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Is Joe Biden Too Centrist For Today's Democratic Party?


Here in the United States this week, former Vice President Joe Biden is expected to announce he is running for president. Just one of the many questions about his potential candidacy is whether he is too centrist for today's Democratic Party. Here's NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Donald Trump has a theory of the case for the 2020 election - according to his campaign strategists, any Democrat who wins the nomination will have moved so far to the left, they'll be an easy target for the president to disqualify as a Socialist.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Democrat lawmakers are now embracing socialism; they want to replace individual rights with total government domination.

LIASSON: And at least right now, the frontrunner in the Democratic race is a self-identified Democratic Socialist.


BERNIE SANDERS: Democratic socialism, to me, is creating a government and an economy and a society which works for all rather than just the top 1%.

LIASSON: One of Bernie Sanders' goals is the textbook definition of socialism - he wants a government takeover of the health insurance industry, "Medicare for All." But other Democrats don't want socialism; they just want a stronger social safety net in order to reduce extreme inequality, restore economic mobility and make sure free market capitalism creates broadly shared prosperity. Democratic pollster Celinda Lake says that Bernie Sanders may be leading the pack right now, but his brand of democratic socialism isn't embraced by the majority of Democratic primary voters.

CELINDA LAKE: Every single Democrat out there wants to have some kind of guaranteed medical insurance for everyone, and they want it to be affordable. Eighty-three percent want to invest more resources in infrastructure and dealing with climate change. Now, is that a Green New Deal or something else? Is that Medicare for All or something else?

LIASSON: The answer to those questions will be determined next year. Meanwhile, there are a lot of clues that actual Democratic voters may be less liberal than the image created by Donald Trump or the disproportionate media coverage given to the most left-leaning members of Congress. For example, a Gallup poll in December found that 54% of Democrats want their party to be more moderate; a smaller number, 41%, want their party to be more liberal. And, says Lake, there's another important data point about Democratic voters.

LAKE: For the first time, people actually think that the person that they like the best might be different from the person who can most beat Donald Trump. Always before, people kind of pick their person as the person they thought was most electable.

LIASSON: So right now Democratic voters are feeling a lot more pragmatic than they have in the past. And despite all that youthful energy coursing through the party, Celinda Lake points out that in primary states like New Hampshire and South Carolina, a fresh, new face might not be in demand.

LAKE: In all of the early states, about two-thirds of the voters are over 50, and that older electorate likes experience.

LIASSON: J. Ann Selzer, who conducts the Iowa poll, asked Democrats there whether it's important to have a younger candidate. Her poll specifically asked about Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders.

J ANN SELZER: In both cases, running before and the experience in office won out over saying, the time for either of those candidates has passed. So there is no sense in this poll - and this was done in March - that Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders are too old.

LIASSON: Biden's allies also have a theory of the case for 2020, and it's the polar opposite of Trump's - Biden's strategists believe the majority of Democratic voters are not living in woke-a-topia (ph). Instead of reflecting the voices of Democratic activists on social media, Biden's aides believe the Democratic voters value experience and pragmatism, and they think it's a good thing - not a bad thing - to work across the aisle. So if Biden's advisers are right, age and ideology won't stop his campaign. But as he's already seen, Biden will have plenty of other obstacles to clear.

Mara Liasson, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOUSE ON THE KEYS' "PHASES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mara Liasson
Mara Liasson is a national political correspondent for NPR. Her reports can be heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazine programs Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Liasson provides extensive coverage of politics and policy from Washington, DC — focusing on the White House and Congress — and also reports on political trends beyond the Beltway.