Sweeping Change or Move to the Middle? Biden’s Coalition Has Wide Range of Goals If He Wins

November 3, 2020by Alex Roarty, McClatchy Washington Bureau
Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden speaks at a voter activation center in Chester, Pennsylvania, on Monday, Oct. 26, 2020. (Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images/TNS)

WASHINGTON — Jane Palmer’s political history stretches from protesting the Vietnam War as a teenager to backing Bernie Sanders in the 2020 Democratic primary.

Now the 70-year-old is a loyal supporter of Joe Biden, even regularly calling voters in the battleground state of Pennsylvania on his behalf. But she still speaks bluntly about the country’s deep need for “transformative” change — and her expectation that the former vice president deliver it if elected.

“Our health care system is deeply and profoundly broken,” Palmer said. “Our representative government is deeply and profoundly broken. Our environmental policy, our immigration policy, these are deeply, deeply, deeply broken.”

James Greenwood, meanwhile, has a different set of hopes and dreams for a Biden presidency. Greenwood was an elected Republican official in Pennsylvania for more than 20 years — Newt Gingrich once recruited him to run for Congress — and chafes at rhetoric about wealthy Americans not paying enough in taxes.

The former congressman, a vocal critic of President Donald Trump, said he wants Biden to unite the country and begin a new period of legislative compromise.

“It will not be easy, but we need someone to heal deep wounds and the partisan wounds in this country by changing the tone,” said Greenwood, who has campaigned for the Democratic nominee. “(We need to) go 180 degrees from the racist, divisive dog-whistle-blowing of Trump.”

That Biden can count on the unwavering support of two ideological foils like Palmer and Greenwood augurs well for his chances of winning the presidential election — and of the steep governing challenge that awaits him if he does.

Heading into Election Day, a battery of polls show that Biden has built an unusually broad base of support, as he’s made inroads with center-right Republicans while maintaining almost lockstep support from the party’s left wing.

Their shared turn toward the Democrats is thanks mostly to a loathing of Trump, a president members of each bloc view as so repugnant that they are willing to put aside concerns about Biden and vote for him without hesitation.

But if he does win, a President Biden would be forced to grapple with a pair of supportive factions that seek very different actions from his White House, pitted between a left wing (like Palmer) that demands sweeping fixes to the country’s structural problems and moderate Republicans (like Greenwood) who want to restore Washington a calm epicenter of bipartisan problem solving.

“I know Joe is going to have pressure from all sides,” Palmer said. “But he’s going to have pressure from us, too.”

That Biden could count on unflagging support from the Democratic Party’s activist wing wasn’t a given when the primary ended earlier this year. Sanders, a democratic socialist, had won an overwhelming share of voters on the left, many of whom considered Biden ill-equipped to grapple with, in their view, the country’s deep-seated structural problems.

But led by Sanders and fellow progressive leaders like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez — who each have offered Biden their total support — progressives say they have mustered a more uniform and consistent level of advocacy on the Democratic nominee’s behalf than in previous campaigns, including in 2016 when eruptions between the left and Clinton were frequent.

“I see in the progressive spaces a real strategic discipline to doing the work to elect Joe Biden,” said Hannah Laurison, executive director of Pennsylvania Stands Up, a liberal advocacy network in the state. “In other years, I don’t think there’s been that clarity.”

Laurison’s group, for instance, undertook during the general election a digital “deep canvassing” operation, a prolonged effort for its members to conduct a series of conversations with swing voters designed to ultimately convince them to vote for Biden.

Liberals list a number of reasons for their more full-throated backing of Biden this time around, including the Unity Task Force he established with Sanders after the primary that led to the former vice president embracing a more progressive policy agenda.

They also cite the raw fear many of them feel about a second Trump term, especially amid the ongoing pandemic that has seen COVID-19 cases soar nationwide in recent weeks, and what they describe as their own maturation as a political movement. To them, the fight doesn’t end if Biden is elected — it only begins.

“As an organization, we view Biden as someone that we can push,” said Laurison, who wants the current generation of activists to play a role similar to the one their predecessors played with Franklin Roosevelt in the 1930s or with Lyndon Johnson in the 1960s. “We will continue to organize our chapters and our movement in Pennsylvania to hold him accountable and push for the greatest progress we can make during his presidency on issues we care about.”

Even as a centrist, however, Greenwood’s commitment to voting for Biden is no less substantial than the left’s.

Asked what concerns he has about the president, the former GOP congressman said “everything.”

“He is temperamentally unfit for the job, emotionally stunted,” said Greenwood, who earlier this year stepped down as head of the Biotechnology Innovation Organization, a trade and lobbying organization for the pharmaceutical industry. “The bullying and the constant picking of fights over tiny little issues with anybody and everybody, the constant deception, the lying. The failure to learn, to be curious, to listen to experts in his own Cabinet.”

He added that he thought Trump’s response to the coronavirus pandemic was “practically criminal.”

Greenwood, who voted for Clinton in 2016, has participated in a Biden fundraiser and stumped for the Democratic nominee at a recent event, even as he says he retains his Republican registration.

But unlike the left, he sees in a Biden presidency not the possibility of accomplishing seismic changes to public policy, but returning the country to what he considers a normal way of governing.

“They are still moderate Democrats that could work with the Republicans to find the middle,” he said. “It makes for better politics, and a better mood for the country. We don’t need the pendulum swinging to the left after four years of Trump. We need to bring it back closer to the center.”

That’s a far cry from Palmer, a member of Pennsylvania Stands Up, says the knowledge that she and fellow activists will have to keep pushing wasn’t there when the last Democratic president was elected in 2008, Barack Obama.

“I made the mistake that so many people make, which was we won, and I thought, ‘Look what a good job we did. Now I can go back to sleep,'” she said.

She cited in particular Obama’s immigration policies, which critics have said led to far too many deportations, as an area where Biden disappointed her the most.

Last week, Palmer led a digital phone-bank group for Pennsylvania Stands Up from her home in Berks County, located in the southeast part of the state. She gave a pep talk to the group before they started making phone calls to voters, asking that everyone tell her what they hoped for most from a Biden administration.

The answers streamed in: health care reform, action on climate change and racial justice. It’s typical of what a lot of liberals like her want to see from a new administration, Palmer said.

“I’ve learned a lot,” Palmer said. “And I’ve learned that, you know, going back to normal is not what we want.”

“I want decency,” she added. “I also want clean air. I want so much.”


(c)2020 McClatchy Washington Bureau

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC

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