early and often

Biden’s Risky Plan to Sit Out the 2024 Culture War

Biden goes to Florida to talk about Social Security and Medicare, not “wokeness.” Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

President Joe Biden is drawing from a very old Democratic playbook as he deals with a divided Congress and plots his reelection campaign. Although he’s yet to announce he’s running, Biden is already working to exploit the ideological excesses of congressional Republicans, particularly with respect to entitlement programs. The approach feels remarkably similar to Bill Clinton’s successful 1996 campaign, as Josh Barro explains:

Let’s talk about entitlements, and Biden’s effective and Clintonesque sowing of fear, uncertainty and doubt about Republicans’ stewardship of popular benefit programs …

Republicans took control of Congress in 1995 and immediately set about trying to force Bill Clinton to cut the budget on their terms. Republicans’ plan — which they tried and failed to tie to a needed debt-limit increase — included increases in Medicare premiums and co-payments. Clinton strongly opposed this plan and harped relentlessly in attack ads on Republicans’ desire to shift health care costs toward Medicare beneficiaries, noting for good measure that Republican nominee Bob Dole was so old he had been in Congress to vote on whether to establish the Medicare program, and he had voted no.

So is Biden ’24 going to be Clinton ’96 all over again? Not exactly. The Democrats’ message in ’96 wasn’t all about GOP budget cuts and threats to Medicare. They also tried to reassure more culturally conservative working-class swing voters that Clinton was serious about his call for “personal responsibility.” The big symbolic moment was Clinton’s mid-campaign decision to sign a Republican-written welfare-reform bill ending federal cash public assistance as a personal entitlement and imposing work requirements and time limits on those receiving assistance from the states.

It’s hard to overemphasize how much this step anguished and outraged Democratic progressives at the time; it became the epitome of alleged Clintonian “triangulation.” But for that very reason it sent a powerful signal to certain swing voters; by “ending welfare as we know it,” Clinton proved he was a “different kind of Democrat.” And it wasn’t his only such symbol: The Clinton-Gore campaign embraced a number of modest, mostly symbolic proposals such as encouraging local youth curfews and school uniforms to satisfy wavering voters who worried about alleged lapses in public order. The combo platter of economic and cultural messages worked: Two years after the disastrous 1994 midterms, Clinton carried 31 states and was reelected easily.

You can see an echo of progressive anger over the 1996 welfare-reform law in Democratic reactions to Biden’s recent decision to sign a Republican resolution overturning a D.C. sentencing-reform law. Basically, Biden discarded a strongly held party shibboleth — support for D.C. home rule as a way station to statehood — to avoid giving Republicans a talking point that would reinforce their typically groundless claims that Democrats want to “defund the police” and empty the prisons. And there are parallel fears among progressives that Biden is in the process of abandoning support for immigrants and migrants in emulating previously abandoned Trump-administration border policies.

This doesn’t mean Biden is “triangulating” against his own party’s left wing. As Ron Brownstein explains, it seems Team Biden isn’t so much “moving to the right” on hot-button cultural issues as it is trying to neutralize them with silence:

In [Biden’s] inner circle, I’m told, the dominant view is that the best way to respond to the culture-war onslaught from Republicans is to engage with it as little as possible. Those around Biden do not believe that the positions Republicans are adopting on questions such as classroom censorship, book bans, LGBTQ rights, and allowing people to carry firearms without a permit, much less restricting or banning abortion, will prove popular with voters beyond the core conservative states.

More fundamentally, Biden’s circle believes that voters don’t want to be subjected to fights about such polarizing cultural issues and would prefer that elected officials focus more on daily economic concerns such as inflation, jobs, and health care. 

So, in refusing to veto that provocative D.C. crime resolution, Biden wasn’t trying to appear “tough on crime” so much as he was simply trying to keep the subject out of the news. The American Prospect’s David Dayen discerns a similar motive in Biden’s latest maneuvers on immigration:

All of its recent actions seem calculated to keep immigration stories off the front pages of conservative news sites and the chyrons on Fox News. The administration has mostly dispensed with the Obama-era idea that tightening border security will create space for comprehensive immigration reform. This is more of a rearguard action to disappear any trace of media coverage.

There is a conspicuous exception to the “no culture war” strategy that the White House seems to have adopted: abortion. A solidly pro-choice majority is increasingly worried about Republican anti-abortion extremism in the courts, the state legislatures, and even Congress and the White House if the GOP pulls off a big 2024 win. On reproductive rights, Democrats from Biden on down will be loud, proud, and united.

But will silence be golden on other cultural issues with the likes of Donald Trump and Ron DeSantis waging ceaseless war on diversity policies, health care for transgender people, “woke” schools and corporations, and other targets that don’t command the kind of strong public support devoted to abortion rights? Color me unconvinced; typically, when politicians try to change the subject after they are smeared by opponents, the smears stick. Perhaps the salience of economic issues in 2024 will be so much stronger than than crime, immigration, or “parents rights” that the silent treatment will work. If not, then Democrats may need an entirely new playbook to deal with issues and even values they’d just as soon slough off — and they may owe apologies to constituencies they’ve marginalized in the process.

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Biden’s Risky Plan to Sit Out the 2024 Culture War