The day after his last opponent dropped out of the presidential race, Joe Biden took the rarest of turns for a Democratic nominee: to the left.
Biden shed any pretense about his need to win over Bernie Sanders voters when he announced a pair of proposals Thursday aimed at assuaging wary progressives: lowering the Medicare eligibility age from 65 to 60 years old, and forgiving all student debt for low- and middle-income people who attended public colleges and universities, as well as those who attended private Historically Black Colleges and Universities and other institutions that serve minority students.
While unorthodox for a general election nominee, Biden’s decision not to move to the center was both a tacit admission that he has a problem with young and progressive voters, as well as a gamble that he can remain the real centrist in the race against President Donald Trump.
“We don’t need to pivot to get independents because he already appeals to independents,” said a Biden adviser. “These are ideas that we feel should appeal to Bernie’s voters that are well in keeping with Joe’s principles.”
But progressives were quick to point out that expanding Medicare is not “Medicare for All,” and some debt forgiveness is not debt forgiveness for all.
“It’s Day 1. We expect to see more. He’s got a long way to go,” said Waleed Shahid, a spokesman for progressive group Justice Democrats and a former Sanders staffer. On Wednesday, Shahid’s group was part of a coalition of progressive outfits that issued a list of far-reaching demands they want Biden to adopt.
On the other end of the spectrum, the Republican National Committee issued a statement that welcomed Biden’s leftward move: “In the first full day of the 2020 general election, Joe Biden continues his embrace of the Sandersnista agenda.”
For weeks, Biden has engaged in a charm offensive to ease Sanders out of the race without provoking him or his supporters, to whom Biden has been reaching out.
“First of all, Joe Biden knows what he’s doing. The places he’s reaching out are safe places,” said Jim Kessler, a longtime Biden backer with the centrist group Third Way.
“This race is not going to be won based on what a disgruntled Brooklyn coffeehouse denizen is thinking. It’s going to be won on turnout in cities and suburbs in places like Philadelphia, Milwaukee and Detroit,” Kessler said. “It’s time for Sanders to say to his supporters, ‘I’m with Joe. It’s time to go whole hog for him.’”
Sanders did not comment on Biden’s proposal, but campaign spokeswoman Briahna Joy Gray took a passing shot at Biden on Twitter.
“That he’s willing to shift on these issues after telling us they were ‘pie-in-the-sky’ indicates that we can go further," she wrote. Gray said Biden should call for lowering the Medicare eligibility age to 55 immediately, and keep lowering it over four years until everyone is covered. In addition, "Tax Wall St & cancel ALL student debt," she added.
The cost of the policies Biden proposed is unclear, but likely big. The chances that a politically divided Congress would pass the legislation are slim.
But the ideas are likely popular, even with swing voters and independents, said veteran progressive activist Jeff Hauser.
“If Donald Trump wants to fight him over this, Biden’s stance should be, ‘Bring it on,’” Hauser said. “Biden needs to not only commit to certain policies but convey authenticity in doing so.”
At the progressive group NextGen, which has already pledged $ 45 million to turn out young and minority voters in the general election, executive director Ben Wessel said Biden made “an important first step. But he needs more steps.”
“Biden has room to grow, and part of that is changing policy and showing that he’s listening to movement leaders, that he’s listening to young people, that he’s listening to progressives,” Wessel said. “Updating a PDF on a website, by itself, will not be enough to overcome the skepticism people have.”