Democratic presidential candidates have so far looked to distinguish themselves with flashy new policy proposals. Less celebrated, but perhaps just as revealing, are the past positions they’ve held that they’re now running away from.
As candidates look to find their place in the crowded primary field and face a party electorate energized by the left, many are massaging or outright reversing old positions — and sometimes even apologizing for parts of their record that haven’t aged well with voters.
While Joe Biden’s long career in the national spotlight presents special challenges, just about every candidate has had to recalibrate their stances regardless of age, ideology or years in office.
Even 37-year-old Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana, who is largely building his national platform from scratch, isn’t immune. In April, he announced he would no longer take donations from lobbyists and returned over $30,000 in contributions, catching up to a recent trend in Democratic politics of activists demanding a tougher stance on money in politics.
“It requires some tact and some delicacy, but folks are trying to get up to speed with where the current policies are within the Democratic Party,” said Jim Manley, a longtime aide to former Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev.
While such adjustments aren’t uncommon in presidential primaries, they’re also small tweaks in comparison to President Donald Trump, who frequently reverses stances with little or no explanation. But the specific ways candidates change each cycle reveals a lot about the direction of a party.
WHOLE LOTTA REVAMPING GOING ON
Crime and punishment is one area where a number of the contenders have been sanding down their positions and proposals.
Biden recently softened the edges of his tough-on-crime record, telling an audience at an event honoring Martin Luther King Jr. that he made “a big mistake” when he served in the Senate by backing increased penalties for certain drug crimes, including harsher sentences for crack cocaine compared with powder cocaine.
His movement on drug sentencing comes amid a broader re-evaluation of the issue: Democrats are now more concerned about mass incarceration and racial disparities in the justice system.
That shift has affected other candidates as well. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., has been asked on the campaign trail about his vote for the 1994 Crime Bill that Biden authored. Sanders noted he criticized its emphasis on incarceration at the time, but explained he supported it because it included provisions on gun control and confronting domestic violence that he favored.
Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., belongs to a later generation that was more accustomed to criticism from criminal justice reform advocates, but she has also qualified parts of her record. Harris told Pod Save America last month that a California law modeled on her district attorney policy of threatening the parents of truant children with prosecution had “unintended consequences” when other localities used it to arrest and charge offenders, something she had not done.
“I regret that that has happened and the thought that anything I did could have led to that, because that certainly was not the intention” she said.
Jess McIntosh, a Democratic strategist and former aide to Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign, said voters might be more understanding in cases where elected Democrats, along with their constituents, had gradually evolved from one broad consensus on an issue to another.
“Almost every Democrat who was in public office in the ’90s has explaining and apologizing to do when it comes to criminal justice reform,” McIntosh said. “Ditto the early aughts and marriage equality.”