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WASHINGTON — Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders are right where they want to be: fighting each other over Medicare for All.
The former vice president and the Vermont senator sparred back and forth on the issue after Biden unveiled his health insurance plan on Monday, and both see a winning issue as the two septuagenarian lawmakers look to hit reset after a rough few weeks for their presidential campaigns.
Biden has been reeling since the last Democratic debate, dipping in the polls after he fumbled his response to Sen. Kamala Harris’s attacks on his record on busing. Sanders, meanwhile, has been struggling in the polls ever since he jumped into the presidential race exacerbated by his own slow fade into the background during the first debate.
With Biden’s launch of his beefed-up Obamacare plan — and a pointed swipe at the Medicare for All concept long championed by Sanders — they both got into the headlines and back in favorable territory, highlighting the core messages of their campaigns and a fundamental policy difference on an issue that ranks as the top concern for Americans in poll after poll.
For Biden, that message is that Democrats need a steady hand and pragmatic leader after four years of chaos under President Trump, paired with a big bear-hug of President Obama. For Sanders, it’s tearing down the private healthcare system and pointing out he was there before the rest of the field.
Hitting the restart button
They’re a perfect foil for each other. Sanders gets to spar with the front-runner, the old-line establishment symbol of everything his would-be supporters hate, as he seeks to win back the support he’s lost to Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Harris.
Biden gets to fight with a man many more moderate Democrats see as an unelectable candidate, the avatar of an unyielding left that could keep Trump in the White House.
It’s not as good an issue for Warren, whose “I have a plan” mantra only goes as far as embracing Sanders’ plan on this specific issue, or for Harris, who’s signed onto Medicare for All but keeps looking to fudge the policy specifics so she doesn’t get hammered for supporting an end to private health insurance.
“It helps them both politically in their current positions in the primary and is a good distillation of what the core message of their candidacies are through their policies,” said Democratic strategist Eddie Vale, who’s worked for years on healthcare messaging and is neutral in the primary.
Biden was not subtle in showing he wanted the fight with Sanders.
He made a point to attack Medicare for All in a Monday morning video while comparing it to GOP efforts to get rid of Obamacare, and followed that up with warning from the campaign trail that Sanders’ plan would create instability and uncertainty.
“We have to protect and build on Obamacare. That’s why I proposed adding the public option to Obamacare as the best way to lower cost and cover everything. I understand the appeal of Medicare for All. But folks supporting it should be clear that it means getting rid of Obamacare, and I’m not for that,” he said.
Taking it to Iowa
Biden returned to that theme in Iowa on Monday afternoon during an event with the AARP.
"Dropping 300 million people on a new plan is a little risky, I think,” Biden said before repeating to a false claim familiar to anyone who was around for the original Obamacare fight to describe his own plan.
“If you like your health care plan, your employer-based plan, you can keep it. If you like your private insurance, you can keep it.”
Sanders was quick to fire back, with Campaign Manager Faiz Shakir issuing a statement that called Biden’s plan “a middle ground proposal that would leave in place the corporate greed that robs our healthcare system.”
Both campaigns argue that the fight was about a key policy difference on an issue that matters a ton to voters of all stripes — and they’re right. But both admitted that they see political benefits as well.
“Biden is a guy who certainly has ownership and wants to be protective of Obamacare but also believes there are things that can be done now,” Biden pollster John Anzalone told VICE News. “It’s not hypothetical, it’s not unicorns and rainbows.”
“It will ultimately be a clarifying moment for everybody in the field.”
Shakir, Sanders’ campaign manager, slammed the “disingenuous” way Biden was attacking Sanders’ plan that would eliminate private health insurance because people would actually have more choice in picking their doctors.
“It will ultimately be a clarifying moment for everybody in the field. They’ll have to explain where they are, how much of a priority is for them,” he told VICE News. “This isn’t done out of any strategic desire to have a contrast with Biden. This is literally one of the core reasons he’s running for president.”
Left unsaid: Neither Harris nor Warren, who’ve both co-sponsored Sanders’ Medicare for All Senate bill, want the conversation to be focused on health insurance policy.
Harris is in an especially tricky spot. She hasn’t laid out her own detailed policy vision on the issue, and has waffled all over the place on what exactly she means when she says she backs Medicare for All, twice having to walk back statements that her plan would indeed end private insurance, something Sanders admits freely even as he points out that people would be able to continue to see their own doctors under his proposal.
Warren doesn’t have the same problem Harris has — she’s fully embraced Sanders’ plan. But for the woman whose “I have a plan” mantra and the plans themselves have pushed her into the top tier of the 2020 field, this is one area where she’s deferring to Sanders.
Harris’s campaign didn’t respond on-record to requests for comment. Warren’s pointed back to her debate response that she was ““with Bernie on Medicare for All.”
It’s unclear who will actually come on top of this argument with primary voters. Sanders’ team points out that Medicare for All polls well even in the general election. Biden’s side counters that no one knows what the term means, and polling has shown that support for Medicare for All dropped from 56% to 37% when people were told it would eliminate private insurance.
Most Democrats who flipped House seats last year weren’t Medicare for All supporters — many who were lost primaries and most of those who won nomination didn’t win the general election. But California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) ran hard on the issue as he defeated former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraisgosa (D) in an all-party primary election. Many voters are clearly still getting their heads around what the term itself means.
One thing both Sanders and Biden can agree on?
As Anzalone, Biden’s pollster, put it: “Good policy makes good politics.”
Cover: Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders attend the 2020 Democratic Party presidential debates held at The Adrienne Arsht Center on June 27, 2019 in Miami Florida. Credit: mpi04/MediaPunch