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Democratic task forces send Biden a progressive policy roadmap

The recommendations reflect areas of consensus reached after weeks of deliberations between allies of the presumptive Democratic nominee and Bernie Sanders.
Image: Sen. Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden speak before a Democratic presidential primary debate in Charleston, S.C., on Feb. 25, 2020.
Sen. Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden before a Democratic presidential primary debate in Charleston, S.C., on Feb. 25, 2020.Matt Rourke / AP file

WASHINGTON — A coalition of Democrats has presented Joe Biden with a roadmap for an ambitious, progressive agenda in the White House that would include proposals to immediately address ongoing crises, reflecting areas of consensus reached after weeks of deliberations between allies of the presumptive nominee and Bernie Sanders.

The former primary rivals, whose sharp differences were on display throughout the year-long Democratic nomination battle, will jointly release the specific policy recommendations made by the so-called Unity Task Forces they appointed in April to find common ground on six key areas: climate change, criminal justice reform, the economy, education, health care and immigration.

The recommendations include draft language that will be submitted to the Democratic National Committee’s party committee as a “starting point” for their consideration, the Biden campaign said, adding that the former vice president “looks forward to reviewing” their work.

A review of the 110-page document provided to NBC News in advance of its public release offers fresh evidence of how the Biden campaign, having held firmly to the center in a Democratic primary that began with a record field of candidates racing to the left, is open to some — but not all — of the progressive wing’s approaches as he prepares for the general election campaign.

The health care task force, for instance, focused on ways to expand coverage through Biden’s firmly held position of building on the Affordable Care Act, rather than pursuing a single-payer system like Medicare for All. But the climate task force, co-chaired by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., recommended more aggressive timelines for achieving net-zero carbon emissions than Biden had called for in the campaign.

Both sides highlighted the final work product as reflecting unprecedented — and to many unexpected — party unity. The idea of the task force was an outgrowth of discussions between the campaigns as Biden began to build an insurmountable delegate advantage, motivated by the shared goal of defeating President Donald Trump and the recognition that the party needed to be fully united to do so.

Each camp saw mutual benefit in the arrangement: for Biden, smoothing a process to win over the Vermont senator’s most ardent supporters and avoid the intraparty tension that plagued Hillary Clinton’s 2016 candidacy; and for Sanders, a guaranteed seat at the table on policy and personnel that would ensure that his “movement” lasted beyond his candidacy.

But as the six eight-person teams set about their work, the unfolding health and economic crises caused by the coronavirus and the renewed national debate over race gave their work new urgency that helped focus their efforts.

The final product reflects the growing recognition across the party that a Biden administration will have a unique opportunity, and in their view necessity, to take far more aggressive actions on multiple fronts than many were considering at the start of the campaign.

Even Biden, who campaigned throughout the primaries as a pragmatic Democrat and argued that Americans were more interested in “results” than a “revolution,” has increasingly spoken of a New Deal-style agenda to start his administration, nodding to the robust federal response to the Great Depression promised by President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

In May, when most of the U.S. was still in a lockdown due to the pandemic, Biden declared on his podcast “Here’s the Deal” that the moment had led the country to “need some revolutionary institutional changes.”

“For the millions of Americans facing hardship due to President Trump’s failed coronavirus response, this election offers the chance to usher in a stronger, fairer economy that works for our working families,” Biden said in a statement welcoming the task forces’ recommendations.

“I commend the task forces for their service and helping build a bold, transformative platform for our party and for our country. And I am deeply grateful to Senator Sanders for working together to unite our party, and deliver real, lasting change for generations to come," Biden said.

Sanders said that while he, Biden and their supporters “have strong disagreements” about some policy issues, “we also understand that we must come together in order to defeat Donald Trump, the most dangerous president in modern American history.”

“Though the end result is not what I or my supporters would have written alone, the task forces have created a good policy blueprint that will move this country in a much-needed progressive direction and substantially improve the lives of working families throughout our country. I look forward to working with Vice President Biden to help him win this campaign and to move this country forward toward economic, racial, social and environmental justice,” he said.

The Trump campaign, having found little success so far in defining Biden as out of the mainstream, is likely to pounce on the policy moves as evidence that the veteran, familiar Democrat is something of a Trojan horse for the extreme left.

Policies Republicans characterize as radical reform — including the Green New Deal, Medicare for All, defunding the police and abolishing the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) — are notably not mentioned as recommendations.

But former Sanders campaign manager Faiz Shakir, who has been a key part of the unity efforts, argued that doing so “asks you to ignore the reality of what happened” in the primary, when Biden and Sanders’ philosophical differences were regularly on display.

“Even in the steps that he’s making toward our direction, they seem consistent with the Joe Biden who is evolving with the times,” Shakir said. “The country is in a place of economic and health desperation … and the times are really compelling that movement.”

Top officials in both camps insisted that the “odd couple” pairings on panels — former Secretary of State John Kerry leading the climate panel along with Ocasio-Cortez, for starters — were not just for optics. The five Biden and three Sanders representatives on each task force were full participants in weekly Zoom meetings and conference calls that in most cases lasted no less than an hour, and in many cases longer than that. Each panel’s co-chair worked with Sanders adviser Analilia Mejia and Biden adviser Carmel Martin to shape the discussions and move both sides toward consensus.

Aides say the task force’s work could be a model for how the party could govern next January, building goodwill across the ideological spectrum of the party that will be key if Democrats are in position to govern with the White House and majorities in one, or both houses of Congress.

The recommendations, though, include a significant number of actions Biden could direct the executive branch to take without congressional approval, much as the Trump administration has systematically reversed Obama-era actions over his four years. They include executive orders on issues that are currently on the forefront of people’s minds, like helping front-line workers, new guidelines on policing use-of-force measures, housing, outsourcing jobs, addressing health care disparities and undoing Trump’s executive orders on immigration.

Biden on Wednesday, speaking to union supporters, emphasized the “extraordinary chance” Democrats have to enact meaningful changes if elected — and acknowledged the work needed to ensure that he is.

“Not only are we going to win. We're going to take a monumental step forward for the prosperity, power, safety and dignity of all American workers," Biden said. "I truly, truly believe that."