Democratic Task Forces Deliver Biden A Blueprint For A Progressive Presidency

Jul 8, 2020
Originally published on July 9, 2020 10:29 am

A joint effort by former Vice President Joe Biden and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders to unify Democrats around Biden's candidacy has produced a 110-page policy wish list to recommend to the party's presumptive presidential nominee.

Throughout the Democratic primary, Biden stuck to a more moderate platform, while Sanders, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and much of the rest of the crowded field courted progressives and advocated for broader structural changes. But as the United States faces a growing pandemic and unemployment rates at the highest levels in generations, Biden has been talking more and more about a presidency that approaches Franklin Delano Roosevelt's, with bold progressive ambitions.

The policy document — the work of six joint task forces appointed by Biden and Sanders in May — would give the former vice president a road map to that goal.

"The goals of the task force were to move the Biden campaign into as progressive a direction as possible, and I think we did that," Sanders told NPR. "On issue after issue, whether it was education, the economy, health care, climate, immigration, criminal justice, I think there was significant movement on the part of the Biden campaign."

The document recommends that Biden commit to eliminating carbon pollution from power plants by 2035 and to zeroing out net greenhouse gas emissions across the entire economy by 2050. The task forces call for funding universal prekindergarten across the country, expanding Social Security, raising the national minimum wage and eliminating cash bail, among many other long-sought progressive stances.

"I don't think you could find any issue that we couldn't find an agreeable resolution on, that everybody in the room said, 'That will work,' " said Jared Bernstein, Biden's former economic adviser in the Obama administration and a task force member. "I don't think you could find anything in there that he won't want to take a very close look at."

"I commend the Task Forces for their service and helping build a bold, transformative platform for our party and for our country," Biden said in a statement on Wednesday. "And I am deeply grateful to Senator Sanders for working together to unite our party, and deliver real, lasting change for generations to come."

Biden's campaign has yet to publicly commit to doing anything other than "reviewing" the recommendations.

If he adopted them, the recommendations would shift Biden to the left, but they would not completely transform the platform he has been running on for more than a year.

"We did not have any impressions that we were going to turn Joe Biden into Bernie Sanders. That was not going to happen. That did not happen," said Faiz Shakir, who managed Sanders' presidential campaign and helped coordinate the task forces.

Where the health care task force landed

The health care recommendations illustrate that point best.

Washington Rep. Pramila Jayapal co-chaired the health care task force. She has long pushed, like Sanders, for a single, government-run health insurance program but didn't bring that recommendation to the table in any of the meetings or negotiations.

"Obviously our candidate who is pushing for 'Medicare for All' did not win," she told NPR. "There was a lot that Biden had already said on health care, which somewhat limited our ability to perhaps get as much as we wanted to get."

Still, Jayapal was happy with the recommendations, which include expanding the benefits and lowering the costs of the public health insurance program Biden wants to add to the Affordable Care Act, as well as insisting that Medicare, not any private health insurance company, would administer the plan.

The task force also called on Biden to pursue requiring employers to offer employees the option to sign up for government-administered health care, rather than company plans.

Jayapal thinks the report can help sell onetime Sanders-backers on Biden.

"I feel like I can go and legitimately sell this as something that the movement achieved, something that we were able to do that pushed Vice President Biden further than he has been and solidified the need for universal, high-quality, low-cost coverage for everybody provided through public providers, not private insurance companies," she said.

The leftward shift of the policy recommendations could provide more fodder for President Trump, who has tried, at times, to paint his Democratic challenger as "a helpless puppet of the radical left."

Courting progressives might not be as essential for Biden as most Democrats once expected it to be. Poll after poll shows Biden with a double-digit national lead over Trump and several swing states moving toward the Democratic column.

Still, even as he cleared the presidential field faster than any Democrat in decades, party members have remained less excited and fired up about his candidacy and more motivated by the idea of defeating Trump.

Sanders hopes this document will get more progressives excited about the goals, not just the existence, of a Biden administration. "When I talked to Joe a while back, he said that he wants to be the most progressive president since FDR," Sanders said. "Do I believe that Biden believes that now is the time for bold action to protect the working class and lower-income people in this country? Yes, I do believe that's the case."

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Just how big of a tent is the Democratic Party? The primary exposed some huge differences between the moderate and progressive wings of the party. But Joe Biden came out on top. And Democrats know they have to come together to beat President Trump. So yesterday, Biden met with Bernie Sanders on the left. And they came up with a long list of policy recommendations to try to unify ahead of the convention. Senator Sanders spoke to NPR.


BERNIE SANDERS: Well, the goal of the task force were to move the Biden campaign into a progressive direction as possible. And I think we did that.

MARTIN: OK. Let's truth squad that a bit with NPR political correspondent Scott Detrow. Hi, Scott.

SCOTT DETROW, BYLINE: Hey, good morning.

MARTIN: OK, so Bernie Sanders claims to be pushing Joe Biden to the left. I mean, is he? How so?

DETROW: He is. This was an effort by both Biden and Sanders to try to keep the party together, to not repeat 2016 where progressives were not fully onboard with Hillary Clinton. So Sanders representatives and Biden representatives worked on six big policy areas. And they came up with this report that really reads like a progressive wish list across a wide range of areas. Just to tick off a couple, it calls for zeroing out net greenhouse gas emissions across the entire country by 2050, funding universal prekindergarten across the country. These recommendations would push Biden to the left but not completely transform his platform. I talked to Faiz Shakir about this. He managed Bernie Sanders's presidential campaign. And he helped coordinate these task forces.

FAIZ SHAKIR: We did not have any impressions that we were going to turn Joe Biden into Bernie Sanders. That was not going to happen. And that did not happen.

DETROW: So these are recommendations. Biden's campaign did work closely on them. But so far publicly, they've only committed to reviewing the recommendations, not fully embrace them just yet.

MARTIN: OK, what about health care? I mean, we heard this as such a dividing line in the Democratic primary between moderates and the progressives, especially on "Medicare for All."

DETROW: Yeah, that's a great example. Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal talked about this. She co-chaired the health care task force. She really wants Medicare for All. But she said, look, the Medicare for All candidate did not win the primary. She still feels like progressives got a lot out of this in the world of health care, including really expanding the benefits and lowering the costs of the public health insurance program that Biden would push for and making sure that Medicare would administer it, not a private health insurance company.

PRAMILA JAYAPAL: I feel like I can go and legitimately sell this as something that the movement achieved, something that we were able to do that pushed Vice President Biden further than he has been.

MARTIN: So, Scott, how does the Biden campaign see this effort? How important is it actually for Biden to win over these progressive Sanders voters?

DETROW: I think if Biden is elected president, this is very important. It's been very clear he wants to get a lot of this stuff done. But looking at the blunt political question, I think it's actually less important than it seemed before. Joe Biden has built a really big lead over President Trump. And a lot of that has to do with independent, more moderate voters. And a lot of recent data shows that progressives are actually onboard with Biden already. That's less excitement about Joe Biden and more excitement about the possibility of beating President Trump. So Biden has been running kind of a cautious campaign, doing maybe one speech a week. He will be giving a speech today, actually. His campaign is billing it as a key speech on the economy this afternoon.

MARTIN: Do we know anything about that?

DETROW: Well, specifically on the economy, his campaign says that he's going to call for a lot of things that Democrats in Congress have been pushing for recently, providing federal aid to state and local governments facing these massive budget gaps. It's extending unemployment benefits. He's going to call again for something he's been talking about before - creating a big core of public health workers to create jobs and also boost the number of contact tracers out there trying to track infections.

MARTIN: All right, NPR's Scott Detrow for us. Thanks, Scott. We appreciate it.

DETROW: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.