The amicable relationship between presidential candidates Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren turned frosty over the weekend after Politico ran a headline claiming the Sanders campaign “slam[med] Warren as candidate of the elite.” The Sanders campaign allegedly released a campaign document to volunteers that suggests telling Warren supporters that Warren’s popularity among “highly-educated” and “affluent” Democrats leaves her with a stunted base of support.
The impression one would glean from Politico’s brazen headline, the scandalized tweets that followed, and the breathless denials from Sanders supporters was that the Sanders campaign decided to finally go negative in the weeks leading up to the Iowa caucuses, where Sanders currently enjoys a slim lead over Warren. Even Warren’s response—that she was, “disappointed to hear that Bernie is sending his volunteers out to trash me”—suggests the Sanders campaign decided to institute the combative tactics of his most obnoxious supporters. She told reporters in Iowa on Sunday, “I hope Bernie reconsiders and turns his campaign in a different direction.”
But Politico’s framing is a massive overreaction, which should be clear to anyone who actually read the suggested script for Sanders volunteers:
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.
While the argument that Warren’s appeal is too confined to the Democratic base could have been made without characterizing her base as “affluent,” this is hardly a “slam” and if it is, it’s a considerably generous one. Additionally, Warren was not singled out: The same document offers a suggested script to read to Pete Buttigieg and Joe Biden supporters, and they’re far less charitable. (Buttigieg’s lack of support among black voters was highlighted, while the lack of enthusiasm and considerable baggage was Biden’s Achilles heel.)
This calamity does nothing for the Warren campaign, and the attempts at damage control look absurd coming from the Sanders camp. The only candidates and constituents benefiting from this are centrists and moderates in the Democratic party, who are more than happy to watch the two most progressive candidates in the presidential race grab scuffle over utter nonsense.
There has been a bit of an unspoken armistice between the Sanders and Warren camp, perhaps due to the senators’ relationship with each other and their ideological similarities. But this is still a campaign, and differentiating oneself from a top competitor isn’t sacrilege. If the script is what going negative looks like, then this is a mild campaign season that makes contentious Democratic primaries of yore—2008, for example—look utterly ruthless in comparison.