The Democrats Are United to Fight Trump, but Policy Fights Are Looming
WILMINGTON, Del. — The Democrats made one thing clear with the virtual pageantry of their convention last week: They are united to defeat President Trump in November. The festivities also foreshadowed another looming fight, this one between the moderate and progressive wings of the party.
The convention sketched out a policy agenda for Joseph R. Biden Jr., the Democratic nominee, in broad strokes, showcasing his big-picture priorities without citing many dollar figures. That helped Democrats appeal to as wide a universe of voters as possible. It also allowed them to skirt the policy disagreements that still exist between moderates like Mr. Biden and the progressive wing of the party, which has claimed a number of notable victories in congressional primaries this year.
“It’s not that we’ve changed our opinions on what is necessary,” Representative Pramila Jayapal, Democrat of Washington and a co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, said after the convention. Citing the crisis facing the country, she predicted that Mr. Biden “is going to be pushed by the times to be bold.”
“We have to do some immediate things, and the task will be to make them as progressive as possible, with the platform being sort of the floor and not the ceiling,” Ms. Jayapal said.
Here’s a guide to the policy vision that was outlined at the convention — and the disagreements that may flare up in the future.
Democrats used the convention to further a message that propelled their candidates to success in the 2018 midterm elections: The party wants to expand health coverage while Mr. Trump and the Republicans want to take it away. Mr. Biden, the former vice president, is a capable messenger on the issue, having been at President Barack Obama’s side when the president signed into law the Affordable Care Act.
But in the Democratic primary, no major issue showed a starker division within the party than the future of America’s health care system. Mr. Biden made the case for expanding on the Affordable Care Act and offering a government-run insurance plan known as a public option. Other Democrats, particularly Senators Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, advocated “Medicare for all,” a government-run health insurance system under which private coverage would be eliminated.
That debate continues to this day. Mr. Sanders acknowledged it in his convention speech, saying, “Joe and I disagree on the best path to get universal coverage.” Instead of dwelling on that point, he made note of Mr. Biden’s plans to expand coverage, reduce the cost of prescription drugs and lower the age of Medicare eligibility to 60, from 65.
Ady Barkan, a progressive activist who was diagnosed with the terminal neurodegenerative disease A.L.S., also spoke at the convention in support of Mr. Biden — and kept up the pressure to make big changes to the country’s health care system. Mr. Barkan supports Medicare for all and has focused on health care advocacy after his diagnosis. “With a compassionate and intelligent president,” he said, “we must act together and put on his desk a bill that guarantees us all the health care we deserve.”
There may be more disagreements to come. If Mr. Biden wins and Democrats control both houses of Congress, and if he moves ahead with trying to enact a public option, there are many variables in how exactly it could be structured.
As wildfires tore across California and two hurricanes converged in the Gulf of Mexico for the first time since record-keeping began, Democrats made climate change a central theme of the convention and Mr. Biden named it among the “four historic crises” facing America.
His plan calls for spending $2 trillion over four years to escalate the use of clean energy. It sets a goal of eliminating planet-warming emissions from the power sector by 2035, as well as upgrading four million buildings and weatherizing two million homes over four years to increase energy efficiency. In a parallel policy plank that Mr. Biden issued around environmental justice, he set a goal of ensuring that disadvantaged communities receive 40 percent of the benefits of spending on clean energy and other areas.
“It’s not only a crisis, it’s an enormous opportunity,” Mr. Biden said in his speech accepting the nomination on Thursday night. “An opportunity for America to lead the world in clean energy and create millions of new good-paying jobs in the process.”
It is a stance that has gotten more aggressive since the start of the Democratic primary race when his rivals, along with young activists, accused him of being insufficiently committed to dealing with climate change. Activists on the left credited themselves and the pressure they had put on Mr. Biden for making the issue a core element of his first speech as the Democratic nominee.
But his policy still leaves some progressives unhappy, particularly when it comes to the shale drilling technique known as fracking. Many of his rivals in the primary — including Senator Kamala Harris of California, whom he selected this month to be his running mate — have called for a national ban on fracking.
Mr. Biden has said he supports a moratorium on new leases on federal lands but not a full ban. He also has pushed back aggressively on Trump campaign statements that seek to tie him to calls for a ban. It is a particularly sensitive issue in swing states like shale-rich Pennsylvania, which Mr. Trump won in 2016 by less than one percentage point.
It was notable then that Michelle Lujan Grisham, the governor of New Mexico, one of the country’s largest oil and gas producing states, was chosen to open the climate change section of the convention. Like Mr. Biden, Ms. Lujan Grisham has walked a fine line on natural gas — enacting stricter regulations on the industry while still remaining supportive of it.
Ms. Lujan Grisham did not mention fracking. Instead, she stuck to Mr. Biden’s theme, which links cutting emissions to creating clean energy jobs.
The coronavirus and the economy
Central to Mr. Biden’s campaign pitch is the promise that he can respond to the coronavirus crisis in a competent manner — and steer the economy back on track.
In his acceptance speech, Mr. Biden ticked off his plan for confronting the virus head-on, including expanding testing, giving a megaphone to public health experts and mandating that people wear masks.
Precisely how Mr. Biden, if elected, would address the virus’s economic toll is hard to game out, because it will depend on the conditions in the country next winter.
One open question, for instance, is the size of an economic package Mr. Biden might seek next winter, and what steps the federal government should take to provide financial assistance to Americans. Before she was picked as Mr. Biden’s running mate, for example, Ms. Harris teamed up with two colleagues, Mr. Sanders and Senator Edward J. Markey of Massachusetts, to propose giving $2,000 monthly cash payments to Americans throughout the crisis.
Mr. Biden has signaled that he is open to big policy solutions to revive the economy. But they might not be big enough for some progressives.
Last week offered a potential preview. Ted Kaufman, the former senator and longtime Biden adviser who is leading his transition team, suggested in a live interview with The Wall Street Journal that Mr. Biden would not significantly increase federal spending.
“The pantry’s going to be bare,” Mr. Kaufman said. “When you see what Trump’s done to the deficit in terms of just — forget about Covid-19. All the deficits that he built with the incredible tax cuts. So we’re going to be limited.”
Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, a leading progressive who symbolically nominated Mr. Sanders at the convention, called that assessment “extremely concerning.”
“The pantry is absolutely not bare,” Ms. Ocasio-Cortez wrote on Twitter. “We need massive investment in our country or it will fall apart. This is not a joke. To adopt GOP deficit-hawking now, when millions of lives are at stake, is utterly irresponsible.”
Over the course of the week, Democrats mentioned a variety of economic proposals, including raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour, investing in infrastructure and expanding access to affordable child care. And in his convention speech, Mr. Biden said that “we don’t need a tax code that rewards wealth more than it rewards work.”
“I’m not looking to punish anyone, far from it,” Mr. Biden said. “But it’s long past time the wealthiest people and the biggest corporations in this country paid their fair share.”
In the primary campaign, Mr. Biden’s plans to raise taxes were smaller than those of his top rivals. For example, he has not called for creating a so-called wealth tax — an annual tax on the fortunes of the superrich that was a central plank of Ms. Warren’s presidential campaign and was also promoted by Mr. Sanders.
There are other areas, too, where Mr. Biden’s economic plans are more limited than what some in his party would like to see. While he moved leftward on the issues of free college tuition and student loan forgiveness this year, his proposals on those topics are narrower than what some on the left have called for. And Mr. Biden has no detailed plan on Wall Street regulation.
Racial justice and immigration
The convention also put a significant focus on racial justice, an issue that Mr. Biden has emphasized following the killing of George Floyd while in police custody.
During the convention’s opening night, Mr. Biden was shown saying, “Most cops are good, but the fact is, the bad ones have to be identified and prosecuted and out, period.” That comment was troubling to some activists at a time when progressives are seeking transformational changes in the nation’s criminal justice system.
Mr. Biden has longstanding ties to police unions, and he has not gone as far as some on the left in his comments on how policing in America should be changed. He has rejected the “defund the police” movement, though he has expressed openness to reallocating some funds, and he has proposed increasing funding for community policing.
Like others in his party, he supports tighter gun control measures, but he has not called for a national licensing program and mandatory gun buybacks, as some of his primary rivals have. He has not endorsed legalizing marijuana, a move that is widely supported by Democratic voters.
In addition, he has not expressed support for decriminalizing illegal border crossings or abolishing U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. And it remains to be seen how Mr. Biden’s administration would approach issues like border security, deportations and funding for the Department of Homeland Security, especially given the criticism Mr. Biden has faced over the number of deportations that occurred during the Obama administration.
Mr. Biden has called for a 100-day moratorium on deportations, but what happens after that is unclear.
In his convention speech, at least, Mr. Biden did not shy away from embracing big plans. For a historical parallel, he reached back to Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal.
“Stricken by disease, stricken by a virus, F.D.R. insisted that he would recover and prevail, and he believed America could as well,” Mr. Biden said. “And he did, and we can as well.”
Thomas Kaplan reported from Wilmington, and Lisa Friedman from Washington.