Biden Taps Top Bernie Allies to Craft Economic Agenda

Sanders surrogates, union execs will shape 2020 platform

May 13, 2020

Presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden has called on two of socialist senator Bernie Sanders's (I., Vt.) top allies to help lead an economic advisory group tasked with shaping the party's 2020 agenda.

The Biden campaign tapped top Sanders allies Stephanie Kelton and Sara Nelson to join a "unity task force" focused on developing the Democratic platform on the economy. An economist at Stony Brook University, Kelton served as an economic adviser to Sanders's failed presidential campaigns in 2016 and 2020. She has argued that the government can pay for expensive programs, including the $94 trillion Green New Deal, by printing more money. Nelson, who is president of the Association of Flight Attendants, was Sanders's guest to President Donald Trump's State of the Union address in February. She has been floated as the progressive pick to replace AFL-CIO leader Richard Trumka in 2021, tying her candidacy to the implementation of far-left values in the labor movement.

The appointments come as Sanders attempts to push Biden further to the left. While coronavirus has thwarted the socialist insurgent's plan to influence the party platform by seeking additional primary delegates—Sanders's campaign called New York state's decision to cancel its June presidential primary "a blow to American democracy"—the task force gives the Vermont senator an opportunity to sell Biden on far-left economic policies as the U.S. attempts to rebound from the pandemic. Following the task force announcement, Sanders released a statement touting the group's ability to move the Democratic Party in a "transformational and progressive direction." Biden appeared to agree, saying the task forces "will be essential to identifying ways to build on our progress" and "transform our country" in a Wednesday statement.

Kelton is a leading advocate of "Modern Monetary Theory," which rejects concerns about deficit spending and calls for the funding of radical progressive policies by printing more money. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D., N.Y.) has said the theory should be "part of the conversation." Kelton pitched the theory at the Wall Street Journal's 2019 Future of Everything Festival, questioning why Democratic presidential candidates do not dismiss concerns about paying for expensive policy proposals.

"There's so much pressure on candidates to pay for everything," Kelton said. "I don't see anyone—I mean, I'll just be honest, I don't really see any presidential candidates putting forward ambitious agendas and saying, 'We're not going to try to pay for any of this.'"

One GOP campaign veteran criticized Kelton's inclusion on the economic task force, comparing her theories to The Simpsons.

"There's a Simpsons episode where the United States government prints a trillion dollar bill and it ends up in the hands of [Fidel Castro]. By the looks of who Joe Biden has picked for advisers—MMT proponents and far-left ideologues—he wants to repeat that episode," the aide said.

Biden has also used the task force as an olive branch to organized labor, which saw many members break for Trump in 2016 even as union leaders endorsed Hillary Clinton.

Nelson, the economy task force co-chair, joins fellow union boss and AFSCME president Lee Saunders on Biden's economic advisory group. According to Politico Magazine, Nelson "rejects the current labor leadership's moderate approach," calling on unions to advocate for "progressive topics that have as much to do with embarrassing Trump as they do with labor issues." Nelson has also expressed disregard for union members who support President Donald Trump, despite the fact that Hillary Clinton won union voters in 2016 by the narrowest margin of any Democrat since 1984. Trump lost historically blue union households by just 8 percent nationally and won them outright in Ohio.

"Nelson, however, is not interested in pulling the factions back together," Politico Magazine wrote in a December 2019 profile. "She wants to repudiate Trump—and, implicitly, rank-and-file members of AFL-CIO unions who support him for his trade policies and broader war on establishment elites."

In addition to Nelson and Saunders, Biden appointed American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten, National Education Association president Lily Eskelsen García, and Service Employees International Union president Mary Kay Henry to serve in advisory roles. National Right to Work Committee president Mark Mix called Biden's decision to appoint the labor leaders "hardly surprising," accusing the former vice president of endorsing "radical labor policies."

"Given the radical labor policies Biden has already endorsed, including wiping out all 27 state Right to Work laws so that union bosses can force millions more American workers to pay dues or else be fired, it is hardly surprising that now Biden is literally having union bosses write the DNC platform," Mix said. "That the heads of the four largest public sector unions were picked, who collectively have violated the First Amendment rights of millions of government workers as established in the Supreme Court's Janus ruling, demonstrates how little regard Biden apparently has for the ability of rank-and-file workers to decide for themselves whether or not to join and fund a union."

Biden announced the members of his "unity task forces" on Wednesday. Appointees will advise both Biden and the Democratic National Committee on their November general election platform. The task forces will cover six policy areas—climate change, immigration, health care, education, criminal justice, and the economy. In addition to Kelton and Nelson, Biden tapped prominent progressive congresswomen Ocasio-Cortez and Pramila Jayapal (D., Wash.) to serve on the climate change and health care task forces, respectively. Ocasio-Cortez did not mention Biden after accepting the nomination, instead thanking Sanders for the nod. She has previously argued that Biden would "depress turnout" as the party's nominee. In May, Jayapal said that the "enormous suffering" brought on by coronavirus gave congressional Democrats "leverage" to achieve policy goals.

"When you think about traditional situations of crisis … whoever the ruling party is in the White House, that individual has this enormous opportunity to bring people together because that's what people want in a crisis," she said. "None of that has happened…. For me, the leverage is that there is enormous suffering, and if we do not respond with the boldness and the scale that this crisis demands, then that suffering will continue."

The Biden campaign did not respond to a request for comment.