DES MOINES, Iowa — For nearly a year, Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders pushed strongly progressive ideas into the Democratic primary spotlight, feeding off each other to build support for proposals long dismissed as radically leftist: “Medicare for All,” tuition-free college and a “Green New Deal” to combat climate change.
Now the race’s most progressive candidates are fighting over the politics of gender, and regardless of who prevails, the party’s most liberal wing is nervous the ensuing fallout could torpedo its once-ascendant ideals. That’s something many see as the worst possible outcome at the worst possible time, with the lead-off Iowa caucuses barely two weeks away.
A brawl on the left might ultimately push undecided voters to more moderate candidates like former Vice President Joe Biden and former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who have sought more centrist policy solutions. It could also end up helping President Donald Trump’s reelection bid.
In an interview Wednesday, Sanders’ wife, Jane O’Meara Sanders, downplayed lasting repercussions.
“Our campaign has always been about bringing people together. Not dividing them up like Trump does by gender, race or ethnicity,” said O’Meara Sanders, who defended her husband but also refused to criticize Warren. “We remain committed to continuing a progressive movement made up of women and men, black and white, gay and straight. The message is unity. We’re not going to go into that realm. We’re just not going to play that game.”
That message, though, may suddenly be a tougher sell for some progressives at a critical time. The start of voting is now looming but so is Trump’s impeachment trial in the Senate. That will pull both Warren, a senator from Massachusetts, and Sanders, a senator from Vermont, off the campaign trial -- perhaps for weeks -- to sit as jurors, meaning their clash could overshadow each of them delivering closing arguments to voters in Iowa and beyond whom they may not see again.
“To the extent that this race is not about the economic concerns of people in Iowa and other places, it certainly benefits Biden and Buttigieg, whose agenda certainly does not benefit working people,” said Jeff Weaver, Sanders’ chief adviser.
In the meantime, all of this is “dividing the left and pitting the two progressives in the race against each other at a time where we can’t afford division,” said Alice Nascimento, a progressive activist in New York who has been leading protests against Buttigieg in recent weeks.
“I’m sad and frustrated because we have all worked so hard to get here. Our movement has captured the hearts and minds of America — the majority of Americans want a political revolution and big, structural change,” tweeted Alexandra Rojas, executive director of the progressive groups Justice Democrats.
Months of mutually avoiding conflict for Warren and Sanders came to an abrupt end on Monday, when she said that, during a private 2018 meeting between the pair, he disagreed when she said a woman could win the presidency. Sanders forcefully denied saying that, but both repeated their differing accounts during Tuesday’s presidential debate in Iowa.
Warren seemed to win the evening’s skirmish, offering both gumption and humor. She said it was time to take larger questions of sexism head-on and joked about the undefeated electoral record of the two women on stage, her and Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, as compared to less-stellar marks of Sanders, Biden and the other men. Sanders was left having to again deny he said what she says he said, a position that could undermine his larger pronouncement about firmly believing a woman could win the presidency.
Before the debate, both campaigns insisted they wanted to de-escalate tensions. But Warren refused to shake Sanders’ outstretched hand afterward, indicating that hard feelings remain.
That became even more evident hours later, when CNN released audio of the exchange, in which Warren repeats twice to Sanders, “I think you called me a liar on national TV,” and he responds, “Let's not do it right now."
Before the audio was made public, O’Meara Sanders shrugged off the exchange, saying, “I think that this discussion is over” and “Maybe people sometimes misremember things that happened." She was quick to add: “I’m not attacking Elizabeth Warren in any way shape or form on this.”
Adam Green, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee and a top Warren backer, struck a similar tone, saying that a few awkward debate moments don’t overshadow the progressive agenda Sanders and Warren mutually champion.
“Left to the campaigns’ own devices, there’s zero interest in drama and a joint interest in stating a shared theory of the case for defeating Trump by advancing bold progressive positions," he said.
But the larger question is if letting the dispute get this far has already ended the era of progressive good feelings. If so, Sanders supporters who might have accepted Warren as a second choice might now be so antagonized that they won’t back her under any circumstances. And the reverse may be true for Warren partisans.