Three weeks away from the Iowa caucuses, election outrage has reached a fever pitch as the 2020 Democratic contenders pull out all the stops for some last-minute negging.
The crowning controversy of the week involves a “fraying” of the nonaggression pact between Senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders.
For months now, pundits and politicos have been talking about the nonaggression pact between the Warren and Sanders campaigns and speculating as to when it would end, noting each subtle jab from individuals within each camp. But for just as long, neither candidate has been willing to say a negative word about the other, choosing instead to focus their fire on their more centrist opponents—former Vice President Joe Biden and South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg. But over the weekend, much to the delight of the pundit class, that pact seemingly came crashing down.
It began with a scoop from Politico revealing a series of alleged Sanders campaign talking points distributed to Iowa volunteers for the purpose of poaching support from his rivals. Among those rivals was Warren.
According to reporters Alex Thompson and Holly Otterbein, the Sanders campaign had directed volunteers speaking to Warren-leaning voters to draw contrasts over the demographic composition each candidate’s base—though they could not be sure whether the document they’d obtained was meant for phone calls or door knocking.
“I like Elizabeth Warren,” the script read, with an optional follow-up that she’s the caller’s 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 Donald Trump.”
Warren did not take kindly to the news. The day after the story broke, she accused Sanders of sending his volunteers to “trash” her and insinuated that the Vermont Senator was responsible for Trump’s victory in 2016—an attack that echoed familiar criticisms from Hillary Clinton and some of her more embittered former staffers.
“I was disappointed to hear that Bernie is sending his volunteers out to trash me,” the Massachusetts Senator told reporters in response to the story. “Bernie knows me and has known me for a long time. He knows who I am, where I come from, what I have worked on and fought for, and the coalition and grassroots movement we are trying to build. Democrats want to win in 2020 and we all saw the impact of factionalism in 2016 and we can’t have a repeat of that.”
Warren’s surrogates began repeating the attack. Julian Castro told Thompson he was “disappointed that Bernie would go negative on somebody that he’s known for a long time, and worked with, and whose character he must certainly know is good.” Iowa State Senator Claire Celsi told reporters that she wasn’t surprised since Bernie “went straight to the gutter with Hillary.” Warren’s campaign manager, Roger Lau, long-time Clinton associate and former Department of Commerce employee, sent out a fundraising email that read, “Bernie Sanders’ campaign is instructing volunteers to dismiss our broad-based, inclusive campaign by saying the ‘people who support [Elizabeth] are highly-educated, affluent people. When I heard that description, I didn’t recognize it. That doesn’t describe me or many of the passionate volunteers and organizers I know.”
In fact, Warren’s supporters do tend to be wealthier, whiter, more educated, and more engaged in politics than Sanders’, as Otterbein herself had noted in an article in July, and of the top three 2020 Democrats, the Massachusetts Senator is also the one who fares the worst in a hypothetical match-up against Trump.
Warren herself is no stranger to pitching political battles to chip away her opponents’ support. Last month, she started an undeclared war with Buttigieg, hitting him for his high dollar fundraisers after the Indiana mayor backed her into a corner on healthcare. In November, Warren took aim at Biden, claiming he was running in the wrong primary. Before that, at the July Democratic presidential primary debate, she insinuated that her centrist rivals should drop out, commenting that she did not “understand why anybody goes to all the trouble of running for president of the United States just to talk about what we really can’t do and shouldn’t fight for.”
Some Sanders volunteers questioned the veracity of the Politico story. Screenshots from the Sanders volunteer slack channel obtained by Paste show a baffled response to the story.
“In all my time volunteering for this campaign I have never seen this as a script,” one user wrote.
“Show me the lie tho?” wrote another.
A staffer, meanwhile, asked volunteers to “[p]lease ignore this media story.”
That did not happen. One annoyed volunteer took to Twitter claiming that the script had actually been posted in the team Sanders slack channel by a new user and that it had been promptly removed by a moderator. Thompson dismissed this account, noting that the Sanders campaign had not denied the authenticity of the document, which he claimed had been “paid for by Bernie2020” on it. According to his published story, the campaign had provided no comment at all.
Sanders responded to the kerfuffle on Sunday, seeming to suggest that he had not approved the script. The Vermont Senator noted that Warren was “a very good friend” with whom he would debate the issues.
“We have hundreds of employees,” Sanders said. “Elizabeth Warren has hundreds of employees. And people sometimes say things that they shouldn’t.”
But the controversy was just beginning. The next day, a story appeared in CNN—evidently leaked by team Warren—claiming Sanders had told the Massachusetts Senator in a private meeting in December 2018 that he did not feel a woman could win the presidency. The story hinged on the word of four anonymous sources, all of whom had allegedly been told about the meeting after the fact by Warren. The New York Times had previously reported on the one-on-one discussion, writing that “neither Ms. Warren nor Mr. Sanders sought support from the other or tried to dissuade the other from running, said the officials familiar with the meeting.” Warren’s communications director declined to comment for the piece. Sanders, who has pushed the idea of a woman president as far back as the ‘80s and who lobbied Warren to challenge Clinton in 2016 (only entering the race when she declined), vehemently denied the claim.
“It is ludicrous to believe that at the same meeting where Elizabeth Warren told me she was going to run for president, I would tell her that a woman couldn’t win,” Sanders told CNN. “It’s sad that, three weeks before the Iowa caucus and a year after that private conversation, staff who weren’t in the room are lying about what happened. What I did say that night was that Donald Trump is a sexist, a racist and a liar who would weaponize whatever he could. Do I believe a woman can win in 2020? Of course! After all, Hillary Clinton beat Donald Trump by 3 million votes in 2016.”
Faiz Shakir, Sanders’ campaign manager, also disputed the claim and noted its timing in relation to the Iowa caucuses.
“I don’t believe Elizabeth Warren has commented on it or said it directly,” Shakir said in an interview. “It is because it is a lie. Bernie Sanders has always stood for women and women’s rights.”
Twitter erupted. Left-leaning journalists immediately expressed their skepticism at the thinly-sourced story.
Sanders supporters predictably cried foul. The Vermont senator's campaign responded by getting #ITrustBernie trending on Twitter as calls on Warren to weigh in—and diffuse the situation—mounted.
“In the spirit of unity and respect, We should be doing all we can right now to unite behind the progressive who can win against Trump,” Nomiki Konst, member of the DNC's Unity Reform Commission, told Paste. “Progressives need to exercise caution when amplifying or responding to rumors that only divide us and help the oligarch class.”
Then, at 5:45 P.M., Shaun King—journalist and Sanders surrogate—tweeted that he'd spoken with two sources within the Warren campaign who claimed the Massachusetts Senator liked to “embellish” stories, including the one about the dinner with Sanders. The tweet spurred on the outrage from Sanders supporters and was shared over 19,000 times.
Warren did not weigh in on the story until later that evening. By that time, it had worked its way into multiple outlets—everywhere from Buzzfeed to the Times—and Stephanie Taylor and Adam Green, co-founders of the Warren-backing Progressive Change Campaign Committee, had put out a statement calling for de-escalation between the Warren and Sanders camps, calling the back-and-forth “counter-productive for progressives.”
“In this pivotal moment, progressives must work together to defeat Donald Trump and prevent a less-electable establishment candidate like Joe Biden from getting the nomination,” it read.
Warren, however, did not put the story to rest. On the contrary, she fueled it, contradicting Sanders' account and asserting that he had indeed expressed the view that a woman couldn't win. She then added that she had “no interest” in continuing the discussion of the meeting or Sanders' “punditry” due to the goals she and the Vermont Senator shared.
“Bernie and I met for more than two hours in December 2018 to discuss the 2020 election, our past work together, and our shared goals: beating Donald Trump, taking back our government from the wealthy and well-connected, and building an economy that works for everyone,” the statement read. “Among the topics that came up was what would happen if Democrats nominated a female candidate. thought a woman could win; he disagreed.”
“I have no interest in discussing this private meeting any further because Bernie and I have far more in common than our differences on punditry,” Warren continued.
And yet, it wasn't long after the Warren released her statement that the Washington Post found a source with knowledge of the conversation whose recollection disputed her own while confirming Sanders'.
“Two people with knowledge of the conversation at the 2018 dinner at Warren's home told the Washington Post that Warren brought up the issue by asking Sanders whether he believed a woman could win,” the Post article read. “One of the people with knowledge of the conversation said Sanders did not say a woman couldn't win but rather that Trump would use nefarious tactics against the Democratic nominee.”
With that, the Sanders and Warren camps were right back where they started, except that the former was completely up in arms. The response was visceral. Warren had gone low, Sanders supporters contended. Her team had ostensibly planted two dubious, negative pieces attacking the Vermont Senator's character within hours of each other—and she had personally fanned the flames of both.
Hours after releasing her statement, Warren did appear to make an attempt at damage control, telling Ryan Grim of The Intercept that the leaked dinner story had not been intentional. But it didn't matter. The left was angry. Longtime Hillary Clinton ally-turned-Sanders booster Peter Daou tweeted that he was “deeply disappointed” in the Massachusetts Senator. It wasn't long before #RefundWarren, a hashtag demanding donation money back from the Warren campaign, was trending nationally on Twitter.
Initial reactions to the breaking story trended neutral or slightly negative—Teen Vogue called Warren's claim a “fake beef”—but the reaction grew more skeptical as more information, including Warren's statement, came out. By Tuesday morning, even notorious Sanders critic Sally Albright had harsh words for Warren. More neutral commentators, like Joe Scarborough and Al Sharpton, seemed to accuse Warren of outright lying.
Warren has done herself few favors this primary season with unforced errors at pivotal moments. Her campaign was almost over months before it even launched after the president goaded her into taking a DNA test to prove her claims of Native American ancestry going back decades, which included listing American Indian on her Texas State Bar registration card in 1986 and contributing recipes to a cookbook called “Pow Wow Chow.” Following the release of the test results, which showed that she was between 1/64th and 1/1024th Native American, the Cherokee Nation put out a statement condemning her actions as a “mockery” and Warren was forced to issue a public apology. Although she did recover and later began to surge, her backtracking on Medicare-for-all in the fall and subsequent release of new plan that included the public option, killed that momentum. Her poll numbers took a nosedive. Other missteps have included falsely claiming that her children went to public schools in a confrontation with angry charter activists and labeling her father as a janitor—a characterization her brothers took issue with.
With a mere three weeks to go before voting starts, Warren is currently a distant third nationally with an unclear path to the nomination—though recent Iowa polls have shown potential. Still, she struggles with single-digit support from black voters and has thus far been unable to carve out a unique ideological lane for herself. The race increasingly looks like a showdown between Biden and Sanders representing the same party factions that defined the 2016 race. Warren’s campaign is just beginning to attempt to recast her as the “unity” candidate—a third way forward for a party divided. But the initial reactions to her opening salvo against Sanders do not seem promising.
UPDATE: At 2:21 P.M. Buzzfeed published an article alleging that Warren staffers were directing supporters to dial back the sexism rhetoric against Sanders. In that report, one campaign official is reported to have offered a version of events at the Sanders/Warren dinner that tracked closer to the Vermont Senator’s version of events. “Claiming you’re worried a woman can’t win/flagging that she’ll receive sexist attacks is something many, many people feel,” the official reportedly wrote.
At 5:50 P.M. Politico reported that, according to three anonymous Sanders campaign officials, the script the outlet originally reported on over the weekend was, in fact, real and had given to teams in at least two early voting states. However, the campaign was reportedly pulling them for ‘sloppy wording.’