Etch A Sketching away his own moderate record, moving ever-leftward in fending off Bernie Sanders.
That process began shortly before the debate, when Biden announced his support for a bankruptcy bill touted by Elizabeth Warren. During the debate he appeared to announce a “no new fracking” policy; spoke ambitiously of ensuring all workers are made “whole” from financial losses in the coronavirus-triggered economic crisis; promised to choose a woman running-mate; and vigorously refuted charges that he has favored cuts to Social Security benefits.
Most striking, though, was Biden’s aggressive talk on immigration—a certain trouble spot for Democrats in the general election campaign against Donald Trump. Biden, who started the campaign unwilling to criticize the Obama administration on deportations, has come around to fully distancing himself from those policies and actions. He went further Sunday, saying that as President he will “immediately” file a bill to provide a path to citizenship for 11 million undocumented residents; will not deport anybody in his first 100 days in office; and will then deport only those who commit felonies in the U.S.
Trump’s re-election campaign manager and communications director could scarcely contain their glee at being gifted those statements. “Insanity!” tweeted the former. “Extreme and dangerous” the latter chimed in.
Strategy or goading?
It wasn’t entirely clear whether all this was a deliberate strategy. There would be a logic to trying to use this debate to appeal directly to supporters of Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders. Not that he needs them to win the nomination at this point. And, his implicit theory of the case is that beating Trump will depend more on wooing moderate independents and Republicans, than maximizing the progressive vote.
But, those progressives are just now coming to terms with the reality of Biden as their standard-bearer, and this could be a good window to speak to them before the general election fully kicks in. On the other hand, it felt as though Biden started the debate aiming for the center, and switched directions to goad Sanders.
For the first half hour, things went much the way top Democrats hope the rest of the primary season goes. Sanders stressed his grand view of the need for radical, fundamental change, leaving Biden plenty of room to paint himself as an incrementalist by comparison.
During those first 30 minutes, Sanders repeatedly placed the coronavirus crisis in the broader context of his overarching themes: a failing health care system, unequal economy, and rigged politics. Biden rejected that thinking, insisting on focusing on “first things first.” That figures to be a more appealing message right now to those independents and Trump-weary Republicans who Biden hopes to win over in November.
But a little past the half-hour mark, the tone shifted. Sanders began attacking Biden aggressively, and personally, from the left—and Biden fought back hard.
It began with an extended back-and-forth on Social Security. The Sanders campaign has, since Biden’s rise on Super Tuesday, been pounding away at Biden’s alleged infidelity to the entitlement program. Surprisingly, even though Biden raised it first by complaining about the Sanders ads on the topic, he seemed ill-prepared to fend off the attack that quickly followed.
That set the tone for the next hour of Biden defending his left flank, on immigration, climate, and more. It might not have been as they sketched it out in debate prep. And the parrying with Sanders probably offended young progressives more than appeased them.
Regardless, Biden gave a strong performance. He projected knowledge, experience, leadership, and empathy, particularly when talking about the coronavirus crisis. He probably wants to project those qualities a lot more going forward, rather than bickering over his lefty bona fides. Maybe, like Romney, he’ll get to use that Etch A Sketch after the Illinois primary.