Biden Looks to Unify Party Ahead of Bruising Fight with Trump

Joe Biden’s most urgent task as the presumptive Democratic nominee will be to unify a divided party for a bruising general election fight against President Donald Trump while the coronavirus consumes voters’ attention and halts traditional campaigning.

The more than 16-month nominating contest, in which a historically large field of Democrats presented a range of visions for the country, ended Wednesday with Senator Bernie Sanders quitting the race and leaving the progressive wing without a standard-bearer.

Biden, who won the primary with a pitch centered on steady leadership and pragmatism, has to persuade Sanders’s impassioned supporters to not only accept him but actively work to help beat Trump’s well-financed operation.

“It’s going to be a really rough and, I suspect, mean campaign,” Biden said Wednesday during a virtual fundraiser.

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Biden has to walk a tightrope between now and the fall to unite the party’s two wings and maintain that unity, while holding to the centrist positions that earned him the nomination in the first place. The pandemic has made that even trickier, as progressives argue it has laid bare the problems with income inequality and health care that their policies are designed to solve.

Trump Signals Fall Campaign Tone

Trump, who has canceled his signature rallies but now holds a daily news conference from the White House, has already previewed what the general election campaign will look like.

He waded right in moments after Sanders quit the race,tweeting that he “can’t see AOC plus 3” supporting Biden, referring to Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and three other progressive first-term members of Congress -- Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib and Ayanna Pressley.

Sanders acknowledged Biden would be the nominee, but he did not explicitly endorse the former vice president. Instead, Sanders said he would stay on the ballots in the remaining states in order to accumulate enough delegates to “exert significant influence over the party platform and other functions.”

Biden got right to work, writing a lengthy statement within an hour of Sanders’s speech lauding the Vermont senator’s campaign and promising to work with him and his supporters.

“I see you, I hear you, and I understand the urgency of what it is we have to get done in this country,” Biden wrote. “I hope you will join us. You are more than welcome. You’re needed.”

Back-Channel Talks

The Biden and Sanders camps have had a back-channel conversation over the past several weeks and continue to be engaged in discussions about policy proposals, according to people familiar with the conversations.

The main players in those conversations have been Anita Dunn, a senior adviser to Biden, and Jeff Weaver, a senior adviser to Sanders, but a trio of Biden aides including Symone Sanders, Stef Feldman and Cristobal Alex have also played significant roles in outreach to the party’s left wing. Symone Sanders now serves as a senior adviser to Biden, but she was Bernie Sanders’ press secretary in 2016 and still maintains close relationships with many of his aides and allies.

Sanders’s message of a political revolution, buoyed by a progressive agenda that called for Medicare for All and a Green New Deal, found a foothold with young voters across the country. He consistently outperformed Biden among young voters, who Democrats see as critical to to defeating Trump. A number of prominent progressive organizations, including NextGen America, Justice Democrats and the Sunrise Movement,implored Biden on Wednesday to adopt their policies and promise to appoint progressive leaders.

“While you are now the presumptive Democratic nominee, it is clear that you were unable to win the votes of the vast majority of voters under 45 years old during the primary,” the organizations wrote. “With young people poised to play a critical role deciding the next president, you need to have more young people enthusiastically supporting and campaigning with you to defeat Trump. This division must be reconciled so we can unite the party to defeat Trump.”

The letter asks that Biden support Medicare for All, adopt the framework of the Green New Deal, support a wealth tax, support abolishing the filibuster and expanding the Supreme Court. It also asks Biden to commit to appointing progressive leaders who endorsed Sanders and Senator Elizabeth Warren as co-chairs of his transition team if he is elected and pledge to not appoint current or former Wall Street executives or corporate lobbyists to senior roles in his administration.

Biden is adamant in his opposition to Medicare for All, instead preferring to expand the Affordable Care Act with a public option, and he is unlikely to adopt the most progressive policies. However, over the past month, he expressed his support for Warren’s bankruptcy proposal, which they had battled over, and he proposed making public colleges and universities tuition-free for many students, embracing a means-tested version of Sanders’s plan.

“Vice President Biden and our campaign have been engaging with progressive leaders,” Feldman, Biden’s policy director, said in a statement. “We are continuously considering additional policies that build on his existing policies and further the bold goals driving Vice President Biden’s campaign.”

Money Deficit

Biden will also have to find more ways to engage with voters who, like him, are staying at home during the coronavirus pandemic. He also has to raise money to make up a massive fundraising deficit with Trump, who has raised $225 million as of the end of February, compared to $26.2 million cash on hand that Biden and the Democratic National Committee have. Biden is likely to enter into a joint fundraising agreement with the DNC that will allow him to raise vast sums of money for the party while also tapping into funds set aside for the general election.

In addition to overtures to swing voters, Trump is attempting to dissuade disappointed voters on the left – largely Sanders supporters – from going to the polls in November. He has been laying the groundwork in tweets and comments for months, periodically suggesting that the DNC was trying to block Sanders from getting the nomination just as the candidate claimed it did in 2016.

And at a White House briefing on Wednesday, the president said that “a tremendous percentage” of Sanders supporters voted for him in 2016, and may do so again this year. “The Bernie Sanders people are big believers on what I’m saying on trade,” he added.

Earlier this week, though, Trump paused his attacks on “Sleepy Joe” to take a telephone call from Biden in which the former vice president offered a few recommendations for improving the government’s coronavirus response. Afterward, both men said the call went well and that they’d agreed not to share the content publicly.

Trump was especially complimentary to Biden, telling reporters, “He’s a nice man. I’ve always thought he was a nice man.”

The president isn’t usually so kind to rivals. He’s never made a secret of his cutthroat approach to campaigning and his efforts to muddy the waters around son Hunter Biden’s position on the board of Ukrainian energy companyBurisma Holdings have been aimed squarely at one of Biden’s perceived strengths with voters: That he’s an ethical family man who never sought to enrich himself through government service.

The efforts by close Trump associates, including Rudy Giuliani, to induce Ukrainian PresidentVolodymyr Zelenskiy into saying last year that he was investigating Hunter Biden, led to the congressional probe that resulted in Trump’s impeachment. Ukraine’s former prosecutor general, Yuriy Lutsenko,told Bloomberg News last year that there was no evidence of wrongdoing by the Bidens.

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