It wasn’t a blue wave, but the 2020 elections gave the Democratic Party unified control of the White House and both chambers of Congress. To keep that control, they have to convince voters they’re not the radicals many believe them to be.
During the 2020 campaign, President Trump lampooned Joe Biden as a “socialist” and “radical leftist” who would defund the police and abolish the suburbs. Biden actually won the Democratic presidential nomination by running as a moderate and rejecting the soak-the-rich policies of liberals like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. And he beat Trump not with radical ideas but with promises of calm and competent leadership.
Still, Trump’s socialist labeling damaged the Democratic party in some ways and will remain a problem if Biden doesn’t vanquish it. Some analysts think Trump won Florida because Hispanic voters familiar with socialist failures in Venezuela and Cuba bought Trump’s mischaracterization of Biden, who did little to refute it. Democrats lost seats in the House and did worse than expected in the Senate, signs that voters trust the party less than they trust Biden. Many moderate Democrats blamed the party’s progressive wing for touting ideas like a government takeover of the health care and energy sectors and damaging the party’s prospects with mainstream voters.
The Democratic party does have a socialist streak. Sen. Bernie Sanders and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez—darlings of the party’s liberal wing—both identify as a “democratic socialist.” In a 2020 Gallup survey, 76% of Democrats said they’d be willing to vote for a presidential candidate who happened to be a socialist, while only 45% of all voters said the same. So Democrats generally support a political philosophy that a majority of Americans don’t.
There may be a definitional issue here, with some Americans thinking “socialism” simply means more government support to the needy. Ocasio-Cortez says socialism, to her, evokes Scandinavian-style safety nets. But to anybody familiar with eastern Europe during the Cold War, or Cuba or Venezuela, socialism is a government that strangles the economy through mismanagement and ineptitude, spreading misery.
First test comes in 2022
Biden opposes many priorities of liberal Democrats, such as Medicare for all, which would eliminate private insurance, and the Green New Deal, which would involve massive federal intervention in many sectors of the economy. He wants to raise taxes on businesses and the wealthy, but only back to where they were before the 2017 Trump tax cuts. Biden rejects an additional wealth tax of the sort Sanders and Warren want, and he never supported the idea of a universal basic income, or annual payout to every adult American.
The challenge for Biden is keeping those liberal Democrats satisfied during his presidency, while also positioning himself as a moderate who won’t make anybody worse off in order to make others better off. The first test will come in the 2022 midterm elections, when Republicans will be gunning to overcome narrow Democratic majorities in the House and Senate. The 78-year-old Biden may not run for reelection in 2024, but if not he certainly would want to set up his understudy, Vice President Kamala Harris, to succeed.
At the outset of his presidency, Biden seems to be placating both sides reasonably well. He may not get everything in the $1.9 trillion relief bill he’s proposing as his first major set of legislation, but his call for new $1,400 stimulus checks, an expansion of unemployment assistance and massive aid to states and cities track with liberal priorities. Student debt relief of at least $10,000 could get tacked onto this bill, checking another progressive box. If Congress doesn’t ultimately pass all this, Biden can plausibly blame it on obstructionist Senate Republicans and say he did his best.
Next up will probably be a big infrastructure bill, another liberal wish-list item. This bill won’t have guaranteed jobs and free health care as the Green New Deal does, but it will tilt heavily toward green-energy investments, while perhaps killing tax breaks for oil and gas drilling. Biden has promised many thousands of new green-energy jobs, but he needs to avoid the impression that his policies are killing traditional energy jobs along the way. New policies that kill jobs today with the promise of replacement jobs in the future are bad politics that would make it easy for the socialist label to stick.
Then, in late 2021 or early 2022, Biden is likely to propose a series of tax hikes designed to make businesses and the wealthy “pay their fair share,” as Biden says. The corporate tax rate would probably rise by a few percentage points. Income tax rates on households earning more than $400,000 would go back to the pre-Trump levels, and capital gains taxes on those earning more than $1 million would go up, as well.
Americans broadly support such tax hikes, but that could change if they seem to be connected with a drop in stock prices or a stall in the economic recovery. Biden wants the new tax revenue to help pay for programs such as more affordable housing, child care, elder care and parts of his climate agenda. It will be Biden’s job above all to sell the overall package to voters and convince them it’s mainstream policy good for nearly everybody. That will determine whether the inevitable “socialist” accusations against Biden and his fellow Democrats in 2022 and 2024 stick, or whither.
Rick Newman is the author of four books, including “Rebounders: How Winners Pivot from Setback to Success.” Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman. Confidential tip line: firstname.lastname@example.org. Click here to get Rick’s stories by email.