It began a little more than a week ago with a story on the centrist news site, Politico, about a script being used by representatives of the Bernie Sanders campaign in Iowa, which will hold the first contest of the Democratic primary on February 3rd. What seemed like a pretty innocuous text comparing the appeal of the two candidates (and offering similarly mild critiques of Pete Buttigieg and Joe Biden) was denounced by Warren as the Vermont senator somehow, “trashing her”.
The part of the script that apparently offended the Massachusetts Senator read as follows: “I like Elizabeth Warren. [optional] In fact, she’s my second choice! But here’s my concern about her. The people who support her are highly educated, more affluent people who are going to show up and vote Democratic no matter what. She’s bringing no new bases into the Democratic Party. We need to turn out disaffected working-class voters if we’re going to defeat Trump.”
Offering volunteers the option of stating that Warren is their second choice after the candidate they’re working for is hardly an attack, let alone a case of the Sanders campaign ‘trashing’ Senator Warren. In reality, the script seems pretty close to the truth based on a mixture of polling and anecdotal evidence from the campaign trail that we can easily find reported by mainstream sources over the course of the primaries.
On August 17th of last year, the Los Angeles Times published this analysis of the two campaigns, “Warren’s coalition is older, better educated and more affluent. Sanders has stronger appeal to young voters, people without a college degree and the less affluent. That puts Sanders in competition with Biden for blue-collar voters.”
In another, more recent, example of Warren’s coalition of highly educated, well off voters being public knowledge, Michael Tomasky, wrote in the New York Review of Books in December, “Warren, for all her populism, is much more favored by college-educated Democrats (18 percent of the party per Pew) and especially by those with graduate degrees (15 percent).”
Thus, much of the polling suggests that Warren supporters are those who like her message of domestic reform but tend to be more wealthy than working class and thus are a smaller overall sliver of the American electorate than Sanders’ base. They are also reliable Democratic voters and would likely vote, as the script notes, for whoever is chosen as the party’s nominee, making the Warren campaign and its supporters’ outrage at the text seem disingenuous at best.
On the other hand, Senator Sanders seems to have strength with independents and with younger voters across most demographics, meaning he’s the candidate among all the Democratic contenders whose platform could create enough excitement to bring these voters to the party, some for the first time. At present, he also seems to be, alongside former Vice President Biden, one of two candidates who could really damage the current president’s chances with working class voters, some of whom either voted for him or sat out the last presidential election, leading to losses in so-called firewall states like Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania.
Unfortunately, this was simply the first shot in a barrage against the Vermont senator from Warren’s campaign that would be eagerly picked up and continued in the American mainstream media even after she herself publicly said she would like to move on from it.
A day before last week’s debate, CNN, who hosted it alongside the Des Moines Register, published a story on its web-site that made the claim that Sanders told his fellow senator in a private meeting in 2018 that he didn’t think a woman could win the presidency. The sources, as explained in the article, “were the accounts of four people: two people Warren spoke with directly soon after the encounter, and two people familiar with the meeting.”
To say that the story was thinly sourced is an understatement but this didn’t stop many in the media from reporting it as if it were established fact. When the behind closed doors conversation was bought up at the debate and Sanders denied saying it, mentioning that he long supported the idea of a woman becoming president, even trying to draft Warren for the task in 2015, the questioner then turned to Warren and asked her how she felt when the Vermont senator told her a woman couldn’t win in 2020.
Interestingly, Warren used the same phrasing that she used in her reaction to the initial story on CNN.com, saying that, “She disagreed.”
Rather than the conflict ending with the closing of the debate, CNN’s cameras lingered as Sanders and Warren approached each other and latter offered his hand, which she rejected. Much ink was spilled over the next 24 hours or so, speculating on the exchange that followed but was inaudible at that time.
In one particularly brutal opinion piece shared widely online, Virginia Heffernan of the Los Angeles Times connected a political spat to the terrible abuse of women that spawned the #Metoo movement, writing, “Watching the Tuesday night kabuki in slo-mo, you can see that Sanders (I-Vt.), who’s notoriously irritable and suffers from cardiac issues, was riled by whatever Warren said, and by her refusal to be touched. He shook a finger at her. Then again. He seemed intent on freeing her right hand to grab it.”
This analysis was quickly shown to be far from the truth when the sound from the exchange was released by CNN’s Anderson Cooper, allowing the public to decide on their own on the meaning and import of the short exchange, which went as follows:
“I think you called me a liar on national TV?” a clearly irritated Warren asked.
“I think you called me a liar on national TV.”.
“You know, let’s not do it right now. If you want to have that discussion, we’ll have that discussion,” the Vermont senator replied.
“You called me a liar,” Sanders began, “You told me — all right, let’s not do it now.”
Sanders clearly seems to want to avoid a conflict while Warren appears to be grandstanding, perhaps knowing the exchange will eventually become public. Worse, the Massachusetts senator seems remarkably thin-skinned for a U.S. politician on the national stage, a weakness that did much harm to the last Democratic nominee in 2016.
Speaking of Hillary Clinton, in an interview with the Hollywood reporter a few days after this exchange, the 2016 nominee once again weighed in on her 2016 Democratic rival, claiming “ Nobody likes him” and following up by casting a wide net for his staffers and supporters, “I will say, however, that it’s not only him, it’s the culture around him. It’s his leadership team. It’s his prominent supporters. It’s his online Bernie Bros and their relentless attacks on lots of his competitors, particularly the women. And I really hope people are paying attention to that because it should be worrisome that he has permitted this culture — not only permitted, [he] seems to really be very much supporting it.”
It’s interesting to see Clinton calling out another candidate for having aggressive supporters after the way she and her campaign behaved in the 2008 primaries she ultimately lost to Barack Obama, as reported at the time by Stephen Zunes, “In a manner reminiscent of anti-Semites who insisted that Jews were simultaneously bankers controlling the world’s wealth and Communists plotting Marxist revolution, Clinton and her supporters are trying to simultaneously portray [former President] Obama as both a leftist with radical associates as well as an elitist who doesn’t care about ordinary working class Americans. Even the normally pro-Clinton New York Times has referred to her campaign strategy “mean, vacuous, and pandering.”
Clinton, who has often said she feels Sanders stayed in the 2016 race too long, hurting her chances against the current occupant of the White House, stayed in the 2008 race until the very last moment, at one point telling reporters at a newspaper in the final primary state, South Dakota, that she wanted to be ready in case Obama were to be assassinated.
Though most on the American left would prefer not to see a return to the kind of dishonest, occasionally racist, scorched earth campaign the Clintons waged against Obama in 2008, the insistence on maintaining an extreme civility in this race will not help whoever the eventual nominee is, who will not only face an unpredictable opponent in the current president but a ridiculously well-financed Republican attack machine that long ago threw politeness to the four winds.
Despite what must have been a trying week, Sanders seems to have risen in the polls, with the latest CNN/SSRS national poll showing the Vermont senator, while still within the margin of error, has overtaken his main rival, Joe Biden, for the first time since the former vice president entered the race in late April. Expect the attacks to continue.