Opinion

KOLB: Joe Biden The Moderate

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Charles Kolb Deputy Assistant to George H.W. Bush
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Editor’s note: We endeavor to bring you the top voices on current events representing a range of perspectives. Below is a column arguing that President-elect Joe Biden’s actions have indicated that he will preside over a moderate administration. You can find a counterpoint here, where Adam Brandon, the president of FreedomWorks, argues Biden is not a moderate Democrat and plans to enact a progressive agenda in the White House.

If you’ve been around Washington, D.C., long enough and experienced the ins and outs of presidential campaigns, you’re bound to have heard the adage that campaigning and governing are two different things. What a political candidate has to say to get elected will, invariably, differ from how that person governs if elected.

And people wonder why politicians aren’t trusted?

I served a Republican president who campaigned for office promising emphatically, unequivocally never to raise taxes. “Read my lips,” stressed then Vice President George H.W. Bush at the August 1988 GOP convention, “no … new … taxes.” Within roughly 18 months after taking office, President Bush broke his pledge and endorsed higher taxes.

One can argue that breaking his no-new-taxes pledge was sound economic policy, but it was lousy politics. There is little doubt that Bush’s breaking his solemn promise demoralized his base, undermined his credibility, demonstrated weakness and was a major factor in losing to Bill Clinton in 1992.

The real issue here may have to do more with the nature and importance of the pledges made. Bush made his pledge a key part of his appeal to his predecessor Ronald Reagan’s tax-phobic base. Reagan espoused less government funding through lower taxes, but after his major 1981 tax cut, Reagan then raised taxes three times. Ironically, Reagan is still fondly remembered as only a tax cutter.

Among postwar presidents, Donald Trump perhaps comes the closest to governing in the manner in which he campaigned. What the country saw in 2015 and 2016 is precisely what it got in terms of style and substance between 2017 and today. As I’ve written previously, it is Trump’s manner of governing more than his substantive accomplishments that has been so off-putting to millions of Americans.

When it comes to president-elect Joe Biden, how should we assess the relationship between his campaigning and his governing? To read the Biden tea leaves, consider three factors: his experience as a legislator and vice president, the implications based on how he campaigned this year and today’s highly polarized, fiercely divided country.

Not since Lyndon Johnson has the country elevated a former senator to the presidency with extensive legislative and executive branch experience like Joe Biden’s. LBJ served 12 years in the U.S. Senate before spending roughly 1,000 days as JFK’s vice president. Biden spent 36 years in the Senate before serving eight years as Barack Obama’s vice president.

Given his legislative experience, Biden knows that compromises are often needed to secure major legislation, and Biden is famous for developing deep working friendships with Republican Senators such as the late John McCain and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. Obama often exuded disdain for the legislative process and sent Biden to Capitol Hill to seek compromises.

Biden’s 2020 presidential campaign had two primary features: pose as the anti-Trump and avoid as many appearances and as much specificity as possible. While the campaign’s policy manifesto nodded towards the Democrat party’s Sanders-Warren-Ocasio-Cortez progressive leftwing, Biden ducked clear commitments on several progressive policies like Medicare for All, racial reparations and the Green New Deal.  He left himself wiggle room to work with Republicans.

Between now and January 20, 2021, the political classes are watching closely Biden’s staff, cabinet and key agency picks. Thus far, Biden’s staff picks have been moderate Democrats. His new senior adviser, Mike Donilon, is a highly-experienced campaign and governing operative who has been with Biden for decades. He’s a devout Roman Catholic, not a bomb-thrower. Biden will probably pick a few progressives to serve in his administration, but probably not in sensitive, highly visible positions.

Biden will have to recognize that in today’s political environment, moderates in 2021 will wield the most leverage. There was no “blue wave” on November 3; Democrats lost significantly and surprisingly in House races; the Senate is likely to remain under GOP control; and the 2022 midterms have already begun. More Democrats allowing themselves to be characterized as “socialists” or police defunders will mean losing the House in 2022.

The wild card to watch is how Biden deploys his vice president, Kamala Harris, whose legislative experience is as thin as Obama’s was in 2008 and whose Senate voting record is anything but moderate.

Biden will enter the presidency as a moderate expressing the need for unity, moderation, and compromise. Given his age, he may decide to serve only one term. If so, keep a close watch on Vice President Kamala Harris and her immoderate, progressive followers.

Charles Kolb served as Deputy Assistant to the President for Domestic Policy from 1990-1992 in the George H.W. Bush White House