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Conflicting expectations of Biden at convention point to governing dilemma

The tension between two visions points to a challenge Biden would face if elected: Would he govern as a centrist, or fight to advance progressive causes?
Image: Joe Biden
The first night of the all-remote DNC captured the ambitious extent to which Joe Biden has designed his candidacy around being an innocuous alternative to President Trump.Carolyn Kaster / AP

MILWAUKEE — Moments after former Gov. John Kasich of Ohio, a Republican, insisted that Joe Biden wouldn’t “turn sharp left,” Sen. Bernie Sanders, a democratic socialist, implored his supporters to vote for Biden because he would advance the progressive revolution.

The first night of the all-remote Democratic National Convention captured the ambitious extent to which Biden has designed his candidacy around being an innocuous alternative to President Donald Trump with unity-based appeals to a wide swath of the American political spectrum. And it has caused leaders with conflicting policy visions to view Biden as their ally.

“I’m sure there are Republicans and independents who couldn’t imagine crossing over to support a Democrat," Kasich said. "They fear Joe may turn sharp left and leave them behind. I don’t believe that because I know the measure of the man."

About a half hour later, Sanders urged his supporters to vote for Biden as a candidate who will “begin that fight on day one” to make the country “more equitable, more compassionate and more inclusive."

“We need an unprecedented response — a movement, like never before, of people who are prepared to stand up and fight for democracy and decency — and against greed, oligarchy and bigotry," Sanders said. "And we need Joe Biden as our next president."

The tension between the two visions of Biden points to a challenge he would face if elected: Would he govern as a centrist, or fight to advance progressive causes?

The former vice president has blended an appeal to progressive goals with a unity pitch for conservatives and an emphasis on empathy and competence for moderates.

He has adopted a series of policy positions that would make him arguably the most progressive president since Franklin Delano Roosevelt, drawing praise from Sanders and others on the left who are agitating for major change. At the same time, he has drawn upon his image as an institutionalist to pitch himself as someone who will work with Republicans to deliver results.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, a moderate and former presidential candidate herself, vowed Monday at the convention that Biden would “seek common ground to reach higher ground.”

With few exceptions, policy was put on the back burner on the first night of the Democratic convention, which blended notes of optimism and healing with an overarching plea to remove Trump from the White House and “restore the soul” of America.

“This isn't about a Republican or Democrat. It's about a person: a person decent enough, stable enough, strong enough to get our economy back on track. A person who can work with everyone, Democrats and Republicans, to get things done,” said Christine Todd Whitman, a former GOP governor of New Jersey and administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency. “Donald Trump isn't that person; Joe Biden is.”

Trump has pleaded with voters not to see Biden as a moderate, and said his fall rival is controlled by the left-wing voices in the Democratic Party.

"We're in a fight for the survival of our nation and civilization itself," Trump said Monday afternoon in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. "These are people that are seriously radical left. Joe Biden is nothing but their puppet.”

Biden leads Trump by 8.4 points nationally, according to the FiveThirtyEight polling average.

NBC News national political reporter Sahil Kapur, right, interviews Democratic National Committee chair Tom Perez in Milwaukee on Aug. 17, 2020.Courtesy Sahil Kapur

In some ways, the first night of the convention was a deliberate attempt by Democrats to hit pause on policy clashes until Trump is defeated.

The second night of the convention Tuesday will feature speakers from different wings of the party, including Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York — a favorite of the left — former President Bill Clinton, and Biden’s wife, Jill Biden.

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“There's nothing like an existential threat to focus the mind on what is important, and where we have differences that are minor in comparison with the existential differences,” Democratic National Committee Chair Tom Perez told NBC News in an interview here late Monday after the opening night of the convention.

Perez said Democrats have “had the intraparty conversation about policy” in the platform document, which was followed by a “spirited health care debate.”

“We're 90 percent or 85 percent of the way up the mountain and we're having a pitch battle on how to get that final 15 percent,” he said. “We understand that. And we understand that the other side wants to take us to the bottom of the mountain. I think people grasp that, and so it enabled us.”