As the overwhelming majority of the Democratic Party coalesces around former Vice President Joe Biden, progressives are at odds with each other over how to respond to his campaign’s attempt to court Republicans behind-the-scenes, while appearing to publicly acquiesce to the left.
In response to a report by The Daily Beast that Team Biden is in early talks with prominent anti-Trump Republicans to form a new group before the general election, the normally unified progressive left was split, with even some of Sen. Bernie Sanders’ (I-VT) most ardent allies adopting an attitude that Biden would have to do what was necessary to win.
“Beating Trump is paramount for everybody,” said Larry Cohen, the chairman of the Sanders-aligned group Our Revolution. “The way Biden wins an election is by getting as many votes in swing states as possible. I don’t fault it that way.”
Cohen was referencing the top concern picked up in interviews with over a dozen Democrats across the party’s ideological spectrum, including senior Sanders advisers and aides, progressive leaders, activists and media figures, and party strategists. By explicitly prioritizing that end goal, he offered what was once unthinkable during the hard-fought primary filled with purity tests: that working with Republicans is a smart gamble.
To prove that ousting Trump tops all else—rather than prolonging a party divide over policy differences that’s haunted the progressive wing since 2016—some members of Sandersworld have even formed an outside group to help their former primary opponent achieve that result. Late last month, Jeff Weaver, a senior Sanders adviser and longtime confidant, touted the creation of Future to Believe In, a super PAC with other Sanders alums in an effort to drive the senator’s supporters to Biden’s general election cause.
“If Republicans want to come to Joe Biden because they're anti-Trump, then they should be welcome to do that,” Weaver said. “But that does not mean they get invited to the policy table.”
Mark Longabaugh, a Sanders ad maker in 2016 who is also advising the PAC, echoed similar thoughts. “I’m not worried that some ‘Republicans for Biden’ effort is somehow going to Shanghai his presidency,” he said. “The more that we can splinter that Republican Party, the better for us both electorally and legislatively.”
Part of the eagerness to work with disaffected Republicans reflects the urgency of the moment. Trump’s cratering poll numbers and the continuing Never Trump movement has given a unique opening for Democrats to win over those Republicans in exile, even if it is a matter of convenience rather than lasting political goodwill. And as the coronavirus pandemic continues to occupy the attention of both candidates, the former vice president’s polling has trended upwards in one-on-one matchups.
“If we want to make Donald Trump a one-term President and enact Vice President Biden’s progressive vision for America, we need to build the broadest possible coalition to defeat Trump in November — and that’s exactly what the Biden campaign is going to do,” Mike Gwin, a spokesperson for the Biden campaign, said in an email Tuesday.
A string of national polls released from late April to mid-May show Biden is beating Trump by several points nationally. A Monmouth University poll from April 30 to May 5 places Biden with a 9-point lead, while an Economist/YouGov poll taken between May 3 and May 5 shows him 4 points ahead of the president.
But some argue that’s simply not enough. When presented with sentiments from fellow progressives who offered a rosy image of a “Republicans for Biden” group, not every top Sanders lieutenant was on board.
“Either they’re being deliberately naive, or they’re dumb,” a senior Sanders adviser said. “He’s definitely going to owe them. He’s going to have to pay up at some point in his presidency one way or another. They’re not just doing this for nothing.”
That concern was shared among others on the left, who view any type of Republican-involved effort as an extension of a long held wariness that Biden tilts in a more conservative than liberal direction. Conscious of that, when Sanders endorsed his campaign in mid-April, the former vice president pledged to prioritize the Vermont senator’s supporters and promote progressive policies to help bridge the intra-party divide. Any right-wing maneuvering now, months ahead of November, only sets that promised progress backwards, they contended.
“The Republican brand is so polarizing that I don’t understand who that gets you,” said David Sirota, a Sanders adviser. “I think the so-called NeverTrumpers, as small of a group as they are, are hopeful that they can have disproportionate influence. That’s a legit concern.”
Indeed, the mounting feeling that Biden, who has crafted his political brand touting an ability to work with the GOP, is already setting off alarm bells among some outspoken progressives, who argue they have yet to see a real push from Biden to adopt a policy agenda that reflects their priorities. Add Republicans into the mix and some turn to possible doomsday scenarios.
“He’s going to have to make a deal with Republicans for them to even do anything like this,” said Ja’Mal Green, a former Sanders surrogate for his 2016 and 2020 campaigns. “They’re not going to be crossing party lines, facing backlash from Trump and Republican Party members for backing Joe Biden, and not get something in return. It’s not realistic.”
Green, a 24-year-old progressive activist, said this type of signaling, albeit subtle, sends the wrong message to young people who turned out in droves for Sanders and are feeling disillusioned by Biden’s ascent to become the presumptive nominee. “All it’s done is just adding to the reservations that young people already have about voting for Joe Biden,” he said.
Talks about a “Republicans for Biden” effort are just starting. But early discussions around messaging and leadership, among other components, are starting to take shape. The group, according to top Trump-critical Republicans, would most likely be formed from within the campaign or as an external entity, and would primarily serve as an additional vehicle to help remove the president from office.
“The Never Trumpers I know are helping to provide that permission – to tell these voters that Joe Biden is a reasonable, thoughtful moderate who can be trusted to lead us out of the monumental mess that Trump helped create,” said Matt Bennett, co-founder of the centrist think tank Third Way.
Still, when presented with that goal, some progressives are skeptical it will help persuade Republicans to Biden’s side, and emphasize it comes at the risk of alienating parts of the progressive wing all together. That fear was also acknowledged within some corners of Biden’s campaign, according to one knowledgeable Republican source familiar with the discussions.
“I would reject the premise that it is likely to make him win, unless the group of people who would be brought over by something like this is larger than the group of people who you could potentially lose,” said Ben Spielberg, a social justice advocate and Sanders supporter.
While Biden, along with former South Bend mayor Pete Buttigieg and Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), made clear appeals to win over Republicans on the campaign trail with a more moderate message, Sanders remained adamant in pushing the unabashedly progressive messaging that’s guided his decades-long career.
Ian Sams, who served as Sen. Kamala Harris’ (D-CA) national press secretary, acknowledged the anxiety around electoral outreach, but noted he hasn't seen anything to suggest that Biden “is letting our side down.” If anything, Biden has been pushing in “an even more progressive direction” over the last two months, he said.
In March, Biden made moves with an eye towards wooing more liberal voters, like endorsing Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s (D-MA) bankruptcy plan and a modified version of Sanders’ Senate bill that would relieve student loan debt for some individuals.
Following the 2016 presidential election, the majority of 2020’s Democratic contenders in the Senate, including Harris, Warren, Sens. Cory Booker (D-NJ), and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), moved sharply to the left of Clinton’s platform, adopting a variety of policies that sprung up from Sanders’ first bid. It’s with that spirit—that the entire Democratic Party has shifted in a progressive direction—that activists can use as bargaining chips if needed.
“If you ever see (Biden) veering from where you want him to be on policy if you're a progressive activist, you can push him on that and you can hold his feet to the fire,” Sams said. “But training fire on him just because he's trying to grow his coalition to win an election in order to pass progressive policy ideas doesn't seem like a wise investment of energy.”
And a “Republicans for Biden” effort, Democrats point out, is not without precedent.
In fact, heading into what’s expected to be a particularly contentious matchup against Trump, former Clinton campaign officials view the move as savvy politicking, pointing out that it can come in handy to try and sway Republicans who may have a wandering eye.
“When you have the Republicans for Hillary, it also kind of gives permission in some ways to other Republicans who might be thinking about it,” said Karen Finney, a senior spokesperson and senior adviser for Clinton’s 2016 run. Anything to try and avoid the mistakes of 2016, when more than 4 percent of the vote nationally went to third party candidates.
“Part of the reason to do this is the opportunity cost of not doing it,” said Philippe Reines, another longtime Clinton adviser. “You don’t want this group to go to a third option. It’s like hostage negotiations. Just keep them talking. Every now and then send them a pizza.”