Bill Clinton Saved His Presidency. Here’s How Biden Can, Too.

Bill Clinton Saved His Presidency. Here’s How Biden Can, Too. 1

Swing voters in two blue-leaning states just sent a resounding wake-up call to the Biden administration: If Democrats remain on their current course and keep coddling and catering to progressives, they could lose as many as 50 seats and control of the House in the 2022 midterm elections. There is a way forward now for President Biden and the Democratic Party: Friday’s passage of the bipartisan physical infrastructure bill is a first step, but only a broader course correction to the center will give Democrats a fighting chance in 2022 and a shot at holding on to the presidency in 2024.

The history of the 2020 election is undisputed: Joe Biden was nominated for president because he was the moderate alternative to Bernie Sanders and then elected president as the antidote to the division engendered by Donald J. Trump. He got off to a good start, especially meeting the early challenge of Covid-19 vaccine distribution. But polling on key issues show that voters have been turning against the Biden administration, and rejecting its embrace of parts of the Bernie Sanders/Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez playbook.

According to our October Harvard CAPS/Harris Poll, only 35 percent of registered voters approve of the administration’s immigration policies (which a majority view as an open-borders approach); 64 percent oppose eliminating cash bail (a progressive proposal the administration has backed); and most reject even popular expansions of entitlements if they are bundled in a $1.5 to $2 trillion bill based on higher taxes and deficits (the pending Build Back Better initiative). Nearly nine in 10 voters express concern about inflation. And 61 percent of voters blame the Biden administration for the increase in gasoline prices, with most also preferring to maintain energy independence over reducing carbon emissions right now.

Progressives might be able to win the arguments for an all-out commitment to climate change and popular entitlements — but they haven’t because they’ve allowed themselves to be drawn into a debate about the size of Build Back Better, not its content. Moderate Democrats have always favored expanded entitlements, but only if they meet the tests of fiscal responsibility — and most voters don’t believe Build Back Better does so, even though the president has promised it would be fully paid for. Putting restraints on these entitlements so that they don’t lead to government that is too big, and to ballooning deficits, is at the core of the moderate pushback on the bill that has caused a schism in the party.

Senator Joe Manchin and Senator Kyrsten Sinema are not outliers in the Democratic Party; they are, in fact, the very heart of the Democratic Party, given that 53 percent of Democrats classify themselves as moderates or conservative. While Democrats support the Build Back Better initiative, 60 percent of Democrats (and 65 percent of the country) support the efforts of these moderates to rein it in. It’s Mr. Sanders from Vermont and Ms. Ocasio-Cortez from New York who represent areas ideologically far from the mainstream of America.

The economy and jobs are now the top national issues, and 57 percent see it on the wrong track, up from 42 percent a few months ago, generating new basic kitchen-table worries. After the economy and jobs, the coronavirus, immigration and health care are the next top issues, but Afghanistan, crime, school choice and education are also serious areas of concern for voters.

To understand the urgency for future Democratic candidates, it’s important to be cleareyed about those election results. Some progressives and other Democrats argue that the loss in the Virginia governor’s race, where culture war issues were a factor, should not be extrapolated to generalize about the administration. The problem with that argument is that last week’s governor’s race in New Jersey also showed a double-digit percentage point swing toward Republicans — and in that election, taxes mattered far more than cultural issues. The swing is in line with the drop in President Biden’s approval rating and the broader shift in the mood of the country.

Terry McAuliffe, the Democratic nominee in Virginia, ran for governor in 2013 and won by offering himself as a relative moderate. This time, he deliberately nationalized his campaign by bringing in President Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris and former President Barack Obama, and he closed out the race with the head of the teachers’ union, an icon on the left. He may not have brought in the progressive Squad, but he did hug a range of left-of-center Democratic politicians rather than push off the left and try to win swing voters.

It’s hard to imagine Democratic candidates further to the left of Mr. McAuliffe, and of Gov. Phil Murphy of New Jersey, doing any better with swing voters, especially when the math of elections requires two new voters to turn out to equal a single voter who switches from Democrat to Republican. It’s easy to dismiss individual polls that may or may not be accurate — but you can’t dismiss a clear electoral trend: the flight from the Democrats was disproportionately in the suburbs, and the idea that these home-owning, child-rearing, taxpaying voters just want more progressive candidates is not a sustainable one.

After the 1994 congressional elections, Bill Clinton reoriented his administration to the center and saved his presidency. Mr. Biden should follow his lead, listen to centrists, push back on the left and reorient his policies to address the mounting economic issues people are facing. As a senator, he was a master at building coalitions; that is the leadership needed now.

This would mean meeting the voters head on with stronger borders, a slower transition from fossil fuels, a focus on bread-and-butter economic issues (such as the price of gas and groceries), fixes to the supply chain fiasco that is impacting the cost of goods and the pursuit of more moderate social spending bills. Nearly three in four voters see the border as a crisis that needs immediate attention. Moving to the center does not mean budging from core social issues like abortion rights and L.G.B.T.Q. rights that are at the heart of what the party believes in and are largely in sync with suburban voters. But it does mean connecting to voters’ immediate needs and anxieties. As Democrats found in the late ’90s, the success of the administration begets enthusiasm from the base, and we actually gained seats in the 1998 midterms under the theme of “progress not partisanship.”

Mr. Biden’s ratings since the Afghanistan withdrawal have fallen from nearly 60 percent approval to just above 40 percent in most polls. By getting the physical infrastructure bill passed with Republican votes, Mr. Biden has taken a crucial step to the center (79 percent of Democrats and 57 percent of Republicans supported it in the Harris Poll). Follow that infrastructure success by digging into the pending Congressional Budget Office analysis of Build Back Better and then look closely at bringing in more of the popular benefits for people (such as expansion of Medicare benefits for dental and vision and family leave) and cutting out some of the interest group giveaways like creating environmental justice warriors.

Of course, this may require some Houdini-like leadership to get votes from the Progressive Caucus for a revised Build Back Better bill. But this is the best strategy to protect Democratic candidates in 2022.

Yelling “Trump, Trump, Trump” when Mr. Trump is not on the ballot or in office is no longer a viable campaign strategy. Soccer moms, who largely despised Mr. Trump, want a better education for their kids and safer streets; they don’t see the ghost of Trump or Jan. 6 behind Republican candidates like now Gov.-elect Glenn Youngkin of Virginia. Remember that only about one quarter of the country classifies itself as liberal, and while that is about half of the Democratic Party, the rest of the electorate nationally is moderate or conservative. While many rural and working-class voters are staying Republican, the message from last Tuesday is that the Democrats have gone too far to the left on key issues for educated suburban voters. Even Bergen County in New Jersey, a socially liberal bedroom community outside New York City, almost swung into the Republican column.

While Mr. Youngkin waded directly into racially divisive issues, he also based his campaign on positive messages of striving for excellence in the schools and for re-establishing the American dream as a worthy goal. Those messages tapped into the aspirations of voters in ways that in the past were at the heart of the Democratic message. These are enduring values, as is reaffirming the First Amendment and the power of free speech.

Demographics is not destiny. We live in a 40-40-20 country in which 40 percent are hard-wired to either party and 20 percent are swing voters, primarily located in the suburbs. After losing a game-changing slice of Midwestern working-class voters, who had voted for Mr. Obama, over trade, immigration and cultural policies, Democrats were steadily gaining in the suburbs, expanding their leads in places like New Jersey and Virginia. Without voters in these places, the party will be left with only too small of a base of urban voters and coastal elites. Unless it recenters itself, the risk is that the Democratic Party, like the Labour Party in Britain, will follow its greatest success with an extended period in the desert.

Mark Penn served as an adviser and pollster to President Bill Clinton and Senator Hillary Clinton from 1996 to 2008. Andrew Stein is a former president of the New York City Council.

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