What Joe Biden Is Revealing About Democrats

The seasoned, center-left standard-bearer of the party keeps his lead in a crowded primary race

More than a month has passed since former Vice President Joe Biden announced he is running for the Democratic presidential nomination, effectively rounding out one of the most unusual fields ever assembled—23 candidates, six of them women, six minorities, with a stunning 40-year age gap between the youngest and oldest.

In that time, a funny thing has happened: Mr. Biden started at the front of the pack and has stayed right there. Normally, this would hardly be surprising, considering how well-known and deeply rooted Mr. Biden is within the party.

But these aren’t normal times, and the political universe was full of people who thought Joe Biden was (you can pick): too old, too old-school, too centrist, too willing to work with Republicans, too weighed down with baggage from past controversies, too prone to campaign gaffes.

Among the “punditry class…the view was that his best day would be his first day in the race,” says Jim Kessler, executive vice president for policy at Third Way, an organization of moderate Democrats.

It is very early, of course, and those potential flaws could yet prove fatal. But for now, the buoyancy of Joe Biden raises the question: What is he telling us about the Democratic Party? Four things come to mind:

Democrats may not have moved as far left as widely thought. Many observers put together the very real energy among the party’s liberal base and the party’s success in the 2018 midterm elections and concluded that the first was responsible for the second. That has emboldened the liberal wing of the party to try to push the party’s agenda well to the left.

This almost certainly represents a misreading of the 2018 midterm election, when the most important victories weren’t by candidates on the left, but by 21 House freshmen who won in districts President Trump carried in 2016. They were centrist candidates, and represent where many Democratic and independent voters are: on the center-left.

That happens to be where Mr. Biden resides as well, and it appears that is just fine with a lot of rank-and-file Democrats. There actually is some unease within the party over the most prominent candidates of the left. In Wall Street Journal/NBC News polling, 36% of Democratic primary voters say they have reservations about or are uncomfortable with Sen. Bernie Sanders, and 33% say that about Sen. Elizabeth Warren. Meantime, just 27% have reservations about or are uncomfortable with Mr. Biden.

—Defeating President Trump isn’t just a priority for Democrats; it is far and away the top priority. From the outset, Mr. Biden has declared flatly that the 2020 race is above all about beating Mr. Trump—and that he is the candidate with the gravitas to do that.

That turns to have been smart positioning. As it happens, Mr. Trump, by directing so much of his Twitter fire at Mr. Biden, actually seems to be helping him make this case, by suggesting he is the Democrat the president considers the biggest threat.

—As a result of this Trump focus, this election may be more about values than ideology. Starting with his announcement video, Mr. Biden’s message, implicit and explicit, has been that Mr. Trump’s values and behavior, more than the policy debate, are the real issues in the 2020 campaign.

This approach presumes that voters are most interested in a candidate who represents the opposite of Mr. Trump in terms of style and demeanor, and puts less importance on ideology and policy positions. Mr. Biden will have his own policy proposals, of course—he rolled out a big education plan just a few days ago—but this approach still represents a calculated gamble. It is also a contrast with the approaches of Mr. Sanders and, especially, Ms. Warren, who has begun to gain traction with a series of detailed liberal policy proposals—a wealth tax, a corporate tax, student-debt forgiveness.

—The idea of working with Republicans isn’t anathema to Democratic voters. Mr. Biden presents himself as a traditional Democrat with traditional middle-class sensibilities—but also one who knows how to reach across the aisle to work with Republicans and find actual consensus in a Washington where there has been precious little of that.

“We need to have a candidate who is ready to rebuild trust,” says one senior Biden adviser.

This position also contrasts with many other Democratic candidates, who are appealing to the anti-Trump anger at the base of the party by using the word “fight” frequently, and stressing their eagerness to do battle with Republicans. As it happens, this approach also is designed to put Mr. Biden in juxtaposition to Mr. Trump, who, frustrated with Democrats, increasingly resorts to pursuing his goal through executive orders rather than negotiated agreements.