DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) – 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: â€œMedicare for All,â€ tuition-free college and a â€œGreen New Dealâ€ to combat climate change.
Now the raceâ€™s most progressive candidates are fighting over the politics of gender, and regardless of who prevails, the partyâ€™s most liberal wing is nervous the ensuing fallout could torpedo once-ascendant progressive ideals. Thatâ€™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 pragmatic policy solutions. It could also end up helping President Donald Trumpâ€™s reelection bid.
In an interview Wednesday, Sandersâ€™ wife, Jane Oâ€™Meara Sanders, downplayed lasting repercussions.
â€œOur campaign has always been about bringing people together. Not dividing them up like Trump does by gender, race or ethnicity,â€ said Oâ€™Meara Sanders, who defended her husband but also refused to criticize Warren. â€œWe remain committed to continuing a progressive movement made up of women and men, black and white, gay and straight. The message is unity. Weâ€™re not going to go into that realm. Weâ€™re just not going to play that game.â€
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 Trumpâ€™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 they may not see again.
â€œTo 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,â€ said Jeff Weaver, Sandersâ€™ chief adviser.
In the meantime, all of this is â€œdividing the left and pitting the two progressives in the race against each other at a time where we canâ€™t afford division,â€ said Alice Nascimento, a progressive activist in New York who has been leading protests against Buttigieg in recent weeks.
â€œIâ€™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,â€ 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 Tuesdayâ€™s presidential debate in Iowa.
Warren seemed to win the eveningâ€™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 Sandersâ€™ outstretched hand after the debate, indicating that hard feelings remain.
Oâ€™Meara Sanders shrugged that off a day later, saying, â€œI think that this discussion is overâ€ and â€œMaybe people sometimes misremember things that happened.” She was quick to add: â€œIâ€™m not attacking Elizabeth Warren in any way shape or form on this.â€
Adam Green, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee and a top Warren backer, struck a similar tone, saying that a few minutes of awkward debate moments donâ€™t overshadow the progressive agenda Sanders and Warren mutually champion.
â€œLeft to the campaignsâ€™ own devices, thereâ€™s zero interest in drama and a joint interest in stating a shared theory of the caseâ€ for progressive visions of the future, 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 behind their preferred candidate might now be so antagonized that they wonâ€™t back her under any circumstances. And the reserve may be true for Warren partisans.
â€œPeople have been thinking everyoneâ€™s progressive if they have progressive positions,â€ said Sanders confidante RoseAnn DeMoro, the former executive director of National Nurses United. â€œItâ€™s a defining moment of what it means to be progressive.â€
It also might again raise long-standing liabilities that have surrounded both candidates: past accusations of sexism during Sandersâ€™ 2016 campaign that some Democrats are still wary of, and Warrenâ€™s overall authenticity. Trump calling the Massachusetts senator â€œPocahontasâ€ to fire up Republicans who werenâ€™t going to support her anyway may not be nearly as serious as progressives who think sheâ€™s lying about the 2018 meeting with Sanders.
David Axelrod, who ran Barack Obama’s presidential campaigns, said friction was inevitable because Warren and Sanders were long â€œon a collision courseâ€ as both tried to consolidate support on the left.
Still, â€œIf you antagonize the other personâ€™s supporters, it has lasting impact on you,â€ Axelrod said, adding â€œTo the extent that theyâ€™re dividing the (progressive) base, it probably rebounds to the benefit of others.â€
Others see feuding that causes shifting support within the party as potentially weakening the Democrats’ overall electoral case.
â€œWe canâ€™t have it,â€ said Terry McAuliffe, a former Virginia governor and one-time national party chairman who considered a 2020 bid himself. The hope, McAuliffe said, is that the coalescing priority of defeating Trump supersedes any primary tension.
â€œThis is different than what we had in â€™16 in that people want to beat Trump,â€ McAuliffe said. â€œThatâ€™s a motivating factor for all of us to come together.â€
Weissert and Peoples reported from Washington. Associated Press writer Bill Barrow contributed to this report from Des Moines, Iowa.
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