Sen. Elizabeth Warren has buttonholed Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer in the Capitol to press him on the shape of a coronavirus relief package. She headlined a recent call with liberal groups to push her ideas on the subject. Her top aides have been talking to Joe Biden’s campaign about an economic response.
Sen. Bernie Sanders held an online “roundtable” to rally voters around his own ideas on tackling the pandemic. He urged Senate colleagues on a conference call last week to focus more on revamping the current health-care system. And his team, too, has been in touch with the Biden camp.
The Democratic Party’s two liberal leaders, whose presidential ambitions have respectively collapsed and faded in recent weeks, are opening new lines of communication with the party’s likely nominee, and they are seizing on Washington’s push for coronavirus relief in hopes of putting their stamp on the national agenda.
There is some evidence it’s working. Schumer has embraced key parts of Warren’s ideas, including cancellation of student debt and a $200-a-month increase in Social Security payments, as well as restrictions on companies that receive bailout money.
Biden’s team is listening to both Sanders and Warren, according to four people familiar with those discussions and, according to Biden spokesman Andrew Bates, is planning to “talk more about his views on how to support our economy, working families, and the American middle class in the coming days.”
Top Democrats have a powerful incentive to work with the liberal leaders. Warren and Sanders gained big followings during this year’s primary, and party leaders are desperate to avoid a repeat of their damaging split with the liberal wing in 2016. Some Democrats also believe they paid a political price for dismissing liberal complaints on the 2008 financial bailout, which many activists said shafted workers while rescuing corporations.
For Biden, who has a prohibitive lead in the race for the nomination, the moment presents an unexpected and potentially powerful opportunity to unify the disparate wings of the party and signal that he’s serious about embracing elements of the Sanders and Warren agendas.
“I think it’s critical that he embraces ideas in a spirit of compromise – not in a spirit of ‘I’ll take the things from your list that nobody noticed (and put them) on my list,” said Larry Cohen, who heads a nonprofit aligned with Sanders.
Although Biden, who is holed up in Delaware, is far from the center of action in Washington at the moment, strategists on the left say that whatever stimulus package passes now would be implemented by Biden should he prevail in November, making him a key player regardless.
Many liberals see the response to the virus as a way to enact quicker versions of the broad social changes at the heart of the Warren and Sanders campaigns. The talks could enable Sanders to win policy concessions in a way that eases his own departure from the presidential race.
Some Sanders supporters even say privately that in deciding whether to throw their support behind Biden, they will be more influenced by the former vice president’s coronavirus platform than whether Sanders endorses him. The pandemic, they say, is likely to be central to the nation’s political discourse for the foreseeable future, and it is rapidly becoming the venue for hashing out the party’s – and the nation’s – larger policy debates.
Still, the moment presents political peril for Biden as he seeks to attract liberals without compromising the centrist message that has propelled his candidacy.
The apparent political opening for liberal, big-government initiatives has come up suddenly, the result of a shocking pandemic and accompanying economic crisis. Even many Republicans are joining calls for free health treatments, cash handouts to poorer Americans, and significant aid to businesses – a head-spinning twist in a political season that for months saw relentless attacks on “socialism” and “socialized medicine.”
President Donald Trump initially downplayed the pandemic, predicting the country would be down to one or two cases within days, rather than the thousands or millions that will be the reality. But in recent days, Trump has signaled he is taking the outbreak more seriously and embraced broad aid packages.
That prompted some Sanders supporters to claim that Trump has outmaneuvered Biden on the left in some respects. Briahna Joy Gray, national press secretary for the Sanders campaign, posted on social media that Biden “is realizing how tough it will be to win in the fall when you’re so moderate Trump can outflank you on the left.”
For now, Biden has provided few details about the strings he’d like to see attached to bailout dollars, a key point for many liberals. On a conference call with reporters Friday, he said, “Any large business that in fact gets helped by this, they are going to have to pay back what is lent them to stay in business.”
He added that the wants to see some restrictions on how companies spend the money. “They’re going to have to make sure any aid they get does not go to buying back their stock, does not go to increasing benefits for the management, etcetera,” he said.
Sanders and Warren have lost little time repurposing some of their central campaign proposals as coronavirus relief measures. Both are sitting senators as well as prominent figures in the 2020 primary, giving them a foot in two camps.
Sanders has urged dramatically expanding the social safety net to respond to the crisis, offering a $2 trillion plan for Medicare to cover all health costs – essentially an abbreviated version of his Medicare-for-all plan and other protections. He has proposed monthly $2,000 checks for most Americans, among other things.
“This is a moment that history will look back on and say: How did the people of the United States respond?” Sanders said in opening remarks at his recent online “roundtable” to discuss the virus. He added, “This is the equivalent of a war, and we cannot allow large corporations to be profiteering.”
Sanders returned home to Vermont in recent days to hold conversations with close confidants about whether to continue his flagging campaign. As he mulls his next move, Sanders has continued to aggressively use his campaign apparatus as a platform.
In addition to deploying staffers to work behind the scenes with Biden’s team on policy, Sanders has held a series of live-streamed events dedicated to discussing the virus. He has added a new policy document to his website formalizing his ideas, and on Saturday, his campaign announced that it had raised $2 million in 48 hours for charities combating the crisis.
Warren, who rose to political prominence as a critic and player in the 2008 financial bailout, has pushed an effort to cancel $10,000 of federal student loan debt per person, an idea that’s been embraced by Schumer. He also backed her call for a temporary $200 per month hike in Social Security payments, similar to a proposal she first floated on the campaign trail.
Warren also pushed for an initial $750 billion stimulus package, an amount largely adopted by Schumer. Other ideas she laid out in a CNN op-ed are being broadly discussed, such as banning companies from using bailout money to buy back stock, enrich executives via bonuses or lay off workers. (Though her more unorthodox concepts, like granting workers seats on corporate boards, are not in play.)
Some Warren allies believe her separate efforts to work with Biden’s team could help build ties to the former vice president, who has said that he wants to pick a running mate who is female and with whom he’s “simpatico.” Warren and Biden do not have a long history of working together, and the crisis could provide that opportunity.
Warren has also engaged with outside groups, speaking on a conference call last Wednesday organized by two liberal organizations that had endorsed her campaign, discussing her goals for a coronavirus response.
“The big issue in front of us is, what is our government going to do and what are we going to push it to do?” Warren said, according to a recording of the call. The country, she said, needs “a grass-roots stimulus package. We need legislation that provides relief to the families that need it, and that permanently improves the lives of those families.”
Sanders and Warren are not among the group of about 10 Democrats tapped to negotiate a coronavirus package with Republicans. And neither has played a prominent role in shepherding major legislation in the past two years, preferring instead to focus largely on their presidential campaigns.
But their role as leaders of the party’s energized liberal wing gives them a special role. The 2008 bailout remains a sore spot for many left-leaning Democrats, who are looking for signs that Biden will push for this package to include significant help for ordinary Americans.
“So much of the debate on the left right now is how this is similar to the 2008 bailout,” said Adam Jentleson, a liberal activist and a prominent Warren ally. “That (centrist) wing of the party has said, ‘Trust us – if this happened again we would do it differently, especially with what we know now.’ So this is a chance to show, not tell.”
Liberals also argue that Democrats in 2016 made a mistake by rallying around Hillary Clinton’s centrist policies, and they say the outbreak hands Biden an opportunity to show he will take a different path. That includes both “personnel and policy,” said Cohen, the Sanders ally.
“Who’s going to run Treasury?” Cohen asked as an example. “Are we done with bankers?”
Backers of Sanders and Warren are meanwhile fighting to keep their messages in the mix. Ady Barkan, a prominent health care activist, used last Wednesday’s call with Warren to urge fellow activists to flex their muscles in Congress’s debate over an economic stimulus.
“We must engage in this fight,” Barkan said. “I believe that our progressive movement is stronger today than it was when the economy collapsed in 2008, and so I am hopeful that we can force a better response this time. “
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The Washington Post’s Mike DeBonis contributed to this report.