Biden Tacks Further Left in Square-Off Against Sanders

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The good news for Democrats is that Joe Biden found his footing in the CNN-Univision debate Sunday night. Perhaps it was the absence of a live audience, sacrificed by the networks because of the coronavirus pandemic. Maybe it was the convenience of having a single debate opponent, Sen. Bernie Sanders.

Once shaky and easily exasperated, Biden was far steadier Sunday evening, speaking in large part with confidence and hitting back at Sanders without getting flustered or making major misstatements. The bad news is that if Biden’s performance was reassuring to rank-and-file Democrats, the substance of his rebuttals to his lone remaining opponent suggested just how far afield the Vermont “democratic socialist” had led his party and its front-runner.

Mainstream Democrats across the country have flocked to Biden’s banner because he offers a more centrist alternative to Sanders’ call to unabashed socialism. And while the former vice president reiterated his view that the American people “don’t want a revolution, they want results,” his own policy prescriptions made it clear just how much he, and the party he wants to lead, have taken their cues from Sanders on a number of big-ticket issues.

Throughout the debate, Sanders tried to convince Democratic voters that Biden wouldn’t be able to provide a stark contrast to President Trump because he’s too centrist. But the opposite argument could also be made – and Sanders made that one, too.

When the moderators asked about a series of proposals – doubling the minimum wage, free college tuition, and the “Green New Deal” – Sanders was only too happy to point out that his progressive ideas initially considered radical have been embraced over time by his follow presidential contenders, Biden included: “I’m glad that Joe [is now] on board. But what leadership is about is going forward when it’s not popular, when it’s an idea that you get criticized for. So I’m proud of that fact, and I’m proud of my leadership on many issues. Joe, since the campaign, has come around.”

That was an issue that hung in the air in a hall deprived of actual voters: During the primary season, Biden has shifted significantly toward Sanders and the left – holding positions that Trump can cast as too radical for practical Midwestern voters, who likely hold the key to who wins in November.

In many ways, the coronavirus crisis provides the perfect context for Biden’s explanation for his ascendency. After three years of Donald Trump’s disruptor presidency, the nation wants a return to normalcy, Biden argued, especially amid a health care crisis that has normal life so upended that people are sheltering in their homes, hand sanitizer and toilet paper are precious commodities and the country’s most vulnerable elderly are on strict lockdown.

“With all due respect to Medicare for All, you have a single-payer system in Italy,” Biden said, referring to that nation’s decimation by the spreading virus. “It doesn’t work there. … That would not solve the problem at all.”

The statement appeared apt for addressing the crisis at hand — though both Democratic candidates’ immediate prescriptions for handling the coronavirus scare aren’t all that different from what the Trump administration has announced over the last week.

In turning to a series of other major issues that have defined the Democratic primary so far, Biden stuck to his well-worn primary script. He continued singing off the Sanders/Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez song sheet and seemed quite content to follow the progressive wing’s push to remake the party into its own far-left image.

When asked whether undocumented immigrants, arrested by police, should be turned over to immigration officials, Biden responded with a flat “no,” without making any exceptions for those accused of heinous crimes such a rape and murder.

Sanders answered similarly. “Of course not,” he said.

Biden also pledged to issue a moratorium on all deportations in the first 100 days of his administration and to only deport those who have committed felonies in the United States, even if they are wanted for heinous crimes back in their home countries.

“In the first 100 days of my administration, no one, no one will be deported at all,” he said. “From that point on, the only deportations that will take place are commissions of felonies in the United States of America.” 

The statements earned a swift rebuke from Trump Campaign Manager Brad Parscale.

“Joe Biden is a train wreck on illegal immigration and would harm national security,” Parscale tweeted. “He’d have ZERO deportations for the first 100 days INCLUDING CRIMINALS and after that deport only felons.”

“Trashes the rule of law and makes us less safe,” he added. “Insanity!”

When it comes to the Green New Deal’s mandate to end the country’s dependence on fossil fuels, Biden was also similarly in step with Sanders. He unequivocally called for an end to all drilling even as expanded drilling during the Trump administration has made the U.S. the world’s largest producer of crude oil.

“No more subsidies for fossil fuel industry, no more drilling on federal lands, no more drilling offshore, no ability for the oil industry to continue to drill,” Biden said. “Period. [It] Ends.”

The statements went much further than Biden’s original plan to ban Arctic oil drilling and boost regulations on fracking to embrace Sanders’ total ban on fracking and an end to all fossil fuel leases on federal land.

Paying little heed to parts of the Rust Belt that helped hand Trump the 2016 election and where coal remains king, Biden also doubled down on the Obama administration’s stringent regulations on coal power plants, what team Trump has deemed a “war on coal.” 

“No new fracking, and, by the way, on the Recovery Act, I was able to make sure we invested $90 billion in making sure we brought down the price on solar and wind that is lower than the price of coal. That’s why not another new coal plant will be built,” he said.

Biden then pledged to invest in high-speed rail and “take millions of automobiles off the road.” 

Fracking produces natural gas, a cleaner-burning fossil fuel that has largely helped to displace coal because it lowers greenhouse gas emissions. Nonetheless, it is now verboten in most Democratic energy proposals.

When Biden first made his “no fossil fuel” commitments, during a debate over the summer in Detroit, the Trump campaign was elated. “Bye coal, Democrats & @JoeBiden just said they are done with you. How do you feel about that Pennsylvania?” Parscale tweeted.

Trump Communications Director Tim Murtaugh said Biden was signing off on the far left’s answer to climate change. “He’s ruled out fossil fuels, which would devastate coal-producing states like Pennsylvania and kill countless jobs across the country, not to mention job losses for workers in natural gas and oil,” Murtaugh said. “…The economic catastrophe that would result from Biden’s radical position is hard to overstate.”

On social issues, responding to Sanders’ questioning, Biden readily eschewed his past opposition to taxpayer-funded abortions, acknowledging that his plan to expand Obamacare would require it.

“Joe, you have in the past, on more than one occasion, voted for the Hyde Amendment, which says a low-income woman could not use Medicaid funding for an abortion,” Sanders said. “Is that still your view or have you modified it?”

“It is not my view. It is not my view,” Biden responded. “…The reason why I’ve firmly come out and opposed the Hyde Amendment was if we’re going to have public funding for all health care, along the line there is no way you could allow for there to be a requirement that you have a woman who doesn’t have the money could not have coverage under health care.”

The night’s big agreements between Biden and Sanders gave the Trump campaign an easy opening to cast both as too radical for America’s mainstream voters.

“Both Bernie and Biden proved themselves to be two sides of the same coin: offering a complete government takeover of the healthcare system, which would destroy employer-provided insurance for 180 million Americans,” Trump national campaign Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany said in a statement. “Both embrace dangerous immigration policies that would imperil our citizens, and both pledged to kill fossil fuel industries that employ millions of people.

“It doesn’t matter which of these two is the Democrat nominee. Either one would reverse the hottest economy in modern history and the great gains we have made under President Trump.”

Biden perhaps inadvertently conceded as much. Asked about what efforts he would make to reach out to Sanders supporters as the nominee, he quipped: “He’s making it hard for me right now. I was trying to give him credit for things -- he won’t even take the credit!”

Susan Crabtree is RealClearPolitics' White House/national political correspondent.

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