The decision by Bernie Sanders’ campaign to immediately engage with Joe Biden came from the top, campaign manager Faiz Shakir told CNN on Thursday. The Sanders team came after Biden on multiple fronts.
“This was driven by Sen. Sanders himself,” Shakir said in an interview. “He said, ‘Why the heck should I wait to draw contrast between the two of us? That is what a primary is all about.'”
Since Biden entered the presidential primary last week, Sanders has on a number of occasions sought to highlight where he and the former vice president have split on big-ticket policy questions. These differences centered on trade and other economic issues. Both candidates, despite their opposing records and differing views, are appealing now to the same base of voters: working class Democrats and independents in the Midwestern states President Donald Trump nearly swept in 2016.
Shakir conceded that Biden is the frontrunner, polls have shown him building on his early lead since joining the contest last week.
He said that Sanders and the campaign expected Biden to come out of the gates strong. But they were also determined to define Biden early on by focusing on the pieces of Biden’s record that, though perhaps standard for Democrats at the time, might run against the party’s more recent progressive shift.
A spokesperson for Biden’s campaign declined to comment.
“On many issues, Vice President Biden has been wrong first,” Shakir said. “In some cases (like the war in Yemen) he has course corrected. In others (like trade) he maintains the wrong position.”
According to Shakir, Biden’s position on trade will be a point of contrast for Sanders. The Vermont senator has been bothered by his rival’s efforts to present himself as a “union man,” while still defending his support for NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement.
“I think when people take a look at my record versus Vice President Biden’s record — I helped lead the fight against NAFTA; he voted for NAFTA,” Sanders said Monday night in an interview with CNN’s Anderson Cooper. “I helped lead the fight against (permanent normal trade relations) with China; he voted for it. I strongly opposed the Trans-Pacific Partnership; he supported it. I voted against the war in Iraq; he voted for it.”
While Sanders was spearheading the strategy, Shakir said, he made it clear to his team that he wanted the distinctions to be made only on policy issues and not veer into what could described as personal attacks, emphasizing often during internal campaign conversations that, “I like Joe, we are friends.”