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Bernie Sanders Sets His Sights on Biden

With "electability" dominating the 2020 debate, the Vermont independent reminds Democrats of the frontrunner's long, controversial record.

Jonathan Alcorn/AFP/Getty

Bernie Sanders has a Joe Biden problem. The former vice president’s formal entry into the 2020 primary has cut into Sanders’s numbers, which have lagged in recent weeks. Already underwater with older voters, a Morning Consult poll released on Wednesday showed that Bernie’s support among younger ones—his base—has fallen from 45 to 33 percent. Sanders does not exactly need an early reset (as did the stumbling Beto O’Rourke and Kamala Harris); the senator is, as he has been for much of this primary season, safely in second place. And he still has a significant fundraising advantage over the rest of the Democratic field. But Sanders might need a way to halt Big Joe’s big mo.

As the Associated Press’s Juana Summers noted earlier this week, “No one seeking the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination has been as aggressive as the Vermont senator in highlighting episodes from the former vice president’s past to sow skepticism in the party’s progressive base.” That’s overselling things a bit, given just how cordial this invisible primary season has been. But it does point to the seriousness with which the Sanders camp is treating Biden. And, while the gloves are still on, early attacks on Biden’s record on climate change and foreign policy point to a budding plan to knock the current frontrunner down to earth.

This is, to some extent, uncharted territory for the Vermont independent. In 2016, Sanders was a clear underdog who didn’t seem to grasp that he had a chance to snatch the nomination from Hillary Clinton until it was too late. In that election, Sanders ran a largely positive campaign against Clinton—even, in a primary debate, going as far as to minimize the heavily politicized email scandal that would haunt her in the general election.

It could be argued that Sanders didn’t really have to attack Clinton directly. His outsider campaign and “political revolution” was about shaking up a coddled and corrupt bipartisan political order that many believed she and her husband, former president Bill Clinton, embodied. Bernie’s young, energized group of supporters, moreover, directly attacked the Clintons’ record on issues like trade and race.

Still, running a positive campaign largely benefited Sanders in 2016. A minuscule percentage of the ads aired during the Democratic primary were negative. Positive media attention, which followed not only Sanders’s underdog status but also his relatively gentle campaign, boosted his poll numbers and turned him into one of the most popular politicians in America. While resentment certainly lingers among some Clinton supporters—and, judging from her memoir What Happened, Clinton herself—because Sanders stayed in the race until the Democratic convention, his positive campaign undoubtedly boosted his national profile.

Sanders, does not, however, have that kind of luxury in 2020. Unlike in 2016, Sanders is running to win. While many (myself included) believed Biden’s support would dip after he entered the race and more voters learned of his long legislative record—as opposed to his memeable vice presidency—the opposite has happened. Running a Clinton-esque campaign heavy on “electability” arguments and anti-Trump rhetoric (and light on ideas), Biden has increased his lead in most opinion polls in the three weeks since he entered the race.

The germ of Sanders’s anti-Biden strategy first appeared in a May 5 appearance on ABC’s This Week. Asked about Biden’s comment that he was the “most progressive” Democrat in the race, Sanders made a decorous nod toward his 2016 strategy, before attacking the former vice president’s record.

“Look, Joe is a good friend of mine, and I’m not here to attack Joe,” Sanders said. “Joe voted for the war in Iraq. I led the effort against it. Joe voted for NAFTA and permanent normal trade relations—trade agreements with China. I led the effort against that. Joe voted for the deregulation of Wall Street. I voted against that. You know, I think if you look at Joe’s record, and you look at my record, I don’t think there’s much question about who’s more progressive.”

The Iraq vote, in particular, may haunt Biden. A recent Politico/Morning Consult poll found that nearly 27 percent of Democrats—and 40 percent of Democrats between 18-29—were less likely to support Biden because of his Iraq War vote. Clinton’s vote for the Iraq War, of course, was repeatedly used as a cudgel by Donald Trump in the 2016 election. (That, of course, may become less significant if the U.S. enters into conflict with Iran.)

Earlier this week, during an event with Sanders, New York Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who has not publicly endorsed a candidate, took aim at Biden. The week before, Biden said that politicians need to “find a middle ground” on climate change. “I will be damned,” Ocasio-Cortez said at the rally, “if the same politicians who refused to act [in the past] are going to try to come back today and say we need a middle of the road approach to save our lives.”

Biden responded to Ocasio-Cortez’s remarks by pointing to his long legislative history. “Look at my record,” he said Tuesday morning. “She’ll find that nobody has been more consistent about taking on the environment and a green revolution than I have. And so, look, anyways—I don’t think she was talking about me.” Still, with climate change one of the most important issues for Democratic primary voters, Biden is clearly rattled by the response to his “middle ground” comment. The candidate has scheduled a speech focused on climate for later in the month.

While Biden has received (ridiculous and unearned) plaudits for not committing a major gaffe during the opening weeks of his campaign, his response here shows some vulnerability. Biden’s knee-jerk reaction to criticism is to puff out his chest and talk about his experience. In his version of his political history, he was making progressive change happen when politicians like Ocasio-Cortez were in short pants. (Or, in the case of climate change, before AOC was even born—Biden has recently been touting a 1987 speech about global warming.)

That may not be the best strategy. That record also contains a number of stances that wouldn’t be considered progressive in any era: The multi-term Senator from Delaware backed bills that benefited banks and credit card companies, formed the bedrock for the current system of mass incarceration, and authorized the 2003 invasion of Iraq. As Vox’s Matthew Yglesias pointed out last month, “What brought Clinton down was not public exposure to her personality… but extended public scrutiny of every detail of a decades-long career in public life.”

While it’s doubtful that a strategy of highlighting Biden’s many, many political failures will be as effective as the one used against Clinton—which was aided by sexism and a well-funded decades-long smear campaign from the right—it could slow, or even halt, his growing momentum. As with Clinton, arguments about experience also point to culpability: Biden is perilously close to making the argument that because he helped break America, he is well-positioned to put it back together again. (This argument, of course, also points to another weakness: Biden’s age. But Sanders is ten months older than Biden.)

These critiques also get to the soft, creamy center of Biden’s appeal: His supposed “electability.” For reasons that are not exactly clear, polls suggest voters believe that Biden is best positioned to defeat Trump. Perhaps that stems from his long-cultivated image as a son of Scranton and middle-class politician, but what voters over the past decade seem to have forgotten is the baggage that Biden has accumulated over his long political career. The best way to attack the electability argument might be Bernie’s laundry list of Biden’s bad decisions. Or it might be to remind Democrats piecemeal, highlighting decades of bad decisions, one at a time. Either way, Biden may be front-running now, but how long will he be able to hide?