The gap between former vice president Joe Biden and more liberal candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination was on display Monday before activists at a candidates forum in Washington, where representatives of the Poor People’s Campaign grilled the hopefuls on their approaches to poverty and racism.
Biden outlined a new health-care proposal, which would build on the Affordable Care Act by increasing access for lower-income people. The former vice president’s tack on health care is less sweeping than the Medicare-for-all plan embraced by some of his Democratic rivals, which they touted later onstage.
The Poor People’s Campaign is a clergy-led effort to revive the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s push to focus attention and resources on poverty. At the group’s forum in Washington, nine of the Democratic presidential candidates showed up to make their case on how best to fight poverty in the current economic landscape.
The Rev. William Barber II, a founder of the campaign, asked attendees not to cheer or hiss but rather to greet all the candidates with polite applause. Even in this subdued setting, however, the response to Biden was noticeably muted, and he left the stage to applause that was less enthusiastic than that which greeted him.
Biden sped through his four-minute opening statement, which ended when he was cut off because of time constraints, leaving the former vice president halfway through a story about President Barack Obama’s reaction to a 2015 church shooting.
The former vice president referred to Obama repeatedly as he answered nearly a half-hour’s worth of questions, continuing his habit of repeatedly citing his former boss since launching his campaign in April.
Biden maintains a significant lead in most Democratic primary polls, but there are some signs his edge is shrinking as rivals such as Sen. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.) and South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg gain strength.
Biden arrived at Monday’s forum as an increasing target for his rivals, some of whom cite a need for fresh leadership and seek to frame Biden as a representative of a bygone era. Others suggest Biden’s centrist leanings do not match the political moment, saying many people are eager for far-reaching change.
In response, he stresses his goal of bringing people together, including Republicans, saying the country cannot function any other way.
Biden has built his message around a revival of the middle class, talking less about poverty than some of his opponents, such as Sen. Bernie Sanders (Vt.), who also spoke Monday. Barber nodded at the tendency to avoid the issue in his opening remarks, though he didn’t mention Biden by name.
“Sometimes people blame the poor for their problems. Others say this kind of neoliberalism, that if you help the middle class or the working class, that’s going to fix everything,” Barber said. “We know that neither one of those is the truth.”
Biden navigated the question-and-answer session with sometimes-lengthy comments that included his work in the Senate to extend the Voting Rights Act, his financial struggles during his years as a single parent, and the need to raise the minimum wage.
He then brought up his health-care proposal, essentially unprompted.
Biden has previously advocated for letting anyone buy into Medicare, the health-care program for the elderly and disabled. On Monday, he said people who have been denied Medicaid because their states declined to expand it should be able to access Medicare without paying premiums.
“I think everyone’s entitled to have total health care,” Biden said.
The ACA sought to expand Medicaid, the federal-state health program for the poor, by raising eligibility to 138 percent of the poverty line. But the Supreme Court ruled instead that this expansion should be up to each state.
Since then, 36 states and the District of Columbia have expanded Medicaid, but the rest have declined to do so, as many Republican leaders consider it a government overreach.
A campaign aide said Biden’s proposal would mean “premium-free access” to Medicare “for people who currently qualify for Medicaid, but have been denied access to it by governors and state legislatures who have refused the Affordable Care Act’s Medicaid expansion.”
While Biden often cited his relationship with Obama, he left some members of the Obama administration frustrated with his promises to cooperate with Republicans.
Joy-Ann Reid, an MSNBC host who moderated the session, asked Biden how he would pass his plans through a stubborn Congress — in particular, how he would work with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who makes little secret of his satisfaction at blocking Democratic initiatives.
Biden bristled at the suggestion that his approach was misguided. As he wound through his response, Biden moved nearer to Reid, who was seated, and leaned over her.
“Joy-Ann, I know you’re one of the ones who thinks it’s naive to think we have to work together,” Biden said. “The fact of the matter is, if we can’t get a consensus, nothing happens except the abuse of power by the executive branch. Zero.” He added that “you can shame people into doing the right thing.”
Biden’s suggestion that he could persuade McConnell to cooperate prompted skepticism from those who have interacted with McConnell. Alyssa Mastromonaco, a former Obama deputy chief of staff, tweeted, “maybe you can shame people. you can’t shame McConnell. it would be dope to find a path to greater bipartisanship but this isn’t that path.”
Warren battled none of Biden’s struggles with tangents or the clock. And when asked how she would deal with Senate inertia and stonewalling from McConnell, Warren answered differently.
“If we’re in the majority, and Mitch McConnell wants to block us . . . I’m all for getting rid of the filibuster,” she said. “We can’t let him block things the way he did during the Obama administration.”