WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump used the first presidential debate to try to drive a wedge between Joe Biden and the progressive wing of the Democratic Party, aiming to anger activists and depress voter turnout for his challenger.
Early signs from the left indicate that Trump's strategy may be coming up short.
At the debate Tuesday night, Biden spoke out against the “Green New Deal,” denounced calls to “defund the police” and rejected "Medicare for All." He didn’t say whether he supports adding seats to the Supreme Court if Judge Amy Coney Barrett is hastily confirmed. The Democratic nominee also touted his victory over Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont in the Democrat primaries and his disagreements with some of the democratic socialist’s policies.
Trump gleefully interjected: “You just lost the left.”
But when asked to respond, progressive activists said they weren’t upset with Biden. Some said he should spend more time on issues important to them, or worry that he oversold his pitch to moderates. But none were ready to defect over his tactics. Their mantra is: Win first, and we’ll fight it out later.
“Trump wants to play this ridiculous ‘Gotcha, you and Bernie disagree!’ game as if the entire primary didn’t happen,” said Waleed Shahid, a spokesman for Justice Democrats, an activist group that recruited Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., and backed Sanders in the 2020 primary. “I think Biden could have tried to articulate his actual policy positions and what he wants to get done. But it was hard to articulate anything in that debate.”
Shahid said the progressive movement’s role is to “elect a president closer to your views” and “broaden the scope of what's considered politically possible” with a mix of protest and pressure.
Biden's eagerness to distance himself from the left is reflective of his strategy to win the election by attracting moderate-minded seniors and white college graduates, rather than bet the race on turning out younger or irregular voters in Barack Obama's winning coalitions. Millennials and Generation Z voters are less enthused about Biden, and their voting patterns are difficult to predict.
For now, Trump is a unifying force masking genuine tensions between an older, moderate faction that runs the party and a rising base of young progressives seeking to reshape Democratic priorities. The debate is more reflective of a coffee table conversation on policy than a bloody knife fight threatening to wound the party.
"I am not upset with Biden,” said Brian Fallon, a veteran Democratic operative who now runs Demand Justice, a group fighting for a more progressive judiciary and Supreme Court. He said he interpreted Biden's nonanswer on whether he'd support adding Supreme Court seats as a sign that it was “on the table” if he's elected president.
Fallon said Biden wanted to isolate variables and make his opposition to Barrett be about the proximity to the election, but said Biden “oversold it” by calling her a “very fine person.”
Ben Wessel, the executive director of the youth-focused progressive advocacy group NextGen America, dismissed the “noise” around Biden's Green New Deal remarks, and instead praised Biden’s plan for 100 percent carbon-free electricity by 2035.
Progressive activists say they view the contest as one between a reluctant ally and a mortal enemy. While some distrust Biden’s moderate instincts, they see him as willing to listen and adopt some of their ideas. Some take the optimistic view that he’d embrace more liberal ideas if elected.
“I don’t think most of our people give a s--- what it’s called as long as it gives us a fighting chance at a safe and livable climate,” Wessel said. “The young people we’re talking to know that we’re going to have to push Biden to be even stronger on the issues once he’s in office, but that they’ve got to get him in the White House first.”
On Twitter, Ocasio-Cortez dismissed former Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway’s attempts to highlight Biden’s opposition to the Green New Deal, contrasting him favorably with Trump, who she said “doesn’t even believe climate change is real.”
A Biden adviser said that if Trump’s strategy was to drive a wedge between Biden and progressives, it only backfired, as Biden held firm to his more moderate lane of the party and used the high-profile moment to undercut Trump's strategy of portraying Biden as a Trojan horse of the radical left.
Campaigning Wednesday in Alliance, Ohio, Biden addressed questions about his differences with the left, reiterating his opposition to Medicare for All and saying his plan is "the Biden Green Deal."
Biden said Trump keeps trying to run against "somebody other than me."
"I've said to the left, to the right, to the center exactly where I am on each of these issues," Biden told reporters. "So I'm not worried about losing the left, right or center of the party. This is a big party."
If Biden is elected, the governing tension could become a theme of his presidency.
Shahid said the modern left will pressure Biden the same way contemporary movements pressured Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson to be bolder.
"Lincoln was not an abolitionist, FDR was not a socialist or trade unionist, and LBJ was not a civil rights activist," he said. "In fact, they took great steps to distance themselves from those movements, even when the movements were successful."