(Bloomberg) -- Progressive activists say they have no intention of easing pressure on Joe Biden to adopt their left-of-center causes as he shifts to the general election, despite fears among Democrats that their efforts could damage Biden’s ability to beat President Donald Trump.
In all but defeating Senator Bernie Sanders for the nomination, Biden has been cool to the most progressive ideas at the heart of Sanders’s campaign, including Medicare for All and the Green New Deal to fight climate change. Biden won a string of recent primaries by drawing an explicit contrast with Sanders, saying voters “don’t want a revolution, they want results.”
Now, Biden needs those predominantly younger and more liberal Sanders supporters if he’s going to win in November -- and the leaders of some progressive groups say Biden must do more to earn their full backing.
Sanders said he would support Biden if he were the nominee, repeatedly assuring Democrats that his chief goal is defeating Trump. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, one of Sanders’s top surrogates, has also vowed to support Biden and said she is worried “by some folks that say if Bernie’s the nominee, they won’t support him and the other way around.”
A few prominent progressives have gone further, expressing reservations about voting for Biden in the general election, and hashtags like #NeverBiden, #WriteinBernie and #DemExit2020 have trended on social media since he won the Michigan primary on March 10.
”We will push him before he’s the nominee. We will push him after he’s the nominee, but we are also going to make sure we defeat Donald Trump,” said Waleed Shahid, a spokesman for Justice Democrats, a progressive group.
Despite having almost no realistic path to the nomination, Sanders’s campaign said Wednesday that he was staying in the race, in part so he could continue to speak out about the government’s response to the coronavirus pandemic.
His approach to confronting the crisis is largely centered around enacting Medicare for All and Democrats fear that the split-screen messaging between him and Biden, who has called for a full and robust government response, will hurt efforts to unite the party around the common goal of defeating Trump.
Some Democrats blame Sanders’s prolonged 2016 primary campaign for delaying efforts to bring the party together and ultimately contributing to Hillary Clinton’s defeat.
“I think the conversation is going to quickly turn to how and when does Bernie Sanders unite the Democratic Party,” former Claire McCaskill, a former senator from Missouri, said Tuesday on MSNBC after Biden swept Arizona, Florida and Illinois. “I do think the pressure is going to mount, especially at this time of crisis in this country, for the Democrats to unite behind clearly the voters’ preference.”
Sanders’s supporters say his 2016 campaign was effective in pushing the party to the left and changing Democratic National Committee rules to reduce the role of establishment players like super-delegates as evidence of that.
But while Clinton supporters say Sanders’s attacks weakened her at a crucial time, and left hard feelings on both sides, Biden supporters point out that he’s a different candidate. Unlike Clinton, who never won the wide support of young progressives or white working class voters, Biden has started to court progressive voters, keenly aware of the need to broaden his coalition from older, centrist and traditional Democrats.
Biden adopted the bankruptcy proposal of a former rival, Senator Elizabeth Warren, which in part allows student-loan debt to be eliminated in bankruptcy, and last weekend, his campaign announced he supports making public colleges and universities tuition-free for students whose family income is below $125,000 a year, a version of a Sanders plan.
But progressive activists say policy isn’t enough; Biden must surround himself with key people from the left flank of the party.
“I think lots of voters are also concerned that they aren’t that many progressive voices surrounding him and that would also go a long way,” Shahid said. “I think the unity goes both ways, and I think Biden should continue to bridge that trust gap because it is wide.”
Biden explicitly reached out to Sanders’s supporters in his victory speech on Tuesday, urging them to join his campaign.
“To the young voters who have been inspired by Senator Sanders, I hear you, I know what’s at stake, I know what we have to do,” Biden said. “Our goal as a campaign and my goal as a candidate for president is to unify this party and then to unify the nation.”
Tad Devine, who worked on Sanders’s 2016 campaign, said Biden would fare better than Clinton in attracting Sanders’ supporters because Biden already has goodwill with the white working class voters, who comprised a large part of Sanders’ base in 2016. Devine recalled being struck by Biden’s progressive ideas when he announced at the White House in 2015 that he was not running for president.
In that speech, Biden railed against the influence of unidentified contributions on elections and outlined a litany of progressive policy goals including free public college, tripling the child care tax credit and immigration reform.
“Anyone who saw Biden’s statement in the Rose Garden, a lot of what he talked about was very similar to what Bernie was saying,” Devine said. “Jeff Weaver and I were watching it together and said, ‘He’s got our whole platform,’” he added, referring to Sanders’s longtime adviser.
But Devine said Biden must welcome Sanders and his supporters to his campaign, something made easier by their genuine affection for each other. Clinton and Sanders, he said, had a much icier relationship.
“I think Biden on that very human level is in a much better position to connect with Bernie, and I hope that they do,” he said.
Still, even if Sanders campaigns for Biden, the former vice president will face pressure from progressive groups who want to see his platform tack left.
The Sunrise Movement, which is focused on fighting climate change and endorsed Sanders in January, has consistently protested against Biden for not supporting the Green New Deal. Sunrise leaders say demonstrations will not stop if he does not embrace their ambitious proposals intended to remake the economy to stem the effects of climate change.
“For Biden to defeat Trump he needs young voters behind him and public demonstrations in support of the Green New Deal is one of the ways we can bring people into the movement and Joe Biden would be wise to follow the lead of people demanding the Green New Deal,” said Sofie Karasek, a spokesperson for Sunrise.
Karasek said whether it hurts Biden in the general election is up to him.
“The best way for him to avoid that scenario is for him to embrace the Green New Deal and the concerns of young voters,” she said. “It’s politically strategic for him to do that.”
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