Progressives hate incrementalism, but they’re learning to take what they can get from Joe Biden.
After failing earlier this month to persuade a Biden “unity” task force to endorse Medicare for All — not to mention the Green New Deal, a federal jobs guarantee and pot legalization — aides to Bernie Sanders won an explicit nod to the single-payer movement in a draft 80-page Democratic Party platform obtained by POLITICO. They also successfully lobbied for a somewhat less hawkish foreign policy than Democrats had in their platform four years ago.
The drafting of the document in recent weeks was the latest front in a tug-of-war between moderates and progressives over the direction and breadth of the party’s agenda. It demonstrates that progressives are continuing to make step-by-step progress in pushing Biden and the party left. At the same time, it shows the limited sway of the left, with the paper largely reflecting Biden’s centrist vision for the country, with promises to build on the Affordable Care Act and provide military aid to Israel.
The Democratic National Committee’s platform committee is set to take up the proposal on Monday.
“Support for Medicare for All has never been mentioned in a Democratic Party platform. Its inclusion now is significant,” said Analilia Mejia, Sanders’ political director, who spearheaded the Vermont senator’s strategy on the platform drafting committee. “The way we approach our movement is sometimes making big, rapid change, and sometimes it requires smaller gains that ultimately transform the discourse.”
The most contentious debates between moderates and progressives in the drafting of the platform were over health care, criminal justice reform and Israel, according to people involved in the process. Though their deliberations on both the panel and task forces were more hidden from public view compared to 2016, when the intra-party conflict was on display in nationwide meetings about the Democratic agenda, the opposite flanks of the party still fought this year over even small wording changes.
For instance, Sanders aides tried to push moderates to remove language from the platform about the right to “affordable” health care, preferring instead to emphasize the right to simply have health care, said people on the committee. They were largely unsuccessful.
However, progressives did win a positive mention of Medicare for All, despite the fact that Biden opposes the idea. Sanders staffers said that furthers their goal of normalizing single-payer health care.
“Generations of Democrats have been united in the fight for universal health care,” the draft reads. “We are proud our party welcomes advocates who want to build on and strengthen the Affordable Care Act and those who support a Medicare for All approach; all are critical to ensuring that health care is a human right.”
Andrew Bates, Biden’s rapid response director, said the line reflects the remarks Biden made in an attempt to make inroads with Sanders supporters after he effectively wrapped up the nomination earlier this year.
“On March 10, when Joe Biden made his speech in Philadelphia, he reached out to backers of other candidates and hasn’t stopped since,” he said. “Of course we welcome supporters of Medicare for All, and everyone who wants to gain more Americans health care and block Donald Trump from costing tens of millions their coverage.”
Sanders aides see the drafting committee as one part of a multi-step process, which also included the “unity” task forces they formed with Biden, to nudge the former vice president and the Democratic Party to the left this year.
They anticipate more lobbying, including over foreign policy, will take place in the coming days among members of the platform committee. Progressives on that panel are considering pushing amendments to support legalizing marijuana and defunding the police, both of which Biden opposes, as well as changes involving Israel.
Sanders himself is also pushing for the DNC to re-adopt the party reforms it supported in 2016, including a diminished role for superdelegates that bars them from voting on the first ballot, said Faiz Shakir, Sanders’ 2020 campaign manager.
Three of Sanders’ current and ex-aides — Mejia, senior adviser Josh Orton and former senior policy adviser Heather Gautney — served on the 15-person platform drafting committee. Shakir and Jeff Weaver, his longtime top adviser, also worked with them to influence the platform.
Progressives said they successfully pushed for a more explicit promise to grow Medicare to include dental, vision and hearing coverage in the platform. The draft states that “Democrats will fight any efforts to cut Medicare benefits, and support finding financially sustainable policies to expand Medicare to cover dental, vision, and hearing.” The task force recommendations said “voids in coverage such as dental, vision, and hearing services can lead to severe health consequences for Medicare patients” and Democrats will “fill coverage voids.”
The Sanders team also asked for and received a mention in the platform about backing an “updated and modernized version of Glass-Steagall,” something that went unmentioned by the task forces. An investment bank previously told clients in a report that the task forces “did not propose breaking up the big banks,” and that their recommendations were “light on specifics” and “positive.”
But progressives again failed, as they had in the task forces, in trying to persuade moderates on the drafting committee to support legalizing pot and ending “qualified immunity,” a legal doctrine that guards law enforcement officials from being sued for misconduct.
Sanders staffers also pointed to some anti-interventionist language in the draft as a victory, particularly compared to the 2016 platform’s foreign policy proposals, which they viewed as overly hawkish. “Democrats believe the United States should not impose regime change on other countries and reject that as the goal of U.S. policy toward Iran,” the 2020 document reads.
Another achievement for the left is the draft’s opposition to settlement expansion in Israel. The left wing tried and failed to include that in the party platform in 2016, said James Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute and a Sanders ally who served on the DNC’s Unity Reform Commission that year.
Progressives said discussions over the platform’s section on world affairs were less heated this time around than four years ago.
“In part because of Trump’s warmongering and in part because of the work the committee did, the 2020 platform has moved significantly” to the left on foreign policy since 2016, a Sanders aide said.
However, Sanders staffers failed to persuade moderates to include in the platform a reference to Israel’s “occupation” of the West Bank, as well as a call for placing conditions on military aid to the country. Instead, the draft platform said a 2016 vow by former President Barack Obama to provide assistance to Israel is “ironclad.”
In a demonstration of the compromise behind the document, it reads, “We oppose any effort to unfairly single out and delegitimize Israel, including at the United Nations or through the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions Movement, while protecting the Constitutional right of our citizens to free speech.”
Progressives considered that a step forward.
“It’s a statement of personal preference on part of whoever wrote the draft, but affirmation of the fact that everyone has the right to do it. The second clause nullifies the first clause, so it’s a win,” said Zogby. “That’s like the Republican platform saying, ‘We are against abortion, but every woman has the right to choose.’”