“You and my husband think so similarly when it comes to politics,” Hillary Clinton once told Joe Biden. “You guys were almost separated at birth.”
It’s interesting to think about how Biden’s first year as president would have gone differently if this were in fact true.
The easiest way to illustrate this is to ask: “Where are the Sister Souljah moments?”
Sister Souljah, a rapper and writer, gained notoriety in 1992 when Clinton, running for president, made a planned attack on her controversial statements about the Los Angeles riots after a jury acquitted police officers in the beating of Rodney King. Wikipedia even has a lengthy “Sister Souljah Moment” entry, defining it as a “politician’s calculated public repudiation of an extremist person, statement, group or position that is perceived to have some association with the politician’s own party.”
More on that in a moment.
Both Biden and Clinton are frequently dubbed “centrists,” but they subscribe to very different definitions of centrism, neither of them particularly ideological.
For Clinton, it’s the popular stuff from both parties. For Biden, the center amounted to splitting the difference between the two poles of the Democratic Party. Biden spent decades in a Senate in which there were a great many liberal and conservative Democrats. His strategy was to straddle between them. As the party moved leftward, with conservative Democrats fading away (even Joe Manchin would be a big-spending liberal a decade ago), Biden and the party’s center of gravity moved leftward, too.
Clinton’s ascent to the Oval Office was the result of a decadelong war with the Democratic establishment. Biden’s entire career was as a member of that establishment, as a senator, vice president, and now president. That makes all the difference in the world.
As a candidate, Clinton triangulated against the Democratic base, billing himself as a “third way” figure unbeholden to the special interest and identity politics groups that had captured the party. On the campaign trail, he inveighed against welfare policies supported by the base, promising a “hand up, rather than a handout.” He even took time off from the trail to oversee the execution of a severely brain damaged inmate, Ricky Ray Rector (Rector actually asked the guards to save his pie until after his execution).
Ironically, Biden’s success in the 2020 primaries hinged on the belief that he was more of a Clinton-style centrist. That’s why he beat the purely progressive ideologues.
But as president, Biden has steadfastly refused to triangulate. There have been countless potential Sister Souljah moments. Amid surging crime rates in New York City, the new Manhattan district attorney vowed not to seek prison sentences, even for some violent criminals, whenever possible. Biden says schools should stay open, but he’s never criticized teachers’ unions, even when they refused to work in Chicago. And countless Democratic members of Congress say inflammatory things on a daily basis. Why not pick a fight?
Biden could also have told the Democratic base that their voting reform wish list, largely unchanged since 2019, wasn’t a pragmatic response to the current moment. Instead, he parroted the most extreme language of the base, accusing Republicans of being on the side of Jim Crow and Bull Connor. A telling moment in his epic news conference last week came when Biden explained why he didn’t reach out to Republicans on voting reform: He was too busy “trying to make sure we got everybody on the same page in my party on this score.”
The mother of Sister Souljah moment opportunities came in June when Biden succeeded in fulfilling one of the core promises of his presidency: a bipartisan traditional infrastructure bill, with 19 Republican senators on board. He could have declared victory, telling the Democratic base that trillions more of poorly funded “human infrastructure” wasn’t in the cards. Instead, he caved to the base, vowing—at the time—to sign the popular bill only if the progressives got everything they wanted, too.
In June 1993, when Bill Clinton’s approval ratings were even lower than Biden’s today, Clinton sought a reset. He declared, “I was sent to the White House, I think, to take on brain-dead politics in Washington from either party—or from both.”
It was widely assumed Biden would use his press conference for a similar do-over. But when asked if he overpromised, he said, “Look, I didn’t overpromise, but I have probably outperformed what anybody thought would happen.”
Bill Clinton would never have done that.