Joe Biden‘s message was clear.
“A united party is key to defeating Donald Trump this November and moving our country forward through an unprecedented crisis,” the former vice president said this week as he unveiled six policy task forces which will try to seek common ground between the Biden camp and former primary rival Sen. Bernie Sanders and his legions of progressive supporters.
For Biden, securing the left flank of his party’s base has been a top priority over the past month – since even before he became the Democratic Party’s presumptive presidential nominee as Sanders dropped out of the primary race.
“We’ve listened to Bernie supporters,” Biden said in an interview this week with local TV station KLAS in Nevada.
The former vice president’s campaign is emphasizing how the party has unified behind their standard-bearer, which wasn’t the case four years ago as plenty of Sanders supporters refused to vote for nominee Hillary Clinton, helping Republican Donald Trump win the White House.
Senior campaign strategist Mike Donilon touted on Friday that Biden brought “the party together faster than anybody imagined. And that’s going to prove to be a great strength.”
“People were predicting a convention that was going to be brokered and a long fight into the spring. That didn’t happen,” he noted in a conference call with political reporters.
But as with every presidential election season, it’s a delicate balancing act — and a risky one.
Further, what’s at play here is an inversion of the usual playbook, where candidates court the base for the primaries and then tack to the center for the general. Faced with a field full of far-left candidates in the primary election, Biden and a handful of his rivals played up their credentials as more moderate-leaning, practical politicians. But in the name of unity — and avoiding another 2016 scenario — Biden is clearly moving leftward in the wake of that contest even as he aims to win independents and swing voters in the fall.
Colin Reed, a longtime Republican strategist and veteran of the John McCain and Mitt Romney presidential campaigns, warned that this approach is “potentially alienating people in the middle who might have voted for Trump in 2016 but turned away from him in 2018, but aren’t really looking for Elizabeth Warren or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez policies in their next president.”
As early as March – after the Democratic primary battle essentially became a two-candidate race between the more moderate Biden and the populist Sanders – the former vice president has embraced and adopted a number of high-profile policy proposals pushed by both Sanders and another former 2020 rival, progressive Sen. Warren of Massachusetts.
For instance, he partially embraced Sanders’ push for free tuition at public universities and colleges – which was a centerpiece of Sanders’ two White House bids. Biden also adopted a proposal for bankruptcy reform, which was a key component of Warren’s progressive presidential campaign.
And in his only one-on-one presidential primary debate with Sanders, the former vice president pledged a moratorium on deportations under any circumstances during the first 100 days of a Biden administration.
As the calendar moved to April, Biden took more steps. Among them were proposing to lower Medicare eligibility to age 60, and offering a plan to forgive all student debt for low- and middle-income borrowers who attend public colleges or historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and private, underfunded minority-serving institutions (MSIs).
Earlier this month, Biden co-authored an op-ed with Warren in McClatchy newspapers calling for stronger oversight of coronavirus pandemic relief funds. In that opinion piece, he joined Warren in acknowledging that “for many Americans, our economy wasn’t working even before the devastation of the Covid-19 crisis.”
Last week, the former vice president spotlighted a new plan to focus on battling systemic racism and, this week, came out in support of federal rent bailouts.
“There should be rent forgiveness and there should be mortgage forgiveness now in the middle of this crisis. Forgiveness. Not paid later, forgiveness,” he said in an interview with Snapchat that was posted by Vanity Fair.
A leader in the progressive movement says Biden’s moves are not only good politics but good policy during the coronavirus crisis.
“While embracing bold progressive positions is useful for unifying the party, I think the larger point is that Joe Biden recognizes theses solutions meet this coronavirus moment,” said Change Campaign Committee co-founder Adam Green.
“There’s really a sweet spot for Joe Biden where endorsing bold ideas like canceling student debt and holding corporations accountable doesn’t just energize progressives, but provides a stark contrast to Trump and helps Biden show he’d meet this moment with the gravity it deserves,” added Green, whose group backed Warren in the primaries.
Moderate Democrats don’t seem to be faulting Biden for the leftward swing as they preach party unity.
Former Rep. John Delaney of Maryland, a former 2020 presidential candidate and a centrist who criticized progressive proposals during the primaries, told Fox News on Friday that “I don’t think there is a concern that Joe Biden is moving too far in any direction.”
Delaney, who endorsed Biden and is actively helping the campaign, said that “the vice president is fulfilling his promise to build a big-tent Democratic Party by combining big ideas that excite Democratic activists with pragmatic solutions.”
Biden campaign manager Jen O’Malley Dillon on Friday noted that the former vice president was “able to win the primary at the earliest stage in 16 years” and spotlighted polls that show Biden winning the overwhelming support of Democratic voters.
“We are coming into this election with a consolidated base and an activated and mobilized base,” she touted.
But Reed argued that “a candidate still working to secure the support of their base after they’ve won the nomination is usually a candidate who doesn’t feel very confident about their chances moving forward. The irony here is that Joe Biden won the nomination without going too far to the left as some people wanted him, and now that he’s got the prize as his party’s standard-bearer, he’s continuing to move further left.”
And he suggested that “to me, it indicates he’s concluded this is a base election and his base is still not where it needs to be.”