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Last gasp: Sanders begins attack on Biden over LGBT, abortion

Get ready for a full — if brief — civil war among Democrats over the progressive agenda. Until a week ago, Bernie Sanders could afford to turn his rhetorical guns outward toward Donald Trump and stick to intramural policy disagreements rather than personal attacks. Now, just hours away from potential mathematical elimination from the presidential nomination, Sanders has gone on the attack against Joe Biden for insufficient wokeness on LGBT and abortion issues.

Too little, too late?

Sanders wants you to know some other things about Biden, too — that he once supported cuts to social security, cast a vote to prohibit federal funding of abortions, and used to favor a ban on openly gay people serving in the military.

In recent speeches, Sanders has cautiously tested new and forceful attacks on Biden’s record on gay rights and women’s issues, potent critiques aimed at two key bases of the Democratic Party. …

For much of the campaign, Sanders has focused on economics and inequality, attacking his opponents for accepting donations from the wealthy and opposing Medicare-for-all. But in recent days, Sanders has also begun to challenge Biden’s record on LGBT rights and women’s reproductive health.

He repeatedly knocked Biden for, until recently, supporting the Hyde amendment, which banned Medicaid funds from being used to cover abortions.

He has criticized the former vice president for supporting “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” in the 1990s, a policy that prevented openly gay people from serving in the military. And he has stressed Biden’s 1996 vote for the Defense of Marriage Act, a federal law that barred legal recognition of same-sex marriages.

This is both too little and too late. As the Washington Post notes, it’s not even convincing Sanders, who’s simultaneously insisting he’ll support his “friend” Joe Biden if he wins the nomination. He’s attempting to head off a fissure at the convention, but it’s questionable just how much control he’ll have over this faction if Biden beats him out. Sanders is actually still suggesting that the sudden reversal of his fortunes is a DNC/establishment plot, which isn’t going to enthuse his followers at all.

Plus, while these issue might matter to progressives, they aren’t necessarily the highest up the priority tree for voters, especially in moderate states going to the polls tomorrow. The Hyde Amendment is actually very popular among voters, although Biden’s been flip-flopping so much on it that he probably can’t benefit from supporting it now, even in a general election. However, the economy is still the top priority, and if Sanders can’t beat Biden on that score, he’s not going to move the needle by moving down the issue-priority list.

Nonetheless, his allies are still trying to beat the drums in this battle. The Working Families Party, a prominent progressive group that initially backed Elizabeth Warren, is making an eleventh-hour pitch for feeling the Bern now:

A progressive group that had backed Elizabeth Warren is throwing its support behind Bernie Sanders, now that she’s out of the Democratic race.

The Working Families Party was the first major progressive group to make an endorsement in the primary when it announced its support for Warren in September.

“The WFP will work to show voters who backed Warren why supporting Sanders is their best choice to advance the big structural change that Warren fought for,” the group, which claims chapters or local branches in 17 states, said in a press release. “With so much at stake in the Democratic primary and the general election in November, WFP refuses to remain on the sidelines.”

This is too little, too late for the WFP too. Had they signed up with Sanders like this ahead of Super Tuesday, could he have avoided the rout last week? What about if Sanders had been more aggressive earlier against Biden? Biden’s not especially good at responding to such attacks, and if Sanders had sensed the danger in the last debate, he might have slowed down Biden’s consolidation in more progressive-leaning states like Minnesota and Massachusetts. Instead, Sanders played relatively nice with Biden, focusing what little ire he had on Michael Bloomberg. Bloomberg’s out, but Biden benefited the most from it, which might have made the Bloomberg targeted a big tactical mistake on Sanders’ part.

Now Sanders is on the attack against his most potent foe, but other than Washington, in which state will these attacks play well now? Illinois’ primary comes a week from tomorrow, but the rest of the primaries this month are in purple-to-red states. Hawaii comes up on April 4, but there aren’t any real progressive-state prizes between March 17 and April 28, when New York and Connecticut go to the polls. And even that will get mitigated by Pennsylvania, where Biden expects to be popular, on the same day.

Moderates might have waited until the last minute to consolidate, but progressives waited too long to sharpen their spears. Sanders needed to find a way to undercut Biden’s moderate cred and expand his own rather than double down on extremism and identity politics.