Inside the Zoom calls that led to a 110-page Biden-Sanders policy peace treaty, and why the same Democratic rifts are still itching to return in 2021

Bernie Sanders knew his presidential bid had wilted by the spring. 

But the Vermont senator and his team also didn't want to see their movement end without some promise that their vision for a very different version of America would live on.

So the most progressive of the 2020 White House contenders started in motion a months-long, behind-the-scenes effort to bring his campaign's ideas into the widening Democratic tent under Joe Biden. 

Big names got involved to come up with a plan: Sanders' 2020 and 2016 campaign managers, Faiz Shakir and Jeff Weaver, and two top Biden advisers, Anita Dunn and Ron Klain. They agreed to set up task forces with experts from both camps to try to find common ground on some of the country's thorniest policy issues, such as tackling climate change via the Green New Deal, police reform, and a healthcare overhaul. 

Those talks resulted in a hefty 110-page policy wishlist released publicly in July by Sanders and Biden supporters that Democrats hailed as a landmark compromise after a fractious 2016 presidential campaign and tumultuous 2020 primary. 

Behind the scenes, the drafting of the "unity" document also laid bare some of the major fault lines within the Democratic Party, according to Insider interviews with 14 Democrats who served on the task forces and six others close to Sanders. 

"We knew going in that we were not going to get everything that we wanted," Weaver told Insider in a recent interview. "But in campaigns, people often talk in broad brush strokes and this was an attempt to see if when you got a number of folks in the room from both sides, if you could get down into some specifics, that there would in fact be areas of agreement." 

The 49 people selected to be on six policy teams — climate change, the economy, healthcare, criminal justice, immigration, and education — spent six weeks mapping out recommendations for a Biden administration via regular Zoom calls. 

Each side sent Democratic luminaries to the table. Sanders' picks included progressive superstar Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, House Progressive Caucus Co-chair Pramila Jayapal, and Marielena Hincapié, executive director of the National Immigration Law Center. Biden's team included party heavyweights like former Secretary of State John Kerry, Congressional Black Caucus Chairwoman Karen Bass, former Iowa first lady Christie Vilsack, and former US Surgeon General Vivek Murthy. 

MILWAUKEE, WI - AUGUST 18: In this screenshot from the DNCC’s livestream of the 2020 Democratic National Convention, Former U.S. Second Lady Dr. Jill Biden addresses from a classroom the virtual convention on August 18, 2020. The convention, which was once expected to draw 50,000 people to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, is now taking place virtually due to the coronavirus pandemic. (Photo by DNCC via Getty Images) (Photo by Handout/DNCC via Getty Images)
Jill Biden, a longtime teacher, dropped into one of the education task force meetings.
Handout/DNCC via Getty Images

Picks 'the Biden people could trust' 

Both sides had a lot to gain. Biden could shore up some support among progressives and die-hard Sanders supporters skeptical of his moderate agenda. And the Vermont senator could get Biden's allies on the record supporting more liberal policies as they sketch out their agenda for 2021 and beyond. 

The task forces also gave an opportunity for Sanders' allies to get face time with top Biden operatives, relationships that some are hoping will come in handy and could lead to political appointments if the Democratic nominee beats Trump in November. 

Jill Biden, a longtime English teacher, even made an appearance at one of the last education task force meetings, said Heather Gautney, a longtime Sanders aide who was senior policy adviser to his presidential campaign. Gautney co-chaired the education task force along with Ohio Rep. Marcia Fudge. The former second lady met everyone on the task force and expressed her gratitude, which Gautney welcomed as a sign that the Biden team was taking their work seriously. 

Biden had five representatives on each task force; Sanders got three. The climate change group force was the sole exception, with nine participants. 

"I think the criteria for selection for the unity task forces was a combination of people who understand the policy or who were directly involved, but also who the Biden people could trust," said Gautney. 

"In Bernie world," Gautney said, "we have a lot of very serious people, but we also have a lot of very activist-oriented people who probably wouldn't be the best people to sit in a room or on a Zoom call for six weeks and try to hammer out policy. They'd want to go to Twitter immediately. So there was some caution in selecting people on the Bernie side." 

Participants volunteered their own time, fitting in weekly virtual calls on top of their full-time work. 

All of us have extremely busy day jobs and this was all in everyone's personal capacity," said Chiraag Baines, who worked in the Justice Department's civil rights division under the Obama administration and participated in the criminal justice task force on behalf of Sanders.

"We had 100% attendance at every meeting if my memory serves me correct," said Stacey Walker, a supervisor in Linn County, Iowa, who also worked on criminal justice. It was the first time Walker had ever met former Attorney General Eric Holder, another Biden representative. 

"It was really cool seeing his face pop up on Zoom," Walker said. "We were all in our own homes taking the call, so it was very personal work that was being accomplished in that respect."

Dr. Abdul El-Sayed
Abdul El-Sayed, a Medicare for All supporter, said progressives "have to be committed to continuing to drive this conversation."
Bill Pugliano/Getty Images

Looming policy fights

Disagreements on the task force show the existing rifts among Democrats. They're currently publicly united behind Biden, but progressives say they plan to push the administration on day one if Democrats take the White House next year. 

The policy issues that could cause friction between Biden and the left are "too many to list because there's an ideological difference there," said South Carolina State Rep. Justin Bamberg, who participated in the criminal justice task force and who co-chaired Sanders' 2020 campaign. 

Democrats' dispute over Medicare for All, for instance, was put on the backburner during the task force meetings because participants recognized Biden wouldn't go for it, but it's sure to reemerge in a high-profile fight if Biden takes the White House. During the primary, Sanders backed Medicare for All, while Biden sought to expand the existing system under Obamacare. 

Sanders delegates would have liked the task force to endorse a Medicare for All proposal or something close to it, "but they recognized that the primary was over and that Vice President Biden and his position … had won," said Sherry Glied, a Biden appointee for the health task force who was a top official at the Department of Health and Human Services during the Obama administration. 

"I'm not going to say that it was an easy discussion," Glied said. "These were very strongly held positions by everybody all around. But there was so much agreement in the room, that what we wanted to do was to get Vice President Biden elected."

Abdul El-Sayed, a Sanders pick for the healthcare task force and former executive director of the Detroit Health Department, is among those who support Medicare for All. 

The task force "found a space between those who believe in Medicare for All, and those who don't, and I think the conversation was a very earnest one about solutions that we can move to," El-Sayed said. 

But he acknowledged there's more work to be done. "Progressives have to be committed to continuing to drive this conversation about, about making sure every single American has health care," he said. 

The criminal justice task force also faced deep divides, said Walker, a Sanders appointee.  

"It was a tough one for a lot of reasons. The primary reason was that the Bernie appointees came in far apart from where the Biden appointees were ideologically."

But George Floyd's killing by police and the massive, nationwide protests against police violence that followed helped spur the Biden campaign to take a more aggressive approach to criminal justice reform, Walker said. 

"It made this work a little more real," he said.

The Biden campaign did not respond to a request for comment on how exactly it would use the task force recommendations to inform policy choices if Democrats win the White House. After the document's release this summer, Biden issued a statement calling it a "bold, transformative platform for our party and for our country." 

WASHINGTON, DC- JUNE 14: Presidential candidate, Bernie Sanders arrives at the Capital Hilton to meet with Hillary Clinton on Tuesday June 14, 2016. (Photo by Matt McClain/ The Washington Post via Getty Images)
Bernie Sanders arrives at the Capital Hilton to meet with Hillary Clinton in June 2016 to discuss uniting the party after a contentious primary.
Matt McClain/ The Washington Post via Getty Images

'At some point, you want to get together' 

Sanders' allies viewed the task forces as a helpful exercise for healing wounds from 2016. 

"Progressives after 2016 in particular felt that there was not a lot of room for them in the party sometimes, and this really sent a signal that the Biden people wanted to deal with the progressive wing of the party in a different way, in a more welcoming way," said Weaver, Sanders' 2016 campaign manager. 

Sanders and then-Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton had a tense two-hour policy meeting in 2016 at Washington's Capital Hilton hotel about uniting the party shortly before Sanders endorsed Clinton. Weaver attended, along with Jane Sanders, the Vermont senator's wife; Clinton's then-campaign chairman John Podesta; and her campaign manager Robby Mook. 

Weaver said he still expects disagreements if Biden is elected. "But I think this was very helpful in identifying places where folks could come together," he said. 

Christie Vilsack, a longtime Iowa teacher who was the first lady of the state when her husband, Tom Vilsack, was governor, served on the education task force. She's close to Biden, but in an interview she said the task force members didn't see each other as representing different candidates. 

"That's really important in the long run, because on the other end of this, after you go after each other in a primary or go after each other in a general election — especially as contentious as our world is right now — at some point, you want to get together, and you want to work things out and figure out what your priorities are," she said.

The Biden and Sanders campaigns weren't the only ones with representatives on the task forces. 

Sonal Shah, who was policy director for Pete Buttigieg's presidential campaign, landed a slot on the economy task force. She lauded Biden's team for building a broad coalition after more than two dozen Democrats competed in the primary. 

"I'd say our biggest differences were likely in timelines, and maybe the 'Medicare for all who want it' versus 'Medicare for All,' but at the end of the day, healthcare is still a priority and health care and post-COVID is even a bigger priority," Shah said. 

Worries in Bernie world

Task force participants and Sanders allies acknowledged to Insider that they're under no illusion that their cooperation right now erases any future friction if Biden ends up in the White House.

"Biden is not gonna start where Bernie people want him to be, and there's gonna be pressure on him," said Chuck Rocha, a senior adviser on Sanders' 2020 campaign who did not participate in the task forces. He called Sanders a "north star" for many progressives, who would look to the senator for guidance on when to push Biden. 

One of the ways Biden could assuage fears from Sanders' backers, Rocha said, is to hire a significant number of progressives to his Cabinet and throughout the federal government. Rocha also wants to see more Latino officials in a Biden government, and more diversity in general, arguing that Biden needs to give people of color seats at the table to create truly meaningful policy.

Some progressives are already worried that Biden could abandon them once he takes the Oval Office. They cite a recent Politico report that Biden's transition team was vetting Republicans for possible administration roles. 

Progressives fully intend to push a Biden administration even further to the left than what was promised in the compromise document. 

"Our job will be to make sure that he sticks to the commitments he made," said Javier Valdez, the co-executive director of the progressive immigration advocacy group Make the Road New York.

A Sanders' representative on the immigration task force, Valdez added that he considers the proposals laid out by the unity task force "the floor, not the ceiling."