It was always going to get ugly in the final weeks.
With Sanders surging in the polls and racking up progressive endorsements leading up to the first primaries, and both rival candidates and the wider Democratic establishment openly admitting their nervousness about his very good chances of winning, the likelihood was high that Sanders was going to face a torrent of negativity.
What may be surprising is who’s joining in — Elizabeth Warren. Some mild jabs late last year aside, the two candidates have mostly avoided criticizing each other directly. In fact, last Democratic debate, after Warren’s attack on Pete Buttigieg’s wine cave fundraiser backfired, with both he and the media criticizing Warren for having attended similar big money fundraisers in the past, Sanders came to her defense, hitting Buttigieg and Joe Biden (and, pointedly, not Warren) for their prolific fundraising from billionaires.
Now, it seems the gloves are off.
The controversy started on Saturday, when Politico published a leaked script allegedly given to Sanders campaign volunteers, instructing them how to talk to voters about the other candidates, particularly their electability. The offending passage on Warren reads:
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.
Though it’s not clear who authored it or what level of the campaign infrastructure knew about it, the reaction was swift.
Yesterday, Warren told reporters she was “disappointed” that Sanders was “sending his volunteers out to trash me,” and warned against repeating “the impact of the factionalism in 2016.” This was a reference to the disproven Clintonite talking point that Sanders’s 2016 challenge created such division within the Democratic Party that it led Clinton to lose to Trump. One prominent Warren backer in Iowa was blunter: “Doesn’t surprise me about Bernie. He went straight to the gutter with Hillary. More of the same.”
Warren’s surrogates on social media have broadcast a similar message about a nasty Sanders campaign violating the gentlemanly etiquette of election campaigning. The media have largely repeated the campaign’s claim that this is an attack that is beyond the pale. And the Warren campaign is already fundraising off the story, shooting off an email with the subject line “What Bernie’s campaign says about you.”
Let’s be clear about what is going on here. The Warren campaign, in concert with a media that has been either hostile to or dismissive of Sanders and is itching for controversy, is trying to turn a nonstory into a scandal and attack Sanders with a narrative recycled from Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign.
How can you know? There’s the banality of the offending statement itself, an innocuous argument about Warren’s electability that every single other campaign is almost certainly making some version of to voters about Sanders (and which he himself has weathered nonstop since 2015). If low-level volunteers making this mild criticism is now considered a step too far, then Democrats have become markedly more sensitive since 2008, which saw the scurrilous (and sometimes breathtakingly racist) fight to the death between Clinton and Barack Obama.
There’s also the fact that, far from going “straight to the gutter” with Clinton in 2016, Sanders immediately and magnanimously let Clinton off the hook on the email scandal that would plague her campaign until its last days. While certainly testy at times, the 2016 contest was substantive and comparatively mild, far from the juvenile food fight of 2008. In fact, it was Clinton who launched the opening salvo in that contest, hitting Sanders for his voting record on guns in the first debate, the same one in which he absolved her of the email scandal — and he still campaigned like a madman at the end of the day to try and get her elected.
But forget all that. Because to really grasp how much of a nothing this entire controversy is, all you need to do is look at what happened yesterday. On the same day the Warren campaign lit up Sanders because his low-level volunteers had the temerity to argue their candidate was more electable, Julián Castro — a major Warren endorser and surrogate — introduced her in Iowa by pointing out more Democratic voters say they’d be disappointed with Sanders and Biden as the nominee than her.
So yes, this is an entirely manufactured scandal that no one should treat as anything other than what it is: typical campaign politics. But it does signify a shift that’s already happening. Now that even Bret Stephens is recognizing Sanders has a chance to run away with the nomination, and with only weeks to go, Sanders’s opponents are belatedly taking aim at him.
After a spate of stories about Obama and his circle’s potential plans to stop Sanders from winning dropped, right on cue, Jim Messina — Obama’s 2012 campaign manager who has been busy the last eight years racking up an impressive losing record of election campaigns — told Politico Sanders would lose to Trump. Biden and Sanders are increasingly firing shots at each other. And even James O’Keefe is planning to drop some misleadingly edited bullshit about the guy he’s scared could beat Trump.
The 2020 election is not about which candidate is the politest, which candidate says the nicest things about their opponents, or which candidate most closely adheres to the made-up campaign rules in place since 2016 that say you can never draw any contrast between yourself and other candidates. It’s about which candidate is the most committed to fighting for universal health care, most determined to save the world from climate change, has the most far-reaching vision for turning around decades of disastrous US foreign policy, and, of course, is best positioned to beat Trump.
As the weeks and months roll by, it’s only going to get worse. Cut through the noise and remember what’s at stake.