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Opinion Biden makes his first big overture to Sanders voters

The Fix’s Aaron Blake analyzes how Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign shaped the 2020 primaries and what his exit means for the general election. (Video: The Washington Post)
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Now that Joe Biden is the de facto Democratic nominee, the question is: Can he mend fences with Bernie Sanders’s movement, or at least with a very sizable percentage of his voters?

The Biden campaign is set to roll out its first major down payment on this effort, by announcing two new policy proposals that go further than he has during the campaign. They may not go as far as Sanders would, but they’re still a striking move in his direction.

The first proposal is to lower the eligibility age for Medicare to 60 from 65.

The second proposal is directed even more squarely at Sanders supporters: Biden is offering a plan to forgive all student debt for low- and middle-income borrowers who attended public colleges or private historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and private, underfunded minority-serving institutions (MSIs).

Versions of the first proposal have floated around for some time — some suggest 60, others 55 — but Biden has not embraced either before. Along with his plan to create a public option, it could dramatically increase the number of Americans on public insurance.

The Biden campaign’s idea is that this would make Medicare available to two groups: those who work and retire before they turn 65, or those who are 60 and older who want to leave employer plans or other plans they access through the Affordable Care Act before they retire.

As Biden will say in his announcement, this reflects a particular reading of what our post-coronavirus crisis will look like, one in which "older Americans are likely to find it harder to secure jobs.”

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The second proposal is not as comprehensive as Sanders’s plan to forgive all student debt. But it’s still a serious move in that direction. And it comes in addition to his recent embrace of a proposal by Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) to also forgive up to $10,000 of anyone’s student debt right now as part of coronavirus relief.

In a sign of how high the stakes are here, Biden will credit the Sanders movement for making this happen, saying: “Senator Sanders and his supporters can take pride in their work in laying the groundwork for these ideas, and I’m proud to adopt them as part of my campaign at this critical moment in responding to the coronavirus crisis.”

There will, of course, be many Sanders supporters who will see these proposals as insufficient, and there’s a reasonable case to be made for that position. But you could also see them as a validation of Sanders’s entire strategy.

Sanders ran for president not just to win, but also to get his ideas in wide circulation and pull the Democratic Party to the left. And that’s precisely what’s happening. The party is going to nominate a candidate with establishment roots and centrist instincts, but that candidate is adapting his policy agenda to move in Sanders’s direction.

This is true in another crucial sense as well. These moves suggest that the Democratic Party’s thinking on economic issues and policy has been reoriented in a serious and meaningful way, in no small part due to Sanders and his movement.

Josh Bivens, the director of research at the progressive Economic Policy Institute, explained these deeper currents in an email to us:

Both of these ideas represent really welcome U-turns from what was damaging conventional wisdom even in big swaths of the Democratic Party for years.
Medicare, for example, has too often been treated first and foremost as a budget problem to be shrunk rather than valuable social insurance to be expanded. So the debate often included proposals to ratchet up the eligibility age. The fact that this proposal turns 180 degrees and lowers this age of eligibility is huge.
On student debt, the proposal seems to me an acknowledgment that typical workers’ failure to see labor market success (especially rising wages) in recent decades is not because they didn’t try hard enough to get the right skills and credentials. They did try hard to get these — including taking on risky debt. But, labor market success, it turns out, isn’t just about individual skills. It’s also about institutions and policy and power, and until you make these work for typical workers, not much will be fixed.

In a sense, then, these moves represent steps toward a real concession to a very different understanding of political economy than the one that has animated Democratic politicians such as Biden for decades.

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The following question will of course arise for many Sanders supporters: How sincere is Biden about all of this?

A senior Sanders adviser told us that talks have been ongoing for some time between the two sides, with an apparent aim of making the unification of the party smoother than in 2016. The Sanders adviser told us that the Sanders side believes Biden and his campaign genuinely understand that a lot is riding on them making this work.

“The Biden campaign understands that they’ll have to work towards reaching out to progressives and building bridges to unity,” this senior Sanders adviser told us. “We think they’re operating with good intent.”

The Sanders adviser told us that they expect the Biden campaign to roll out these efforts in stages, and that the Sanders team wants to create room for the Biden camp to prove its good intentions in this regard.

“We’ll give them space to make their best case,” the Sanders adviser told us, characterizing the Sanders team’s view of the situation.

As Sanders would no doubt tell you, that kind of influence is possible not only because of the inherent appeal of his ideas, but also precisely because politicians like Biden are not immutable in what they will support. They respond to public opinion and public pressure, which is why you pressure them.

That’s why Biden’s policy proposals this year are significantly more liberal than what he supported when he was vice president: a $15-an-hour minimum wage, making public college free for those whose family incomes are below $125,000 and promising to spend $1.7 trillion on green jobs, among other things.

The same is true of these two new proposals. The student loan proposal in particular is an implicit acknowledgment by Biden both that he has a political problem with young people and that the party in general needs to do more to address their specific needs.

Indeed, it needs to be seen as a highly significant fact about U.S. politics that Sanders really does command extraordinary support and loyalty among young voters, and that Biden has a great deal of work to do with these voters.

Young voters may view Biden as a relic of an earlier age. But this isn’t just personal; they’d also like the party to be more aggressive on liberal policies than Biden is naturally inclined to be. To no small degree, the Sanders agenda and worldview do represent the agenda and aspirations of the Democratic Party of the future.

The Biden team appears to recognize this, at least if these early moves are any indication.

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