In April, Bernie Sanders endorsed Joe Biden during a split-screen, live-streamed video event, bringing the Democratic Party’s Presidential-primary race effectively to an end. The two former Senate colleagues, suddenly all smiles, announced a plan to appoint representatives to six “unity task forces,” which, as Sanders said, “would look at some of the most important issues facing this country.” It was, in a way, a magnanimous act by Biden—he’d just spent a year being dismissed by the Party’s left wing, which worships Sanders, and now here he was, welcoming Sanders surrogates to bend the ears of his aides and allies. But it was also, at the time, seen as a political necessity. Everyone remembered the harmful divisions that remained between the supporters of Hillary Clinton and those of Sanders after the 2016 primaries. And in the coming general election, despite the emphatic support he’d received this year from voters in the South Carolina primary and after, Biden would need the energy—for fund-raising, for attracting volunteers—that Sanders had inspired during the primary campaign. Before Biden went forward, the thinking went, he would have to turn left.
By Wednesday, when the task forces released the result of their work—a hundred-and-ten-page report containing hundreds of policy recommendations on climate change, criminal justice, the economy, education, health care, and immigration—the party unity that the committees were meant to help along had already been accomplished. Polling suggests that the vast majority of Sanders’s supporters, like those of most other candidates in this year’s Democratic primary, have come around to Biden. The task forces’ report, though, could be an early clue to how policy creation and debate would occur in a Biden Administration, and how much of a voice the left wing of the Party would have. Sanders, hours after the report was released, struck an uncharacteristically optimistic note. “I think that the compromise they came up with, if implemented, will make Biden the most progressive President since F.D.R.,” he told MSNBC’s Chris Hayes. The Sanders-appointed representatives on the climate-change task force, in particular, left crowing. Varshini Prakash, a leader of the Sunrise Movement, who served on the climate-change committee alongside Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and the former Secretary of State John Kerry, tweeted, “Here’s the topline: we’ve moved the needle a lot, especially on environmental justice and upping Biden’s ambition.” Analilia Mejia, Sanders’s former national political director, who helped oversee the task forces, tweeted, “Bernie taskforce appointees pushed on EVERY issue @BernieSanders stood for with tenacity.”
Of the six task forces, the criminal-justice-reform committee had perhaps the most complex job. Biden was a key figure in the tough-on-crime era of American politics, when the number of people imprisoned in America exploded. During the primaries, he was haunted by his role in the 1994 crime bill, which, among other things, granted billions of dollars to states to build prisons if they enacted tough sentencing laws. He has spoken about the sentencing disparities created during this time as a “big mistake,” citing their devastating consequences for Black communities. But he continues to defend the crime bill as a vehicle for good policies, such as the ban on assault weapons and the Violence Against Women Act. The criminal-justice-reform task force, by evaluating the laws and consequences produced by tough-on-crime politics, would essentially be going back over aspects of Biden’s own record. Meanwhile, during the six weeks that the task force was meeting, public attention and sentiment on issues like policing and mass incarceration changed dramatically. The task force’s members—which included the former Attorney General Eric Holder and the Biden campaign’s senior adviser Symone Sanders—were announced on May 13th. George Floyd was murdered twelve days later. And then, as protests broke out around the country and Biden was asked to respond to them, he rejected activist calls to cut funding for police departments and embraced more circumscribed ideas, like calling for a ban on choke holds and training police in de-escalation techniques.
The task force came up with a list of sixty-five recommendations, a third of which had already appeared, in some form, in the criminal-justice plan that Biden’s campaign released last year. Sanders’s representatives were able to advance their goals mainly by adding teeth to provisions that Biden had previously supported in a more general sense, such as ending cash bail. (The report recommends withholding funds from states that continue to use it.) Among the other recommendations: incentivizing prison closures, and reinvesting the savings in communities most affected by mass incarceration; and dedicating federal funds to “create a civilian corps of unarmed first responders such as social workers, EMTs, and trained mental health professionals, who can handle nonviolent emergencies.” But consensus proved elusive on two of the biggest items that the Sanders representatives came into the conversations hoping for—the full legalization of marijuana and an end to the legal doctrine that protects police officers from lawsuits for misconduct. Politico described “heated debates” and “huge battles” on these points. In the end, the report recommends “reining in” the doctrine of qualified immunity—vague language that disappointed activists—and calls for decriminalizing marijuana use, legalizing medical marijuana, and expunging past marijuana convictions for use and possession, which are all positions that Biden previously held. (The Atlantic recently looked at Biden’s continuing resistance to marijuana legalization.)
“This is a starting point,” Chiraag Bains, a Sanders appointee to the task force and a former Justice Department official, told me. “We need to bring in more voices, and we need to include broader and even deeper reforms. And I think we really need to listen to the Black leaders speaking out in the country right now.” Justin Bamberg, another Sanders appointee, and a state representative in South Carolina, told me he thought that the task force had done a “good job,” but that “we’ve got a lot of work to do to bring President Biden in line with what I believe the bulk of Americans want to see happen in the realm of marijuana.” After the Black Lives Matter protests that broke out in late May, Bamberg said, the task force’s conversations were “reinvigorated.” And while Biden’s team did, in some cases, “make substantial moves,” Bamberg said, there “are areas where Vice-President Biden feels how he feels about the issue. And he is the nominee. He is the candidate. All we could do is come up with the recommendations.”
Rachel Barkow, a professor at New York University’s School of Law and the author of “Prisoners of Politics: Breaking the Cycle of Mass Incarceration,” told me that the report was clearly a compromise document. “Would I have preferred a more robust platform? Yeah,” she said. “But, given where Biden was, I think this is a big improvement. And it would be wonderful to have this in the Democratic Party platform.” Policing, she pointed out, is a local matter, a countrywide patchwork of rules and practices, and a President’s power over it is relatively limited. “I actually think it’s very important for advocates and folks on the ground to know that there’s no one-stop shop for criminal-justice reform,” Barkow said. “We could elect an abolitionist as the President, and that wouldn’t do it either.”