In his inaugural address, President Biden focused on a message of unity as the nation confronts overwhelming challenges, including the COVID-19 crisis, economically devastating lockdowns, and cultural unrest.
Biden sought to diffuse the nation’s combustible mood, presenting a theme of recovery rather than an ambitious policy agenda. Now, as a new Washington dynamic begins, Biden – along with members of Congress – should remember what Americans signaled in the 2020 election. Voters undoubtedly issued a pandemic-era rejection of Donald Trump, but in down-ballot races, they reminded Democrats that the political left’s radical ideas do not reflect their values.
Following this month’s runoffs in Georgia, voters opted for moderation and effectively divided government, with an evenly split Senate – West Virginia’s blue dog Democrat, Joe Manchin, represents a swing vote – and a narrow Democratic majority in the House (the closest margin in decades). There was no blue wave, including in state legislatures, which Democrats failed to flip to control redistricting. Instead, Republicans won two more state legislative bodies, now holding 61 of 99 state chambers.
This moderation trend – support for Biden, not down-ballot progressives – was particularly evident in Pennsylvania, once again a presidential bellwether. The Keystone State’s suburban regions, especially Philadelphia’s collar counties, overwhelmingly favored Biden, fueling his statewide victory. The suburbs’ swing-voting contingent, though, rejected leftist candidates in down-ballot races. Republicans gained seats in the state House, retained their state Senate majority, and, for the first time in decades, picked up the auditor general and treasurer offices. The GOP prevailed despite Democrats and progressive groups outspending Republicans by a wide margin at the national and state levels.
Pennsylvania’s suburban voters viewed Biden as a centrist figure, one who didn’t embrace his party’s leftward direction. In fact, during last year’s campaign, Biden distanced himself from Democrats’ more radical proposals. For example, he disavowed “Medicare for All” during the primary. Meantime, while denouncing Trump-era tax cuts, Biden promised to only raise taxes on annual incomes of more than $400,000 (though the 2017 reform cut taxes for all income earners). He even opposed the “defund the police” rhetoric while cities erupted last summer.
Confronting energy policy, a major issue in Pennsylvania, Biden’s campaign consistently denied – in response to “gaffes” to appease progressive audiences – that he would ban fracking. At the same time, Biden distanced himself from the “Green New Deal,” saying he had his own plan to address climate change.
In other words, Biden won a swing state like Pennsylvania by appealing to suburban voters’ sensibilities, not by going hard left. After all, socialist ideas are unpopular. This was true, too, in off-year races during Trump’s presidency, when moderate Democrats – such as western Pennsylvania’s Conor Lamb – prevailed in competitive congressional districts. From suburban Pittsburgh to the southeast’s Chester County, voters have consistently turned against the Democratic Party’s extremist wing while also rejecting Trump.
After the 2020 election, moderate Democrats, including Lamb, criticized the party’s left for their losses. In Pennsylvania, Democrats blamed progressive rhetoric for their poor down-ballot showing. In response, democratic socialists lashed out at their fellow party members, blaming “the establishment” and “racism.”
The reality, though, is that socialist policies are toxic to voters. Polling shows that while voters, especially the young, are more open to the word “socialism,” they don’t support the policies that come with it. In fact, voters overwhelmingly prefer a free-market system to a government-run economy – especially suburbanites. This was the case in Greater Philadelphia, where free-market candidates won despite the region’s Democratic direction.
This trend, too, is consistent with polling commissioned by the Commonwealth Foundation, which found that Pennsylvanians prefer free-market policies. In the last two years, for example, surveys showed that more than 70% of voters in suburban Philadelphia support giving parents more control over their child’s education through tax-credit scholarships or education scholarship accounts. In addition, nearly three-fourths support reforms that limit the growth of state spending. Seventy percent also favor work or work-search expectations for healthy adults receiving Medicaid. And, during Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf’s economic lockdown, 74% of suburban Philadelphia voters supported allowing businesses that follow CDC guidelines to reopen.
In other words, suburban voters favor moderation – as the election results showed. But despite his campaign persona, Biden may already be inching closer to leftist economic policies. As Axios reported last week, Biden’s “economic policy team has signaled that it will be the first administration ever to construct economic policy around issues like race, gender equality, and climate change, rather than around traditional indicators like gross domestic product or deficit ratios.” Economic policies based on identity and progressive politics, rather than free-market ideas, could once again make the suburbs a battleground in the 2022 midterms.
After all, voters didn’t reject free-market ideas in 2020. Instead, it was leftist, even socialist, policies that frightened the electorate. As the Biden administration begins, look to Pennsylvania’s suburban voters as a gauge on the electoral mood. They eschewed Trump throughout his presidency, but they also understand that radical progressivism isn’t the answer to our nation’s many challenges.