When Elizabeth Warren hosted Bernie Sanders at her place in Washington for a private meeting late on the second Wednesday of December, both senators finally came clean with what was, by that point, obvious but unspoken. They were almost certainly going to run for president. Neither tried dissuading the other — they’d long been allies on Capitol Hill, a political friendship more than a deep personal one, though little like the rivalry that many on the outside assumed. But they did make one agreement, multiple senior Democrats briefed on the conversation confirmed to New York: Warren and Sanders would not go after each other directly on the campaign trail. That’s not what they wanted 2020 to be about.
Half a year of campaigning later, with the pair running second and third in the Democratic race to take on Donald Trump, that arrangement held. Then, on Wednesday, Politico shared a story on Wednesday by tweeting, “Centrists are coming around to Elizabeth Warren as an alternative to Bernie Sanders,” and Sanders responded by retweeting it from his account, noting, “The cat is out of the bag. The corporate wing of the Democratic Party is publicly ‘anybody but Bernie.’ They know our progressive agenda of Medicare for All, breaking up the big banks, taking on drug companies and raising wages is the real threat to the billionaire class.” Political Twitter perked up — here was a real shot in the war so many had so long expected — until Sanders went on CNN a few hours later to tell Chris Cuomo, “That tweet was not about Elizabeth Warren, at all.”
But this was the second rapid escalation and cleanup of the month. On June 7, U.S. News & World Report published a story quoting an anonymous Sanders adviser hacking at Warren’s prospects: “Warren fundamentally fails a basic threshold question: Can she beat Trump? Look at the general election polling. She does the worst of all candidates tested. That’s the DNA test debacle. It just fundamentally killed her. People want somebody who can beat Trump. She loses that argument.” After it appeared, Faiz Shakir texted Kristen Orthman, his former colleague in Harry Reid’s office. This doesn’t reflect Bernie’s thoughts, or mine, or the campaign’s official position, Shakir, now Sanders’s campaign manager, told Orthman, now Warren’s communications director and one of her closest advisers.
This was true: Sanders himself, true to form, only reads polls when his closest aides shove them in front of him, and he’s far more preoccupied with his own campaign’s social media metrics than the narrative that Warren is surging. But at least one of Sanders’s advisers had, in fact, felt strongly enough about Warren’s political threat to the Vermonter to make some noise. Others were starting to let their annoyance with the new “Warren rising” commentary be known with not-so-veiled tweets about how to interpret the polling, and others still were questioning internally why Sanders was choosing to give his big speech about defining democratic socialism now, in mid-June, when it would obviously be read as an acknowledgement of his fellow progressive’s new strength.
And, when the time came last week, it was: The Times quoted Barack Obama’s former communications director calling the speech — “a pretty clear indication he is feeling the heat from Elizabeth Warren’s recent momentum” — Sanders’s “attempt to reclaim the anticapitalist mantle he ran on in 2016” from her. The Washington Post’s preview warned it “could sharpen the contrast with Warren, who is increasingly battling Sanders for liberal voters.” The Week suggested “Bernie Sanders’ socialism speech might have been more about Elizabeth Warren than Trump.”
Bernie 2020 is now four months old, and as the senator’s team continues to wrestle with how, exactly, to shape the latest version of his appeal in a political landscape radically different from 2016’s, the campaign’s posture toward Warren — who Sanders used to call “my favorite senator,” and whose own consideration of a campaign in 2016 nearly kept Sanders from running, out of deference — remains one of its least settled matters.
Figuring out that posture would appear, from the outside, to be one of its most urgent matters. For months, Sanders was widely thought to be the clear second-place contender in the Democratic race, trailing only Joe Biden as Warren reeled, unable to gain a foothold. But in recent weeks, a new Iowa poll showed Warren and Sanders effectively tied, as did another in California, yet another in Texas, and one nationally. Separate new surveys in South Carolina and Nevada showed Warren ahead of Sanders, as did one national poll. She overtook him in mentions on cable news.
And, as might be expected, some on Team Sanders started pushing back. The U.S. News quote was the loudest articulation of an argument some Sanders allies have made behind the scenes — he’s electable, is she? — for weeks. The day after Warren hit the ground in Michigan for a campaign swing earlier this month, some Sanders aides started recirculating an internal Michigan and midwestern polling memo showing his strength in the region, specifically pointing out how in a new poll Warren trailed Trump among independents.
Often, when reporters note that Warren has invested in a huge Iowa organizing operation, Sanders allies point out that he has over 25,000 volunteers on the ground there. And even if you accept that Warren’s numbers are improving, they say, the pair is still essentially tied — she’s not suddenly winning. “They’re fucking unnerved and grasping at straws. [But] frankly if they’re not nervous, they’re out of touch,” one former Sanders 2016 aide, who is unaligned with a candidate in 2020, said of Sanders’s campaign. “I don’t know how you can not be.”
Yet this is still not a consensus view in Sanders’s orbit — much of his team is far more hesitant to engage in any kind of fight with Warren, even implicitly. Many of them like Warren, and believe that the notion the candidates are on a collision course is a creation of the political media that misunderstands the candidates and their campaigns. This is the official line, and indeed many of his aides scoffed when the Times labeled a recent tweet from Sanders’s research director about Warren’s economic rhetoric an “attack.” Meanwhile, though it’s true Warren has hired some ex-Sanders aides for her 2020 bid — like Brendan Summers, Sanders’s former caucus director, and Kunoor Ojha, a senior organizing official — and that much of their messaging overlaps, many on Team Sanders are convinced that her rising numbers coincide more with polling slides for Biden and other candidates. In other words, she is not directly picking up Sanders voters.
“I think that there are certain number of people who would like to see a woman elected, and I understand that,” Sanders said on CNN when asked about Warren on Wednesday, before praising her. “There are people who would like to see somebody who was younger, and I understand that also. There are a lot of factors out there.”
On Monday, Sanders’s campaign sent around a memo from Shakir about Sanders’s polling strength: “In two new national polls, Sanders is one of only two candidates ahead of Trump. A separate poll shows Sanders with the largest lead against Trump of any 2020 Democrat,” it notes, without naming Warren, but later linking to a series of polls showing Sanders in second place, over her. “At the same time, while other competitors have improved their position in the Democratic primary, Sanders has maintained his second-place position in every national poll, and many state polls.” Last week, he took back second place in cable mentions from Warren.
Sanders’s big socialism speech, accordingly, was meant to do much more than just fight off Warren. The senator’s team entered the race with their first order of business to ensure as many of Sanders’s 2016 voters as possible were on his side again, and then to begin chipping into new blocks of voters, primarily older women and African-Americans. This was how his top advisers framed the challenge of 2020 to him at his first political planning session in D.C. in January 2018. As Sanders formally launched his 2020 bid, delivering a big speech about his vision for democratic socialism was always on the to-do list for this spring or summer, according to operatives familiar with the plan. The idea was to expand his appeal — including with older voters wary of the “socialism” tag — by explaining that his ideology really just entailed a natural extension of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s work, and demonstrating how Republicans have unsuccessfully attacked Democrats as “socialists” for decades. Speaking last week, he made this point by invoking Roosevelt, Truman, John F. Kennedy, Bill Clinton, and Obama, quoting Truman: “Socialism is their name for almost anything that helps all the people.” And Trump, he said, previewing what could be part of a general election argument, is the beneficiary of what he called corporate socialism.
But, running against 23 others, Sanders has had to spend more time than he expected on consolidating support among his 2016 voters, which has meant spending time drawing contrasts with his opponents, including Warren. “None of this campaign is based in reaction to another candidate. It is all based out of telling voters that Bernie Sanders has a unique philosophy, vision, and theory of change,” said Shakir. “And he’s gotta talk about that, and make [it] clear to voters. And hopefully they’ll understand that, and we’ll have to live with whatever the voters decide.”
But it wasn’t Sanders’s electability argument that generated the most response. The biggest applause of the afternoon, by far, came when Sanders unfurled a line designed to rile up those who were already inclined to support him, not the Sanders-curious.
“Never before in all our history have these forces been so united against one candidate as they stand today,” Sanders said, quoting Roosevelt, but acknowledging the parallels to today as the audience of supporters erupted in joy at the idea that Sanders stands alone. “They are unanimous in their hate for me, and I welcome their hatred.”
Sanders never talks explicitly about Warren, his closest ideological ally in the race, on the campaign trail. But he knows that any attempt to distance himself from the rest of the field comes with an implied shot at her, too, especially now. And now it’s late enough in the game that he’s okay with that.
“It’s a circumstance of timing. If Buttigieg was rising, or if Beto was rising, we’d still be giving the same speech. Same message,” said Shakir. “Maybe the lens with which the media sees it would be different.”