‘Electability’ Means the Nominee Must Bridge Both Sides of Democrats’ 2016 Rift
Sanders’ Escalating Attacks on Warren Have Strengthened Her Chances in Iowa
By Al Giordano
(Note: This is an excerpt from Issue #100 of Al Giordano’s América newsletter. To read the entire report you must be a logged-in subscriber.)
Three weeks from tonight Iowa Democrats will caucus in each of more than 1,600 precincts. The final debate before that vote happens tomorrow night. Then, three of the five candidates with a shot in the Iowa caucuses – Senators Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar – are likely be sequestered in Washington for a marathon six-day-a-week impeachment trial of Donald Trump.
The hour for closing arguments is upon us. And it is also the hour for a good fight.
The new Des Moines Register Iowa survey by the historically prescient pollster Ann Selzer shows a too-close-to-call scrum in the final stretch: Bernie Sanders with 20 percent (-4 in the aggregate of polls since last April), Elizabeth Warren with 17 (+8), Pete Buttigieg with 16 (+10), Joe Biden with 15 (-11) and Amy Klobuchar with six percent (+4). Sanders is only “leading” because other candidates have seen their support ebb and flow. (In Selzer’s November poll Pete Buttigieg led with 25 percent – but this is the what-goes-up-must-come-down primary so far.)
Meanwhile, increasing attacks by Sanders campaign staffers, surrogates and the online acolytes to whom they feed their talking points (the campaign publishes a newsletter named “Bern Notice” that churns out the daily attacks on rival candidates; a kind of CliffNotes for keypad warriors) are about to come up against the Iowa caucus rules that bolster candidates who can garner a wider “second choice” vote from supporters of others. The Sanders campaign has now succeeded in pissing off the Iowa backers of every other candidate. Maybe they should call their newsletter, “Berning Bridges.”
Berning Bridges: He Who Fights the Past War Never Wins the Next One
With the four leading candidates each within five points of the caucus’ required 15 percent threshold, each candidate will likely fall out of contention in some precincts. In those places, their voters will then pick a second choice among the candidates that do meet that threshold.
The precinct-to-precinct disparity will be starker for those who, say, rely more heavily on college town or very rural voters: If their current polling is bolstered geographically in those places that means they’ll fall under threshold in the rest of the state. The less-supported candidates’ voters then go caucus with another candidate’s backers. They will likely determine the caucus winners and the momentum that historically comes with it.
Over this past weekend the long simmering tensions between Sanders and Warren and their respective camps boiled over. (If you are one of the many people who kept asking me throughout 2019 why Warren wasn’t hitting back at the constant sniping from the Bernie Industrial Complex, you heard me say, again and again, “it’s not time yet. Wait until January. That’s when she’ll stop turning the other cheek and the fight will surely erupt.” Well, here we are. Tomorrow’s debate is going to be lit.)
A memo for Sanders campaign volunteers in Iowa surfaced that gave them negative talking points to say to those considering other candidates. Here are the one-liners being fed to the volunteers:
Anti-Biden (and Anti-Hillary Clinton): “No one is really excited about him. He doesn’t really have any volunteers and has no support among young people… Biden has a lot of weaknesses that Trump would exploit… That’s exactly what Trump did with Hillary and part of why Hillary lost.”
Anti-Buttigieg: “He would not be able to beat Trump in the general election. He’s not winning over young people or African Americans.”
Anti-Warren: “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 disaffected working-class voters if we’re going to defeat Trump.”
Volunteers were also instructed with an “optional” line of script to precede the knifing of Warren as a candidate of the elites, to tell potential Warren supporters, “I like Elizabeth Warren. In fact, she’s my second choice!”
The attempt to paint Warren as somehow not of the working-class is deeply ad hominem and leans heavily into the same misogyny that Team Sanders deployed against Hillary Clinton in 2016. “Highly educated, more affluent people,” aka, elitists, who additionally, they say, should be taken for granted, are, they claim, Warren’s electoral base. The suggestion that a product of Oklahoma public schools who began as a teacher, worked her way through law school as a single mom, and whose entire public life has been as a defender of working-class Americans is somehow less able to reach this mythical voter than Sanders is all too familiar by now.
The Sanders camp – just as it did in 2016 – paints a false stereotype of “working class” as white and male, or at least as more likely to support a man than a woman, when in the USA it skews heavily female and its largest demographic is made up of working mothers, especially working women of color. If you are a bona fide product of the working class, like Warren clearly is, that kind of smear is bound to tick you off. It’s the most deeply personal kind of character assassination to claim someone is not what she absolutely is.
The memo also begins with this rather bizarre statement:
“The Democratic Establishment tells us they know who can win. But look at their track record. Every candidate – both Democratic and Republican – who has run as the safe bet for the past two decades has lost. Gore in 2000. Kerry in 2004. McCain in 2008. Romney in 2012. Clinton in 2016. We need a candidate who captures the nation’s imagination and inspires an enthusiastic base to turn out. We can’t afford to do that again.”
WTF? The argument is cherry-picked nonsense. Romney, after all, lost to Barack Obama, the incumbent who was so “establishment” that Senator Sanders openly wanted him to face a primary challenge in 2012. Gore and Kerry lost to the son of a previous US president. Where is George W. Bush in this equation and how was he less “establishment” than his rivals? McCain was the “maverick” on the “Straight Talk Express” bus who bested the establishment choice Romney. We’re back to the 2016 level “Bernie math” arguments here with zero basis in fact or history.
Warren: Against ‘Factionalism’
Asked by a reporter, during an Iowa campaign stop, about the Sanders campaign memo’s line of attack, Warren answered:
“I was disappointed to hear that Bernie is sending his volunteers out to trash me. Bernie knows me and has known me for a long time. He knows who I am, what I come from, what I have worked on and fought for, and the coalition and grassroots movement we’re trying to build.
“We all saw the impact of the factionalism in 2016, and we can’t have a repeat of that. Democrats need to unite our party. And that means pulling in all parts of the Democratic coalition. It means building a grassroots movement with face to face conversations with people and door knocking. It means getting a positive message out to people. That’s how we are going to defeat Donald Trump.
“We cannot nominate someone who takes big chunks of the Democratic coalition for granted. We need someone who can bring our party together. We need someone who will excite every part of the Democratic party. Someone that every Democrat can believe in.”
Sanders’ online warriors met Warren’s statement with a combination of conspiracy theory (“the memo isn’t real, she invented it”) and doubling down on the nastiness (“this is a primary, and the memo told the truth!”).
A reporter asked the senator, “Do you approve of your campaign going after Elizabeth Warren?”
“I gotta tell you, I think this is a little bit of a media blow up. The kind that wants conflict. Elizabeth Warren is a very good friend of mine. We have worked together in the Senate for years. Elizabeth Warren and I continue to work together. We will debate the issues. Nobody is gonna trash Elizabeth.”
“But your campaign is trashing Elizabeth Warren.”
“Your campaign is trashing Elizabeth Warren.”
“We have hundreds of employees. Elizabeth Warren has hundreds of employees. And people sometimes say things that they shouldn’t… We have over 500 people on our campaign. People do certain things. I’m sure that on Elizabeth’s campaign people do certain things as well… No one is going to be attacking Elizabeth Warren.”
There were a couple of interesting “tells” in Sanders’ statement. First, nobody had claimed that a Sanders campaign employee had written the attack memo. Sanders was the first person to mention his employees in the same breath as the memo, a memo whose existence he admitted knowing about and that he did not dispute. Then he invented an imaginary concept: “I’m sure Elizabeth’s people… do certain things as well.”
Therefore, that another campaign might hypothetically maybe attack me one day it’s perfectly fine for ours to attack her, but nobody is attacking her.
That is textbook “gas-lighting,” which dictionary.com defines as “to cause a person to doubt his or her sanity through psychological manipulation.” Telling a candidate (and her supporters) that your own team is attacking that she’s not really under attack is precisely that.
And, with that, all the negative things that Democrats wanted to forget about Sanders from 2016 are suddenly his brand again.
There are three clear consequences from the first of what will likely be three weeks of mounting tensions between the Sanders and Warren campaigns. One, Sanders has been tagged as the aggressor, not just against Warren, but also against Biden and Buttigieg (and again, against Hillary Clinton who is not on the ballot but who still enjoys much goodwill among Democrats who will vote in the caucuses). Two, supporters of all three of those candidates, and admirers of Clinton in Iowa, are now going to be less likely to rally to Sanders as their second choice if their first vote is for one who does not meet the 15 percent threshold. That’s akin to self-immolation in the Iowa caucus process.
Thirdly, and perhaps most significantly, Sanders has now reminded Democratic caucus-goers of how his campaign’s toxicity in 2016 served to weaken the value of the nomination itself and has thus awakened a long simmering resentment among many Clinton voters who saw him do so. Whatever differences there are between Warren, Biden, Buttigieg, Klobuchar and others seem small when viewed through the lens of Team Sanders’ negativity. It is going to make it more likely that the second choice of each of the rival candidates’ supporters is going to skew “anybody but Bernie.”
There is a specter that haunts Bernie Sanders’ 2020 campaign, to paraphrase Karl Marx. The specter of Hillary world!
Sanders’ main hope in Iowa was for Warren to not achieve that threshold and for her supporters to rally to him. That’s not going to happen now.
And this reveals the fatal flaw in Sanders’ quest for the nomination: The only play in his playbook is to demonize and attack a significant portion of the coalition that will be represented at the Democratic National Convention. That same convention may go through a similar process as that of the Iowa caucus: a process of elimination and an importance of second choice preferences as some candidates fall by the wayside.
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