Commentary on Political Economy

Saturday 13 April 2024


Why Can’t Biden Triangulate Like Trump?

An view of President Biden’s face obstructed by someone taking a picture.
Credit... Kenny Holston/The New York Times
Ross Douthat

Opinion Columnist

For anyone with sincere and absolute convictions on abortion, pro-life or pro-choice, Donald Trump’s attempts to reposition himself this week should be somewhere between depressing and infuriating.

For pro-lifers, the problem is the cynicism — the reminder that Trump is purely transactional in his relationship to their ideals, a lousy spokesman for the cause of unborn human life and a willing betrayer when politics requires it.

For pro-choicers, the problem is the chutzpah — the man who did so much to overturn Roe v. Wade trying to disavow responsibility for its policy consequences.

But Trump’s cynicism is also one of his political strengths. What he does crudely, with naked calculation and comic transparency, is what successful politicians used to do more normally: triangulate between your base and the general public, make showy moves to reassure swing voters that you’re not just an ideologue, suggest that you’re willing to negotiate when public opinion is against you.

Trump often does this with symbolism rather than substance, with dishonest framings of his own record and promised policy innovations that don’t actually materialize. But still, he does it all the time, not just on social issues like abortion. The public doesn’t like his opposition to Obamacare? Next thing you know he’s promising to mend the program rather than ending it. Middle-of-the-road voters seem uneasy about Israel’s war in Gaza? There’s Trump, Mr. Israel in his first term, suddenly sounding notes of caution and concern.

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What’s non-negotiable with Trump are his personal grievances, his amour-propre, his election-fraud narratives, his authoritarian style. That kind of intransigence is his major political weakness (in addition to being a source of danger for the country). But on policy, he’s always ready to perform flexibly, even if there isn’t a clear plan underneath the posturing.

This has long made a contrast with more doctrinaire Republican politicians, which is part of why Trump beat them in 2016 and again in 2024. But it also makes a contrast with Joe Biden. Not with the Biden of the past, who built a long and successful career as a moderate Democrat who could be relied upon to annoy people to his left. But with the Biden of the current moment, who still benefits from that moderate brand, but struggles to demonstrate policy independence from his party’s activists.

In part, Biden is unlucky in the challenges confronting him: The place where he is clearly trying to triangulate, the Israel-Gaza war, divides his own coalition in a way that makes every possible balancing act anger more people than it pleases.

But his administration has also consistently missed more plausible opportunities for outreach. You see this on issues like abortion and youth gender transitions: Biden’s Catholic faith should make him a natural middle-grounder, but his personal qualms about abortion have zero policy substance since he abandoned his support for the Hyde Amendment, and he’s planted himself to the left of secular Europe on transgender issues.

You see this on immigration. Biden is only now considering a Trump-like executive order on border crossings, several years after the border surge began.

And you especially see it on environmental issues, where the White House is reluctant to put any clear distance between itself and climate activists. On energy and automobiles, Biden could be doing the rough equivalent of what Trump is doing on abortion: Having delivered unprecedented green investments the way Trump delivered the end of Roe, he could now be spending most of his time touting America’s energy boom while promising the majority of Americans that they won’t be forced into an electric car.

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