Apr 9, 2020 - Politics & Policy

Biden and Sanders work toward truce on big issues

Biden and Sanders bump elbows on the debate stage last month

Photo: Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images

Joe Biden isn’t about to become Bernie Sanders, but he’s signaling that there’s potential for more common ground on issues such as health care, student debt, climate change and more in the weeks ahead.

What to watch: As Biden courts Sanders' endorsement, their teams will hold policy discussions in the next few weeks with the expectation that Biden will incorporate some elements of Sanders' agenda, a person familiar with those plans tells Axios.

  • Sanders ended his campaign Wednesday with kind words for Biden but no formal backing. He'll try to use that leverage — and the delegates he still holds — to get concessions from Biden and the Democratic Party ahead of the nominating convention in August.

Reality check: There's no chance Biden will adopt Medicare for All as part of those discussions. But he could at least move in Sanders' direction on big issues like health care and climate change, as well as others like labor and corporate responsibility.

  • Biden's already moved toward Sanders on making college free, and toward former rival Elizabeth Warren on bankruptcy reform.
  • The trick will be to figure out how much Biden can credibly give him so Sanders can satisfy his supporters that he had an impact before giving Biden his endorsement.
  • The two men spoke Wednesday by phone, according to a person familiar with the conversation.

Be smart: The coronavirus pandemic could create new, limited opportunities for the men to join forces, including on health care.

  • Sanders, in his announcement, said the crisis highlights vulnerabilities for those who rely on employer-based private health insurance if their jobs get cut.
  • Biden isn't going to get rid of employer-based health care, but he did give rhetorical support to Sanders' point. "Many of the biggest cracks in the social safety net have been laid bare — from health care to paid sick leave to a more extensive and comprehensive system of unemployment benefits," he said in his statement after Sanders' withdrawal.
  • That statement also promised to "address the existential crisis of climate change," ease the burden of student debt, and address income inequality — suggesting that those are likely grounds for talks between the two camps.
  • "While the Sanders campaign has been suspended, its impact on this election and on elections to come is far from over."

The intrigue: Will Sanders also demand specific language in the party platform around topics ranging from the Green New Deal to extending limits on superdelegates' roles in deciding presidential nominees? And how much influence will he seek to exert on hires inside a prospective Biden administration?

  • Jennifer Palmieri, the communications director for Hillary Clinton's 2016 campaign, said that four years ago, Sanders was more focused on the party platform while Warren — who didn't run but was a key backer — was more interested in how she could shape policies and personnel in the administration had Clinton won.
  • A senior Democrat, who asked not to be identified, said he fears Sanders will be tempted to turn every element of the convention into a negotiation again.
  • "What I worry is, it’s going to be 'Medicare for All,' 'Green New Deal,' they’ll say, 'We have to have these things in there,'" the Democrat said. "But it's really just a negotiation; they want to pull Biden as far as he can."

What they're saying: Several people we spoke with in Sanders' orbit said he should push to ensure that the progressive movement is represented in Biden's Cabinet as well as the Democratic Party's delegates. 

  • Nina Turner, national co-chair for the Sanders campaign, told Axios, "The people of this nation need real, substantive deliverables."
  • Larry Cohen, who was the senior adviser to Sanders' 2016 campaign and is board chairman of Our Revolution, said, "The Cabinet is more important than the platform," adding, "Personnel’s a big deal. Let’s get a commitment that your [Biden's] pals on Wall Street won’t be in Treasury."
  • Tad Devine, chief strategist for Sanders' 2016 campaign, said, "Bernie should push for movement on policy — not platform — but don't give Trump fodder for calling Joe Biden a socialist."

Other Democrats said Sanders has to play this moment carefully. He'll try to preserve his movement and legacy. But he has less leverage than four years ago, and he's sensitive to being seen as the spoiler if Trump wins re-election.

  • David Axelrod, Barack Obama's former chief strategist, said Sanders will endorse Biden, but "he needs to make a case to his movement that Biden is invested in principles they share."
  • Palmieri said that "the thing people will differ around is, is Sanders sincere about seeking these changes, or do they reflect a reticence about coming around to support Biden?"
  • Sanders' campaign was centered against a Biden nomination, she said. "To turn that around and take the biggest group of voters who were not supporting Biden, and turn them around, is a very tricky endeavor."
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