What Joe Biden could realistically do to win over the left

Lowering the Medicare eligibility age to 60 won't shore up his left flank. But Medicare-for-kids might.

Joe Biden.

Joe Biden's campaign is reportedly looking into ways to shore up its left flank. As Greg Sargent and Paul Waldman write at The Washington Post, he is proposing lowering the Medicare eligibility age to 60 and a means-tested program of student debt forgiveness. Unsurprisingly, these timid ideas were greeted with derisive jeers on the left.

But there are other steps Biden could take if he wanted to seriously demonstrate he is not as bad as the left says he is. Bernie Sanders did endorse Biden in a joint conference call on Monday, but that is unlikely to sway many lefties on its own. Organizations like the Democratic Socialists of America refuse to endorse Biden because he was neck-deep in most of the neoliberal policy disasters of the last 40 years, like corporate-biased trade agreements, bankruptcy reform, and the Iraq War. Biden is not a democratic socialist, but he does say he is a committed liberal who wants to help working people. If he is really serious about left outreach, some more aggressive and thoughtful policy, and bringing on some new staffers, would demonstrate he really has pivoted away from his previous politics and towards a more genuine progressivism.

Let's cover policy first. The idea of nudging down the Medicare age by years is not terrible on its own merits, but it is extremely weak tea, and baffling in terms of outreach to the left. People from 60-64 are already some of the best-insured people on the private market — their rates of uninsurance are less than half that of people in their late twenties. These near-seniors do use a lot of care, but that means putting them on Medicare would therefore be no small gift to private insurance companies, whose remaining pool of beneficiaries would be healthier and cheaper. Moreover, the beneficiary population would be small: Americans from 60-64 are only about 6 percent of the population.

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A better idea both politically and on the policy merits would be Medicare-for-kids — putting everyone under say, 26, on the program (to continue the current rule that children can stay on their parent's coverage until they reach that age). This would directly cover 34 percent of the population, and because younger people use relatively little health care, not cost the government that much. It would also provide a huge benefit to parents who currently have to pay for their kids' insurance — despite children being relatively cheaper to insure, in 2019 a family employer-based insurance plan still cost about $13,000 more than one for a single adult. What's more, because people typically have kids when they are young and just starting their careers, that eye-watering cost lands when parents are least able to afford it.

Medicare-for-kids would be well short of my own preferences, but still be a bold enough reform I could wholeheartedly support it. Perhaps most importantly, it would actually give something to the population of people Biden is supposedly trying to win over — young people and younger parents. In the primaries it was clear that Bernie Sanders' base is people under 45 years old. Biden already won near-seniors, and that group is much more likely to vote Republican in November in any case. Throwing them and only them on Medicare risks simply expanding the group of people who want to pull up the ladder behind them, but putting kids on it automatically creates a constituency for further expansion.

Biden's student loan forgiveness program is better, but still pointlessly limited. He would reportedly rule out forgiveness for people making over $125,000, and worse, he would only include people who attended either public school or particular minority-centered schools. As Alex Pareene points out at The New Republic, that leaves out all the people who got scammed by for-profit colleges into taking on enormous debt — who are disproportionately minorities. It would be better and simpler to just include everyone in the student debt relief program — which in any case is almost entirely owned by the federal government anyway, and could be unilaterally canceled without costing taxpayers a dime.

Biden could also badly stand to boost up his climate plan, which is about 10 percent the size of Sanders'. Doubling that figure and if not endorsing the full Green New Deal program entirely, committing to its key positions like phasing out fossil fuel-based energy, transportation, and manufacturing as fast as humanly possible would help indicate he takes climate seriously, which he manifestly failed to do as part of the previous presidential administration.

There are, of course, dozens of other places where Biden extend an olive branch to Sanders Democrats. He could support a modest child allowance of $300 per month, which would cut child poverty in half and overall poverty by a quarter. He could strengthen his public option insurance plan, which by rights ought to be a lot better than Medicare at 60 in any case. He could put forth a worked-out proposal for paid family and sick leave, which he supports in theory but has not outlined in detail. He could simply talk a lot more about his plans to boost union rights and jack up taxes on the rich, which are actually progressive but have gotten almost no media coverage.

However, even if Biden were to endorse these policies, he would still face a credibility problem. For decades he has tried over and over to cut Social Security and Medicare, about which he lied through his teeth at the last Democratic debate. This is not helped by the policy staff Biden has hired. They include Bruce Reed, who was one of the key architects of the disastrous welfare reform program of 1996 (which increased extreme poverty in this country by 150 percent), Anita Dunn, a consultant who helped Harvey Weinstein with PR strategy in advance of the New York Times investigation into his sexual misconduct, and Ron Klain, who did well as Obama's Ebola czar but is also an investment banker — just three among a trainload of former lobbyists and consultants.

As the Washington saying goes, "personnel is policy." Biden could add some credibility to his left outreach by hiring a few genuine Sanders Democrats for his policy staff, and promising to place them (or others) on his transition team and Cabinet should he win. If not folks from Sanders' actual campaign staff, then people like Reps. Ro Khanna (Calif.) or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (N.Y.), or Sen. Jeff Merkley (Ore.), could serve in this role.

Frankly I don't believe Biden will do anything like I am proposing. He seems to believe throwing a few crumbs in the general vicinity of the left will do the trick. But if Biden loses for failure to turn out young lefties in November, don't say I didn't warn you.

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