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What Sanders Gets Wrong About Biden's 'Centrism'

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AP Photo/Evan Vucci

Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., is none too pleased with the direction of Joe Biden's bid for the White House.

According to a report from earlier this month, Sen. Sanders has privately criticized the Democratic presidential nominee for being too moderate and failing to emphasize the progressive policies at the heart of his campaign. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., echoed Sanders's concerns in a recent interview.


This supposed flap between Biden and some of his party's progressive luminaries is about style rather than substance. The former vice president's proposed policy agenda is further to the left than any Democratic nominee in American history.

Whether it's entitlement reform, environmental policy, or health care, Biden's platform is essentially a progressive wish list.

He's promised to decarbonize the economy by 2050 -- a core component of Rep. Ocasio-Cortez's flagship "Green New Deal." He intends to make the entitlement state, including Social Security and Medicare, more expansive and more generous. And his plan for a public health insurance option is the short end of the wedge that will open the door to a full-fledged government takeover of health care -- Medicare for All.

Of all people, Sen. Sanders should understand the dangers of tacking too far to the left while campaigning for the presidency. His unapologetic socialism was roundly rejected in the Democratic primary; Sen. Sanders was the top vote-getter in just seven states.

Sanders wasn't alone in this regard. From Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass.., to Sen. Corey Booker, D-N.J., Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., and even Democratic vice-presidential nominee Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., the most progressive Democratic presidential hopefuls performed poorly in the primaries.


If strident progressive rhetoric didn't resonate with Democratic primary voters, what makes Sen. Sanders think it will win over the general electorate? Self-identified liberals accounted for just 24 percent of Americans last year, according to Gallup. Conservatives and independents were 37 percent and 35 percent, respectively.

All of which suggests that Biden is wise to present himself as a middle-of-the-road pragmatist. The shrewdness of his strategy is borne out by the polls.

Take the issue of health care. Progressives are fond of pointing out that a majority of the country favors Medicare for All, as polling from the likes of the Kaiser Family Foundation has shown.

Support for the idea evaporates quickly once Americans learn the details. Upon hearing that Medicare for All would eliminate private insurance or raise taxes, support drops to just 37 percent. A single-payer system that results in delays for tests and treatments garners the support of just 26 percent of Americans. Meanwhile, 71 percent of those with employer-sponsored insurance say that they're satisfied with their coverage.

On the other hand, nearly three-quarters of Americans support a public option, a new government-run insurance plan that would compete against private insurers. That's exactly what Biden is proposing.

As I've explained here before, a public option is nothing more than Medicare for All on the installment plan. So, in effect, Biden has found a way to appeal to voters' moderate sensibilities while still advancing a policy that will end up being every bit as socialist as Medicare for All.


Oddly enough, Sen. Sanders's griping about Biden's supposed centrism further obscures the similarities between the two men. Perhaps that was the senator's intention all along. Regardless, if Americans don't wake up to Joe Biden's ruse before November, they could end up electing a president who gives radicals like Sanders little to complain about.

Sally C. Pipes is President, CEO, and Thomas W. Smith Fellow in Health Care Policy at the Pacific Research Institute. Her latest book is False Premise, False Promise: The Disastrous Reality of Medicare for All (Encounter 2020). Follow her on Twitter @sallypipes.

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