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Courting progressives, Biden shifts policy stances on free college, bankruptcy

The Democratic front-runner is extending an olive branch to Sanders, Warren and their supporters.
Image: Joe Biden speaks at Tougaloo College in Miss., on March 8, 2020.
Joe Biden speaks at Tougaloo College in Tougaloo, Mississippi, on March 8, 2020.Rogelio V. Solis / AP file

WASHINGTON — Joe Biden's campaign rolled out two new policy positions that borrow from Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren ahead of Sunday's debate, both aimed at courting progressive voters as he marches to the Democratic nomination.

The former vice president said Sunday he'll support a policy to make public colleges and universities tuition-free for students with family incomes under $125,000.

The position is a significant shift in the direction of Sanders, the senator from Vermont who wrote a bill to the same effect in 2017 but has since called for free college to be universal regardless of household income. Biden's new stance mirrors a policy plank that Hillary Clinton announced in summer 2016 with the similar aim of reaching out to Sanders voters after she defeated him.

At a virtual town hall with Illinois voters Friday, Biden also endorsed Warren's proposal to bolster bankruptcy protections for those struggling financially, including restoring some that were eliminated in a 2005 law that Biden championed when he was a senator.

The Warren measure would allow people to clear out student loan obligations during bankruptcy, which carries major implications for young Americans as student debt topped $1.6 trillion this year.

"Across the country, middle and working class families are being squeezed by debt," Biden wrote on Twitter. "This is a massive problem, and one that we need all of the best ideas to solve. That's why today, I'm adopting two plans from @BernieSanders and @ewarren to achieve this."

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The policy shifts come after Biden scored a string of victories and seeks to consolidate support from a progressive wing that has long been skeptical of his history of moderate positions. The reversal of his position on bankruptcy echoes his U-turn on some tough-on-crime positions that he successfully fought for in 1994 but which voters have since turned against.

Biden's recent shifts track the direction of a Democratic electorate that has been embracing more progressive positions since the last time the former vice president was on the ballot in 2012, and they aim to show liberals and younger voters that he can be a vehicle to advance their causes.

Sanders addressed his rival's new policy Sunday, saying in a statement that it is "great that Joe Biden is now supporting a position that was in the Democratic platform four years ago." He called on him to "go much further" by endorsing universal free college, canceling all student debt and taxing "Wall Street speculation."

Sanders' prospects of winning the nomination have dimmed in the last two weeks. He has said in recent days that he will press Biden on numerous issues at the debate, including how to address the issues that liberal Democratic voters care about if he becomes president.

"Joe Biden will make it clear to Senator Sanders' supporters that there's space for them and that we welcome their support," a senior Biden campaign adviser said, previewing the debate. "But we're also going to welcome their ideas, their passion and their commitment to the issues that they care so deeply about."