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Joe Biden’s most surprising, and possibly important, answer of the debate

Biden disavowed a lot of ambitious progressive policies on Tuesday. But there were two he refused to reject.

Donald Trump And Joe Biden Participate In First Presidential Debate
Debate moderator and Fox News anchor Chris Wallace (R) speaks to Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden in the first presidential debate at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, on September 29.
Olivier Douliery-Pool/Getty Images

President Donald Trump’s performance at the first debate was bizarre, cruel, and at times truly dangerous. For all those reasons, it probably had the net effect of making it likelier that Joe Biden wins the presidency — that’s certainly what the betting markets thought and what the snap polls suggest — and Democrats take back the Senate. So it’s worth noting a particularly surprising and consequential answer Biden gave early on Tuesday night, one that may shape the course of his presidency.

Throughout the debate, Trump demanded Biden decry things he has already decried, or disavow policies he has already disavowed. And Biden did so eagerly. Asked to say “law and order,” he said it. Challenged to speak positively of law enforcement, he did. Pushed to denounce violent protesters, he called for their prosecution. Attacked for his plans to defund the police, pass a $100 trillion Green New Deal, and abolish private insurance, Biden said he opposed all of those ideas. “He just lost the left,” Trump muttered angrily.

Which made it all the more notable that when moderator Chris Wallace asked Biden to “tell the American people tonight whether or not you will support either ending the filibuster or packing the Court,” Biden refused. “Whatever position I take on that, that will become the issue,” he replied.

On the merits, this is a dodge. Those are consequential questions of governance, and Biden is running for president. His views are supposed to become flash points in the election. But in the context of all the sharp positions Biden did take, both for and against controversial policies, it was telling. Biden could have dismissed both ideas. At another time, he doubtlessly would have dismissed both ideas. That he refused to do so now reflects how far he’s moved, how far he believes his party has moved, or both.

Biden’s answers track what you’re hearing from moderate Senate Democrats these days. The conservative National Review, for instance, has been trying to get moderate Democrats on the record on both issues, and finding that the voices who were once reliable opponents to these ideas are increasingly leaving the door ajar. Asked about filibuster reform, for instance, Sen. Jon Tester (D-MT), once a strong opponent, said, “I still support the filibuster, but, like I said, we’ll see what happens with the other side. Who knows what’s going to happen?” Asked about court-packing, Sen. Bob Casey (D-PA) said, “I think we’ve got to wait to get through the election.”

Biden’s refusal to foreclose his options for making ambitious legislative governance possible again, by returning to both a Senate where a simple majority can pass legislation and a Supreme Court balanced between liberal and conservative justices, reflects a sea change occurring among Senate Democrats more broadly. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has disabused even moderate Democrats of their more hopeful notions of how governance might work, and there’s a growing recognition that polarized parties can no longer furnish the bipartisan coalitions necessary to pass even modest legislative agendas. Democrats face a choice between their agenda and the Senate’s current rulebook, and increasingly, they know it.

The question shadowing Biden’s campaign is whether his oft-voiced nostalgia for the Senate that was will render him paralyzed by the Senate; that is, whether he will be too attached to a past era in American politics to make the decisions necessary to govern well in this one. Early in the campaign, I was reasonably sure it would. I’m less so now.

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