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How can Joe Biden unify a Democratic Party that’s distracted by coronavirus?

Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden before a debate in February.
(Matt Rourke / Associated Press)

Joe Biden confronted the daunting task Wednesday of uniting and energizing a party that has been through a long, divisive primary, and is now distracted by the fears and daily challenges of a global pandemic and world economic collapse.

With Sen. Bernie Sanders’ decision to drop out of the race, Biden is seeking to win over his rival’s loyal band of progressive supporters, many of whom lack enthusiasm for the former vice president and his establishment brand of politics.

As the presumptive nominee, Biden is likely to enjoy a fundraising boost and the benefit of the Democratic Party devoting its full efforts to his campaign to beat President Trump in the fall.

“It’s time to come together and unite around our presumptive nominee,” Democratic Party Chairman Tom Perez said Wednesday.

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Biden is free to ramp up his search for a running mate, which he had begun quietly, in deference to Sanders, when he was still in the race.

Biden issued a statement Wednesday that praised the Vermont senator’s leadership and welcomed his followers to his camp, and invoked Sanders’ campaign slogan.

“I’ll be reaching out to you. You will be heard by me. As you say: Not me. Us,” Biden said.

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Progressives say Biden will have to do far more — by way of policy, personnel and choice of vice president — to broaden his support on the left, especially among young people.

“They are looking for something more than just, ‘We have to stop Trump,’” said Ben Wessel, executive director of NextGen America, a progressive super PAC that is on track to register 300,000 young voters in 11 battleground states this election cycle. “He has to recognize the new reality we are in right now, especially with coronavirus. We have a bunch of young people feeling like their economic future is completely screwed.”

Sanders’ withdrawal from the race was a signal moment in Biden’s decades-long career in politics. He outlasted a huge field of mostly younger rivals for the Democratic nomination, to finally achieve a goal that has long eluded him.

His first two runs for the Democratic presidential nomination, in 1988 and 2008, failed badly. The third time, this year, was not exactly charmed: He stumbled in the early-voting states of Iowa and New Hampshire. But his fortunes turned abruptly after he scored decisive victories over Sanders and the rest of the field in South Carolina and on Super Tuesday.

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But just as Biden became the prohibitive front-runner, the pandemic abruptly crippled his ability to capitalize on his victories, raise money and build momentum. The imposition of stay-at-home orders made in-person political rallies and fundraising events impossible, and made it hard for Biden to get his message out to voters preoccupied with the public health threat.

Sanders’ exit now allows Biden to work with the Democratic National Committee to raise money. They have plans to launch a joint fundraising committee that can solicit checks from donors in the tens of thousands of dollars. Contributions to the campaign itself have a $2,800 federal limit.

One avenue for Biden to energize and unify the party could be his choice of a running mate. He’s committed to picking a woman, and his campaign is expected to set up an operation for vetting candidates as soon as next week.

If Biden chooses a progressive like Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, a former rival, it could help fire up the left and young people. He is also under pressure from some quarters to pick a woman of color. Other Democrats believe a strong progressive on the ticket could be a liability in a general election and would favor a more centrist woman like Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer or another former rival, Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar.

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Joe Biden says he’ll name a woman as his running mate. A small handful of Democratic senators lead the list of the most likely candidates.

A recent Washington Post/ABC News poll illustrated the political risk to Biden if he does not bring Sanders supporters into the fold between now and election day. The poll found that if Biden were the Democratic nominee, 80% of Sanders supporters would vote for Biden, and 15% would go to Trump. That would be a slightly higher rate of defection than in 2016, when post-election analysis found that 12% of those who voted for Sanders over Hillary Clinton in the primary went with Trump in the general election.

Trump, in a response to Sanders’ announcement on Twitter, courted the senator’s supporters on grounds that they shared hostility to free-trade agreements, which Biden tended to support.

“This ended just like the Democrats & the DNC wanted…” Trump tweeted. “The Bernie people should come to the Republican Party, TRADE!”

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Biden, however, is drawing support from the anti-Trump wing of the GOP: The Lincoln Project, an organization of disaffected Republicans, endorsed Biden on Wednesday. At a virtual fundraiser, Biden invited former GOP Sen. Chuck Hagel to headline the event with him. That won’t go over well with some progressives and young people who think his call for bipartisanship is naive.

Biden has for weeks been reaching out to Sanders supporters and other progressives. He embraced bankruptcy reform policies backed by Warren. He proposed a Sanders-inspired plan to provide free tuition at public and community colleges, but to a more limited population. He held virtual happy hours and town halls to cultivate ties with young voters, who voted for Sanders by wide margins.

Senior Biden aides have been opening lines of communication with progressive groups, including old-line organizations such as Planned Parenthood and activist start-ups like Indivisible.

Julian Brave NoiseCat, policy director of Data for Progress, a progressive research firm that has been in touch with Biden aides, said he saw a better prospect for moving Biden to the left on climate change policy than on healthcare, where Biden has staked pretty firm opposition to “Medicare for all.”

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“He is receptive and movable as long as progressives are willing to give him a fair shake,” NoiseCat said.

But many other Sanders supporters are more wary. A letter to Biden from several large progressive advocacy groups including NextGen, Justice Democrats and the Sunrise Movement urged Biden to quickly pivot off a “return to normalcy” campaign theme. “For so many young people, going back to the way things were ‘before Trump’ isn’t a motivating enough reason to cast a ballot in November,” the letter said.

One of the progressive leaders that activists want to see Biden partner with, Silicon Valley Congressman Ro Khanna, who was a co-chair of the Sanders campaign, said in an interview Wednesday that Biden is moving in the right direction.

“Of course I would like him to embrace an agenda that is completely progressive, but no one gets everything they want,” Khanna said. “What is more important is that we have an honest, open and constructive dialogue about where we are coming from and what the vice president’s policies are.”

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Biden campaign co-chair Cedric Richmond, a New Orleans congressman, a while back began networking with Khanna and other progressive lawmakers supporting Sanders to assure them the former vice president was interested in their ideas and approach and would be seeking their advice should he become the nominee.

“He’s been thoughtful about building alliances between the progressive movement and the African American community,” Khanna said of Richmond. “He set a tone that the Biden campaign will be inclusive, will want a new generation of progressive voices to be part of it. He is an incredible asset.”

The outreach is not coming from just inside the Biden campaign. Democratic establishment Super PACS — a group that irritated Sanders backers in 2016 when some aligned with Clinton in the primary — are also working to ease the lingering tensions Trump tried to inflame with his tweets Wednesday.

The organization American Bridge, whose founder launched an effort in 2016 to troll Sanders supporters and other social media users who attacked Clinton online, on Wednesday put out a new digital ad. It was a tribute to Sanders and the campaign he ran.

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“Thank you, Bernie,” the text on the screen said at the end. “We’re in this together.”


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