Opinion: Biden’s moves to the center

Photo/Susan Walsh/The Associated Press / President Joe Biden speaks during a reception in the East Room of the White House in Washington on Wednesday, March 29, 2023.

In seeking their party's presidential nomination, candidates generally stress positions that appeal to its ideological base — and then try to move back to the center to target "swing" voters in the general election.

But an incumbent seeking re-election -- especially one with only token opposition -- can get an early head start in positioning himself for the general election.

That's what is happening now, in both parties. Most Republican presidential hopefuls are sounding more or less like clones of former President Donald Trump in ways that might help their primary chances but could create later complications.

Meanwhile, despite grousing from some party liberals, President Joe Biden has moved to re-establish his centrist bona fides in three areas where his party has been vulnerable in recent elections -- crime, immigration and energy development.

He has hardly been subtle, as he gears up to do what most presidents do in their third year in office: prepare to seek a second term.

Of the three areas, Biden's clearest move was on crime, where he signed a bill initiated by congressional Republicans to block a measure liberalizing some criminal penalties that was passed by the District of Columbia government.

Biden has never been one of the "defund the police" crowd, and he signified his willingness to limit the capital city's elected government to make a point on an issue of national importance.

The bill would have eased penalties for crimes like armed carjackings. Ironically, the City Council passed it over the veto of Mayor Muriel Bowser, who shared some of Biden's concerns that it sent the wrong signal at a time when many voters are concerned about soaring crime rates.

The second area is immigration, where Biden moved to reinstate some more restrictive measures to curb illegal entries along the country's Southern border but without reviving some of the Trump administration harsher tactics like detaining children.

Specifically, he moved to prevent immigrants from seeking asylum unless they first applied to another country, speed deportation of those unable to show why they were seeking asylum, and limit immigrants from Cuba, Nicaragua, Venezuela and Haiti unless they applied for asylum before arriving at the border.

In the ensuing weeks, CBS News reported, the number of illegal border crossings dropped about 40% to the lowest level of the Biden administration. But it will take more than a few weeks to determine if the drop is meaningful.

What's really needed, of course, is for Congress to pass a comprehensive immigration measure combining a path to citizenship for the millions of undocumented workers already in the country with tightened border restrictions.

But Speaker Kevin McCarthy said even before Republicans captured House control last November that there would be no comprehensive immigration legislation in the new Congress.

The third area in which Biden moved to the center was by easing his administration's curbs on new fossil fuel energy exploration and production.

To the chagrin of environmentalists, he recently opened the way for a major ConocoPhillips oil drilling project in the North Slope of Alaska. But he balanced that by barring drilling in 3 million acres of the Beaufort Sea and limiting it in 13 million acres of Alaska's National Petroleum Reserve.

While Biden has sought to strengthen the centrist credentials that were crucial in his winning the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, his prospective Republican opponents have stumbled in efforts to separate themselves from Trump's domination of the GOP.

Several weeks ago, Mike Pence directly blamed Trump for the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection. But then he sounded like his old vice presidential self by joining the former president in condemning the New York County district attorney for considering Trump's indictment in a case involving a woman who claimed he had an affair with her.

The case, Pence said in a radio interview, "reeks of the kind of political prosecution we endured in the days of the Russia hoax." Similarly, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said District Attorney Alvin Bragg and others like him "weaponize their office to impose a political agenda on society at the expense of the rule of law and public safety,"

The GOP base favors strongly supporting Trump at a time when he faces possible prosecution in this and several other cases. Such comments could limit their appeal to non-Trump Republicans and independent general election voters.

Meanwhile, virtually every potential GOP candidate but New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu has backed the Supreme Court's decision that overturned its 1973 ruling legalizing a woman's right to an abortion -- or sought to extend it.

Pence, long a favorite of evangelical voters, has been most aggressive in seeking the support of abortion rights foes by saying he would sign legislation containing a national ban on the procedure.

DeSantis, who last year signed legislation banning abortions in Florida after 15 weeks of pregnancy, says he would sign a measure pending in the legislature to ban the procedure after six weeks.

They presumably sense an opening to reduce Trump's support from abortion rights foes at a time when the former president has antagonized some for blaming the GOP's 2022 losses on their refusal to allow exceptions in some abortion bans.

Their potential political problem is that polls show a majority of Americans oppose the Supreme Court decision, which is likely to be a major Democratic campaign issue next year.

The challenge for GOP hopefuls will be to win the nomination without jeopardizing their general election chances.

The Dallas Morning News