If you’re a progressive voter, it’s wise to enter any primary debate armed with the certainty that no matter what you see on stage, the reaction from the pundits, at least on CNN and MSNBC, will be the same: Bernie Sanders failed, everyone else was great. In the wake of Elizabeth Warren’s campaign pulling a sudden heel move and trying to tank Sanders in the run-up to the Iowa caucuses on Feb. 3—a disheartening turn in the once friendly relationship, which Paste thoroughly summarized on Tuesday—it was a guarantee that the moderators in Tuesday night’s debate would not only stage a fight, but that the network’s pundits would declare Warren the victor afterward.
Here’s the full exchange:
Let's see that transition again from Abby Phillip:
In the moments after the closing statements, there appeared to be some tension between Warren and Sanders, and Warren ignored the offer of a handshake:
Finally, the talking heads after the debate said that Warren “knocked it out of the park,” and even gave us this particularly shameful moment when Jess McIntosh, Hillary Clinton's former communications director, said that Sanders was wrong because the story had been “reported out”:
Kudos to Anderson Cooper for correcting her and noting that it was indeed the literal definition of “he said she said,” since it happened in a room between only two people. But the pattern is staggering: CNN helps break a story obviously planted by the Warren campaign, confronts Sanders on stage, serves up a softball to Warren, and then declares her the victor. It was manufactured from the get-go.
As for Phillip's presentation, it's hard to know whether she just wasn't listening, or whether she was genuinely implying that Sanders had lied. Mika Brezinski encompassed the general confusion fairly well:
So, what can we take from this? First, on the question of “who to believe?”, it’s worth remember Sanders’ record—how he deferred to Warren in 2015, how he said a woman could win ages ago, how he acknowledged that by the popular vote, a woman already has won. But it’s also important to look at Warren’s long history of distorting facts or outright lying for political convenience, as documented exhaustively by Nathan Robinson here. Coupled with the timing—this reeks of last-minute Iowa desperation from Warren, whose campaign has been fading since a short peak last year—the weight of evidence seems, at least to me, clear.
Then there’s Warren’s prepared speech that CNN was so eager to praise. She noted that the men on stage had combined to lose 10 elections, and people cheered at the comparison and it will continue to be shared today, but the truth is that Warren has won two elections as a Democrat in deep blue Massachusetts. What Sanders accomplished, by winning as a socialist independent mayoral candidate, House candidate, and Senate candidate, represents a degree of difficulty that isn’t comparable. Even his lone electoral loss in the last 30 years, in the 2016 Democratic primary, was more impressive than Warren’s Senate wins—he came from absolutely nowhere to build a thriving movement, give Hillary Clinton a real scare, and change the way we talk about politics in America.
None of which seemed to make Sanders supporters feel better on Tuesday night, which is understandable—the sense of betrayal from Warren is greater than it would have been from the likes of Hillary Clinton or Joe Biden, from whom this kind of ploy would be expected. There were a lot of snake emojis going around, and remarkably, Warren seems to have accomplished what even Hillary Clinton couldn’t—to turn Sanders supporters against her in a theoretical general election. (There’s a popular narrative that “Bernie or Bust” voters cost Hillary the general, but in fact a much smaller percentage of Sanders voters from the primary abandoned Hillary than her own primary voters did for Obama in 2008.) It could be the heat of the moment, but if this creates a real division, it would be a stunning turn of events when you consider that Warren is far closer to Sanders ideologically than Clinton.
Still, I can’t help but feel that none of this will matter. Debates have devolved into superficial acts of theater, and the ratings for each successive debate have been lower and lower. Far more people watched Ken Jennings win the Jeopardy! primetime special on Tuesday night, and even some CNN pundits had to concede that this likely won’t affect primary or caucus voting in any meaningful way.
In fact, it’s far more likely have to have a long-term effect based on the bad blood that now boils between both factions. It doesn’t take an incisive political brain to see how this benefits Joe Biden, and in fact one of the most common conspiracy theories floating around this week has been that Warren knows her campaign is dead in the water and is jockeying for Biden’s VP spot by tanking Sanders. Sanders has had a few good polls in early primary states lately, but it doesn’t change the fact that Biden is the frontrunner, and last night he came through relatively unscathed despite another blundering performance. That’s a shame for progressives who support Sanders or Warren, and we can only hope it wasn’t by design. And if Sanders or Warren manages to actually win the nomination, the mutual mistrust could be costly in the general election against Trump.
All that said, emotions are running very hot right now, and it’s clouding perspectives on how much the average voter cares about petty squabbles, and how significantly it will impact the vote. This doesn’t change things in the short-term—Iowa will still be a major battle, and no matter how a network like CNN stages a reality TV-style clash to milk any notion of conflict, very few minds will change because of a disputed conversation from two years ago.