Bernie Sanders endorsed Joe Biden, but divisions within the progressive movement over what lengths it will go to in order to help elect the former vice president are no closer to being resolved.
A number of former Sanders campaign staffers and prominent leftist voices have suggested they have no intention of falling in line with Sanders, even if his alliance with Biden steers the presumptive nominee toward more ambitious plans on a number of key policy questions. The now-public divide among campaign veterans — clear for all to see on social media — mirrors the fault lines that persisted within Sanders’ organization over how to handle Biden during the primary.
The senator from Vermont acknowledged his own long-standing differences with Biden during a surprise joint Monday appearance over livestream just six days after exiting the primary race. But Sanders — who, from the beginning of his campaign, had promised he would get behind the Democratic nominee — is now taking proactive steps to clear the path for his backers, and other progressive leaders like those in the Sunrise Movement, to join him in supporting Biden.
“I’m asking every Democrat, I’m asking every independent, I’m asking a lot of Republicans to come together in this campaign to support your candidacy,” Sanders said.
But Sanders’ word is not gospel with the New Left. Contrary to the picture painted by some of his critics, the senator does not lead a cult of personality — his word will only, at the most, help create a permission structure for supporters to back Biden.
For many, though, there is a sense that yielding to Biden without significant concessions — the kind Sanders himself has said are not coming — might set back the left for a generation.
Philip Agnew, co-founder of the Dream Defenders and a senior adviser to Sanders during the campaign, told CNN that he believes the senator’s decision does not reflect what the broader movement wants.
“Bernie chose to endorse,” Agnew told CNN. “That says nothing of the millions of working people who believed in the values of this campaign and believe that Joe Biden is utterly bereft of vision and sorely lacking in any commitment to working people in this country.”
Briahna Joy Gray, Sanders’ former national press secretary, made clear on Twitter that she will not follow her former boss’s lead.
“With the utmost respect for Bernie Sanders, who is an incredible human being & a genuine inspiration, I don’t endorse Joe Biden,” Gray tweeted.
Still, not all former aides believe that the senator made the wrong decision.
“100% the right call,” a former aide said of Sanders’ endorsement, speaking to CNN on the condition of anonymity. “And anyone who thinks otherwise should feel free to think it matters on Twitter. We have a responsibility to beat Trump, and if that’s not your focus, then stop pretending you speak for working people.”
Sanders speechwriter David Sirota, a consistent critic of Biden during the campaign, told CNN that the question is not whether people from Sanders’ orbit will endorse or eventually vote for Biden, but the extent to which they will be willing to lend their organizing muscle to his cause.
“Will Democratic voters cast a vote for the Democratic ticket? That’s not really the question,” said Sirota, who noted that he will vote for the former vice president. “The question is the extra-intangible, voter energy, where you are actively pushing your friends, neighbors and your family to vote for the ticket.”
Sanders’ former campaign photographer, Bryan Lawrence, noted his hesitation to support Biden and made clear what it would take from the former vice president to earn his support.
“Figure out a way to earn our trust, Joe Biden. We’re probably never going to like you, many of us will NEVER vote for you, but most of us are waiting for you give us a reason to save you,” Lawrence tweeted.
In his own endorsement of Biden, former President Barack Obama spoke directly to progressives, offering praise for both their movement and Sanders and outlining why he believed they should support his former vice president.
“We have to look to the future. Bernie understands that. And Joe understands that,” Obama said in the endorsement video. “It’s one of the reasons that Joe already has what is the most progressive platform of any major-party nominee in history. Because even before the pandemic turned the world upside down, it was already clear that we needed real structural change.”
The Biden divide
For months, the Sanders campaign’s innermost circles hosted a testy internal debate over whether to launch an early, aggressive and relentless attack on Biden or take a more cautious approach with the Vermont politician’s old Senate colleague. While there was wide agreement Biden posed the clearest threat to Sanders’ hopes of winning the nomination, the campaign never settled on a coherent strategy for taking him on.
“I would say that while we all agreed on the end goals, there were different approaches to how best to accomplish them,” Sanders campaign manager Faiz Shakir said.
The indecision manifested itself as a confusing stop-and-start that saw certain segments of the Sanders campaign hammer Biden over his record on Social Security and Iraq War vote, while others — including the candidate himself — appeared uncomfortable or uncommitted to any fierce public clash.
Sanders’ insistence on preserving his relationship with Biden and his hesitance to blitz the former vice president on the debate stage — a recurring source of angst for some staffers — further complicated the question.
“We made issues contrasts with Joe Biden repeatedly, and I think that there’s a question of tact and approach,” Shakir said. “Bernie Sanders is going to do it in a way that he felt comported with his own integrity.”
Shakir and several of the campaign’s top aides felt strongly that they needed to follow the lead of Sanders, with whom he began working only at the start of the campaign. But others, including those who had been Sanders loyalists for years or even decades, became increasingly frustrated.
“I was one of the leading voices in the campaign for Bernie to draw a sharper contrast with Biden from the beginning,” said Ben Tulchin, the campaign’s top pollster. “He was the obstacle to us winning the nomination; we had to get around him.”
The tensions over Biden came to a head when Zephyr Teachout, a progressive academic and prominent Sanders surrogate, wrote an op-ed describing Biden as “corrupt.” The piece was amplified through an official campaign newsletter, “Bern Notice,” by Sirota.
But their efforts fell flat. Rather than ignite a debate over Biden’s integrity or record, opponents accused the op-ed of going a bridge too far and playing into Trump’s hands. Sanders himself publicly disavowed it.
The campaign’s refusal, Tulchin argued, to attempt a knockout blow to Biden following his early state losses provided its opponent the time and space he needed to regroup.
“The second that Biden had a chance to bounce back in South Carolina, he did, and it was enough for the establishment to get reared up and aligned against Bernie,” Tulchin said, calling the back-to-back withdrawals of former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota the keys to an “unprecedented” effort to “stop Bernie.”
Now, with Sanders out and the general election underway, the question remains over what comes next.
“It’s a journey,” Shakir said on MSNBC on Tuesday about the process of Sanders’ supporters getting behind Biden. “Some people will get there over time if the vice president’s team does the work that is required to win support of all parts of the party.”
This story has been updated.
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