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Biden, others argue the Democratic center will hold - and win

Former Vice President Joe Biden with his campaign

Former Vice President Joe Biden with his campaign supporters Aug. 9 in Clear Lake, Iowa. Credit: AP/John Locher

The left and the center have long been locked in a tug-of-war over the soul of the Democratic Party.

They’ve clashed anew in the Democratic primary to decide which candidate can defeat Republican President Donald Trump in 2020.

Progressives argue that moderates aren’t being bold enough to effect lasting change while moderates say progressives’ policies will cost the party swing voters and ultimately, the White House. Here’s a closer look at the case each faction is seeking to make:

Former Vice President Joe Biden, fighting his way through a crowded field of Democratic primary candidates, has sought to portray himself as the voice of reason.

In a time when the progressive flank of the party is increasingly visible and vocal, Biden has, for example, challenged proponents of Medicare For All — a single government-run system covering all Americans.

“Maybe they have a plan. I haven’t seen it. How are they going to fund that? What are they going to do?” he said in comments to reporters last month in Detroit.

Biden and other left-of-center Democrats say a pragmatic approach is the path to the White House and veering too far to the left would mean another term for Republican President Donald Trump. The former vice president, in particular, has staked his primary campaign on electability and the case that he is best positioned to beat Trump.

Moderates also have argued that policies such as entirely government-run health care are unappealing to crucial heartland swing voters and pie in the sky.

Montana Gov. Steve Bullock in last month’s Democratic debates called plans such as those from progressive Sens. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Bernie Sanders of Vermont “wish-list economics.” Former Rep. John Delaney of Maryland called them “fairy-tale economics.”

Centrist groups note that it was moderate Democrats — those who flipped seats from red to blue — who helped the party to reclaim the House majority in the 2018 midterms. Everyday Americans need to remain the focus, the groups say. 

“They’re really worried about whether they can put food on their own table, whether they send their kid to college, whether they can have a job that gives them a solid retirement,” said Lanae Erickson, senior vice president of social policy and politics at Third Way, a center-left think tank. “We’re pushing for folks to come at it from a perspective of ‘How can we address these urgent problems?’ Not, ‘Do we want to have a faculty-lounge debate about ideals in a land of unicorns?’”

But the more liberal White House hopefuls and their allies are pushing for bold, revolutionary moves over incremental change. Warren at the last debate took a shot at Delaney for talking only about “what we can’t do and what we shouldn’t fight for.”

Biden, who was a senator from Delaware, has maintained his front-runner status in the polls, however tenuously, helped by the broad perception that he is the most electable.

A national Quinnipiac University poll released earlier this month found that 49 percent of Democrats say Biden has the best chance of beating Trump in the general election. Sanders came in second place on the question with 12 percent.

Former U.S. Ambassador Terry Shumaker, a Democratic National Committee member and longtime Biden backer, said Republicans in his home state of New Hampshire have told him they would support Biden over the other Democratic candidates.

“The two things I hear when I’m talking to people, Democrats and independents and even Republicans here in New Hampshire are: One, can he beat Trump? And two, can he do the job?” Shumaker said.

The Quinnipiac poll showed 50 percent of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents prefer a candidate who is the “most electable” while 46 percent prefer a candidate who most shares their views on issues.

Biden, far and away in the poll, has the most support among Democratic voters identifying as moderate and conservative. Forty-three percent in the group support him compared to 11 percent for Warren and nine percent for Sanders.

“There are big gaps between him and the rest of the pack when it comes to people who say they’re moderate or conservative,” Quinnipiac polling analyst Mary Snow said of the monthslong trend.

There are other centrists in waiting to the fill the vacuum for middle-of-the-road voters should Biden’s gaffes or other missteps endanger his candidacy. They include Bullock, Delaney, Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado, but each have been polling around 1 percent or lower.

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