One of the best ways to gauge how a presidential debate turned out is to ask: What is everybody talking about the next day? After the final presidential debate, what people seem to be talking about is Joe Biden’s equivocal answer on fracking and fossil fuels.
You could argue this is a bit of a victory for the Biden campaign, because it indicates what we’re not talking about. Down in the polls going into the final weeks of the campaign, Donald Trump needed the kind of miracle he got in 2016 after the Comey Letter reignited Hillary Clinton’s e-mail scandal, catalyzing a steep last-minute gain in battleground state polls as undecided voters flipped toward Trump. The “laptop from hell” allegations against Hunter Biden were supposed to accomplish the same result this time around, and the final debate was Trump’s big chance to make it stick.
Instead, we’re talking about fracking, so I guess he didn’t do that. Sure, this is an issue that might hurt Biden in a few swing states. But if you’re a Pennsylvania voter and energy is your number one issue, you were probably voting for Trump, anyway.
Yet Biden’s equivocal stance on fracking also reflects his whole approach to campaigning—and to governing. Joe Biden is the Man in the Middle, and he’s running like it.
So where does Joe Biden stand on fracking? I don’t know, pick one of the following. He going to ban fracking. He’s not going to ban it. He’s only going to ban new fracking permits on federal land. He’s going to remove federal subsidies for fracking. He’s going to begin a transition to “phase out” fossil fuels by 2050. Or maybe later. He has said all of these things at various times. At the debate, he talked about getting rid of fossil fuels, and then immediately afterward his campaign when into damage control mode, trying to reassure us that he won’t actually do it.
This reflects Biden’s wider ambivalence on the Green New Deal, a radical attempt to combine welfare-statism and handouts to cronies in a crash program to completely eliminate fossil fuels in favor of some as-yet-unidentified alternative. The whole thing is totally crazy. But is Joe Biden for it? Officially, no. It’s not part of his actual platform, just as banning fracking is not part of his platform. But he has described it as a “crucial framework” and designed his own plan around it.
You see what he’s doing here. He wants to signal to the left that he is totally on their side, that he really sympathizes with their goal of eliminating fossil fuels entirely. At the same time, he also wants to reassure voters who work providing those fuels that whatever he does will be a very moderate, gradual, and tentative and totally painless for them. His gaffe at the debate is that he leaned too far over to one side of that fence he’s been straddling, so his campaign set out to pull him back toward the other side.
Biden has taken much the same approach to court-packing—the idea of stuffing a whole bunch of new justices on the Supreme Court in order to deny the court’s Republican appointees a monopoly.
I think Biden knows this is a bad idea, that it raises the prospect of a kind of mutually assured destruction: “We add three justices. Next time around, we lose control, they add three justices. We begin to lose any credibility the court has at all.” That’s how he put it in a debate almost exactly a year ago.
But he can’t just say that outright, not at this point. It would undoubtedly help him with swing voters if he did. But as Van Jones eloquently put it, “this issue of being able to pack the court has become a teddy bear for a lot of Democrats to hug onto at night, and he doesn’t want to take the teddy bear away.”
So Biden once again stakes out the muddled middle, promising to appoint a commission of constitutional scholars who would recommend some future unspecified agenda of “reforms.”
The most extravagant expression of this approach, the essence of Biden’s campaign encapsulated in one issue, is his attitude toward America itself, as expressed in two recent campaign ads.
The first is a spectacular tear-jerker the Biden campaign aired during the first game of the World Series, which features the distinctive twang of Sam Elliott telling us about “this great land, and all that’s possible on it with a fresh start” and calling on us to “agree we all love this country—and go from there.”
You can scoff at whether Joe Biden will really live up to this and whether most Democrats even believe this is true. But those of us on the right should take a moment to reflect on how it is that we ever let Joe Biden steal this mood and message away from us. Republicans used to make ads like this and back politicians who could invoke this uplifting, optimistic, expansive view of America. Heck, Ronald Reagan could invoke this—Sam Elliott and the whole nine yards—just by walking into a room. That the current head of the party cannot invoke this and doesn’t even try, is something Republicans should regard as an occasion for soul-searching.
But then consider the follow-up, a web ad put out by the Biden campaign just two days later, in which the candidate intones that “America was an idea…. We’ve never lived up to it, but we’ve never walked away from it before.”
There’s the Man in the Middle in a nutshell. Is America good or bad? Yes and no. We have ideals. We don’t live up to them. But we’re trying, so maybe that makes it OK.
Personally, I expect that Biden himself has very warm feelings toward his country. Why wouldn’t he? He has flourished here, rising from relatively modest circumstances to fame and fortune through sheer dint of hustling, perseverance, and relentless glad-handing. But he knows that there is a wing of his own party, one that is particularly powerful now, which does not feel this way. They just spent a summer demonstrating and rioting in America’s cities to denounce our “systemic racism,” and they have written a whole fake alternative history in which the distinctive American “idea” was slavery and racism.
So Joe Biden is trying to straddle that line, saying just enough bad things about America to mollify his base on the left and just enough inspiring and uplifting things to reassure normal Americans.
It’s a pretty tough thing to take the middle of the road on whether you love your own country, and that says a lot about the state of the Democratic Party. But it is also makes clear that Biden is a totally normal politician, only more so.
This distinctive campaign style also gives us an idea of how he will govern. President Biden will try to find a way to give just enough to the far left to keep them happy while conceding just enough to the sane moderates so as not to scare everyone off. He will be what he has always been: the Man in the Middle.