In defending achievements like the Affordable Care Act and the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, former vice president Joe Biden clearly positioned himself as President Barack Obama’s heir and the dominant, perhaps the only, center-left candidate in the top tier of contenders. When Sen. Cory Booker (N.J.) foolishly says Biden cannot identify with popular achievements unless he admits private disagreements with Obama (huh?) one wonders if Booker knows that Democrats overwhelmingly support those achievements and Obama personally. When Sen. Kamala D. Harris (Calif.) accuses Biden of being on the side of insurance companies, she implicitly accuses Obama of being some kind of wolf in sheep’s clothing. When Washington Gov. Jay Inslee says Biden is some kind of climate change denier, he obliterates Obama-era achievements like the Paris Accords and increased fuel standards.
More liberal opponents of Biden missed their mark Wednesday night, following the poor example of Sens. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) on Tuesday in several key ways. Both in tone and ideology, they seemed all too eager to fight for the sake of fighting, dump on accomplishments like the Affordable Care Act and run from positions that are widely popular within the party and with the country as a whole. It’s frankly bizarre to insist that if Obama was for something it cannot be good — or even a necessary stepping stone to better policies.
Biden made the following argument:
Obamacare is working. The way to build this and get to it immediately is to build on Obamacare. Go back and do — take back all the things that Trump took away, provide a public option, meaning every single person in America would be able to buy into that option if they didn’t like their employer plan, or if they’re on Medicaid, they’d automatically be in the plan.
It would take place immediately. It would move quickly. And it would insure the vast, vast, vast majority of Americans.
For this he was savaged as a dupe of Big Insurance. (Among Biden’s opponents, only Colorado Sen. Michael F. Bennet seemed to grasp that Obamacare and keeping illegal crossings — not asylum-seeking — criminalized are broadly popular positions.)
We know the name of the game in primary races is differentiation, but attacking Biden via the Obama legacy is daft. And after all, what are they really fighting about? Harris wants to let everyone into Medicare and no longer wants to completely abolish private insurers. Just as in Obamacare, she wants them to meet federally set standards, and she would apparently keep the Medicare Advantage (i.e., private plans) aspect of Medicare. The difference between her plan and Biden’s is slight, likely invisible to most voters, but listening to her you’d think Obamacare was some Republican plot. (She seems to be defending Sanders’s plan but running on something closer to Biden’s public option.)
The sentiment that anything achievable is small, trimming around the edges and unworthy of Democrats — a view unfortunately propounded by Warren — effectively writes off most of the electorate and casts Obama as an inconsequential president. That is a peculiar way to endear oneself to a party with deep affection and appreciation for Obama. Moreover, it essentially says one’s own plans are uniquely virtuous and any criticism is a “Republican talking point.” That’s no way to win hearts and minds. And it’s one step away from “only I can fix it.” (By the way, what happens when a President Warren cannot get her plans through even a Democratic House and Senate? Is there any part of the loaf she’d take?)
As someone who opposed a good deal of the Obama agenda, I found myself pining for this guy who in their telling was some crypto-conservative. If the progressive candidates induced Never Trumpers to rise in Obama’s defense, one can only imagine the reaction of Democratic voters who elected him twice.
Biden’s competitors are understandably anxious to push him out of the lead. However, in doing so by ridiculing hard-fought gains that many of them supported, they risk setting off a backlash, making Biden look more sympathetic and underscoring his argument: He might be the only viable contender who can appeal to the broad swath of the electorate.