Old Friends, Bad Blood: War Simmers Between Sanders, Warren

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It was a short but ugly war, and in three weeks Iowa will determine whether it was a consequential one. The longstanding détente between Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders -- a shaky peace agreed upon by two ideologically aligned but politically opposed progressives – ended this week.

An allegation surfaced that Sanders had told Warren that a woman couldn’t win the presidency. He denied it, she confirmed it, and it consumed all the oxygen before the final debate prior to the Iowa caucuses.

Personal friends became public rivals when CNN pushed the two to litigate the private conversation Tuesday night.

He said the reports were false.

“I didn’t say it,” Sanders said of the allegation that CNN first reported. “Anybody knows me knows that it’s incomprehensible that I would think that a woman cannot be president of the United States.”

Warren said that “Bernie is my friend, and I am not here to try to fight with Bernie.” And then, when CNN moderator Abby Phillips asked how the Massachusetts senator felt about the remark, reporting the disputed allegations as if they were fact, Warren broadened her attack.

“Look at the men on this stage,” she said. “Collectively, they have lost 10 elections. The only people on this stage who have won every single election that they’ve been in are the women. Amy and me.” She continued, saying that she was “the only person on this stage who has beaten an incumbent Republican anytime in the past 30 years.”

When Sanders responded by saying that he beat an incumbent Republican, Warren challenged him to check his math. He said he won such a race in 1990. She started counting backward. He continued to look puzzled by her assertion.

All of it was unusual and none of it was as brutal as some pundits had predicted. All the same, there was going to be blood eventually. The only question was who would make the first cut and when. Warren provided the answer when she jabbed at a lingering wound the “Democratic socialist” incurred the last time he competed for the nomination. Not only had the Vermont senator challenged then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, he had cultivated a following defined by the fraternity of so-called Bernie Bros, which critics said created “a sexism problem.” Clinton won that primary, lost the general election, and has since witnessed her old rival remake the Democratic Party in his image as once radical proposals like “Medicare for All” have become widely accepted.

But the current conflict is not between the establishment and the progressive flank. It is instead a skirmish between the two closest progressives in the U.S. Senate. They were once friends, who now have “bad blood no matter which way you look at it,” Democratic pollster John Zogby said.

Something had to give eventually, especially in a race that has been slow to winnow and includes candidates who look almost identical on paper. “It is very competitive, and in both cases this news comes under the ‘Who needs this now?’ category,” Zogby told RealClearPolitics. “Ultimately both sides need to be able to claim that the other is going to blow it in the general.”

Perhaps the worst sin any candidate could commit in 2020 would be questioning gender equality, and hostilities over the Warren allegations had progressives doing their best to play peacemakers. The progressive group Democracy for America begged the two to stop fighting, and the organization’s communications director, Neil Sroka, compared the controversy to “a circular firing squad.”

“I think it is pretty clear that yesterday’s back-and-forth exchange helped exactly no one that cares about electing a progressive and perhaps more importantly cares about defeating Donald Trump,” Sroka said before the debate.

Does he think that detente has been reestablished after Warren declined to go for the jugular? “I would think so, both know that the last 48 hours helped no one.  And both delivered very strong answers during that segment.”

Others were blunter, such as Christopher Hale, an alum of both Obama presidential campaigns. “I think they both realized it was a suicide bomb they need to diffuse without exploding,” he told RCP, “because it would’ve destroyed both of their candidacies if it detonated.”

But did peace break out on stage? “It depends,” says longtime progressive activist Jordan Uhl.

“If you look at this as a scandal that’s been manufactured by CNN and amplified by other outlets, then yes, because the coverage will likely subside in a day or two,” Uhl told RCP after the debate.

But there are still people who “vehemently hate Bernie” and no matter what, Uhl said, and that constituency “will glom onto this like leeches and never let go. They’ll use this as a cudgel going forward to breathlessly smear him as a misogynist. So, in that sense you could say genie is still out.”

As to whether that spirit will do further harm, pundits will continue to pontificate. None, however, can deny the exchange that was caught on camera between the two rivals when the debate ended. Warren walked over to Sanders’ lectern. He extended his hand. She pulled back, clasping both of hers. He pointed a finger. The old friends walked away, glaring.

According to the RCP average, Sanders stands second in Iowa. Warren, fourth.

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