Ahead of Debate Showdown, Biden Embraces the Bernie Wing

Presumptive Democratic nominee signals pivot left

Joe Biden
Getty Images
March 15, 2020

Joe Biden on Sunday embraced two major proposals from his progressive primary competitors, signaling a swing to the left to consolidate the party in advance of the evening's primary debate.

Biden announced that he would be adopting two plans forwarded by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I., Vt.)—his sole remaining serious competition in the primary—and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D., Mass.), who departed the race after a crushing defeat in her home state but has refused to endorse either Sanders or Biden.

Biden's announcement appears to be a calculated effort to consolidate the party's holdout left wing, ending a divisive primary campaign well in advance of July's Democratic National Convention. In doing so, however, Biden moves himself even further left, exposing himself to attacks from the center by President Donald Trump come general election season.

Biden on Sunday claimed to draw one plan each from Sanders and Warren. To the Vermont senator, he attributed "a plan that would make public colleges and universities free for families whose income is below $125,000," saying that he is "proud to add it to my platform."

In fact, Sanders's plan would not cap eligibility for public colleges and universities, instead promising to appropriate $48 billion a year to categorically eliminate tuitions and fees at public colleges—a move in line with Sanders's apparent preference for universal, rather than means-tested, approaches to policy. (Warren also would have funded universal college.) A study published by the National Bureau of Economic Research in November found that over 86 percent of households would lose out under Sanders's plan, primarily by constraining state expenditures on and thereby reducing the quality of public education in general.

Additionally, Biden announced that he would adopt Warren's "bankruptcy plan," a topic that has been near and dear to the Massachusetts senator's heart since her time as a legal scholar. Warren's plan—which would aim to alter the balance of power in bankruptcy litigation through a number of legal changes—is based on her own study of the causes and frequency of bankruptcy, analysis which has been criticized as poorly designed.

Biden's adoption of Sanders's and Warren's ideas appears designed to mollify the last remaining opposition to his historic seizure of the Democratic nomination. Following endorsements by former opponents Pete Buttigieg, Beto O'Rourke, and Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D., Minn.), as well as scores of others, Biden handily won most of the delegates up for grabs on both Super Tuesday and last week's smaller "Super Tuesday Two." Sanders, however, has indicated that he will remain in the race, hoping to wring concessions out of Biden of precisely the kind the frontrunner offered Sunday.

Such concessions, however, risk tarnishing Biden's carefully tailored—and often misleading—image as a moderate. Free college is broadly popular, but another move to the left may indicate to voters that Biden is more concerned about winning with Sanders's base than mollifying the moderate voters who have handed him the crown.