Intelligencer staffers Gabriel Debenedetti, Benjamin Hart, and Margaret Hartmann discuss the pros and cons of internecine primary warfare.
Ben: Gabe, you wrote today that the Elizabeth Warren–Bernie Sanders Nonaggression Pact of 2019 is beginning to crumble, as Warren eats into Bernie’s hold on progressive voters, and the Sanders campaign (if not the candidate himself) scrambles to distinguish himself from her. This was probably inevitable, since the two candidates are, after all, competing with each other in a high-stakes race for the most important job in the country. And it got me thinking about the primary in general. Most candidates have so far held back on harsh criticism directed at one another, preferring to focus all their fire on President Trump and Republicans. But how realistic is it to have a 23-person contest in which things don’t get a little down and dirty?
Gabriel: I think a lot of our thinking about this is skewed by Dems’ 2016 experience, which is widely remembered as extremely nasty. In reality, the candidates didn’t go after each other a ton in personal terms — or at least not as intensely as we’ve seen in previous cycles. But the commentary around the primary got very personal, and very, for lack of a better word, mean.
But now these candidates widely believe that the Dem electorate doesn’t want to see a tough fight, they want them united to beat Trump. So when we see a bunch of candidates take on Biden at once, like yesterday, that, to me, is evidence that the candidates are willing to push the limits of “niceness” in their attacks. No one is calling Biden a racist, and no one is trying to get him out of the race. They’re asking him to apologize, which by the standards of this primary is on the edge.
Let me be clear that the 2016 Dem experience is obviously very different from the GOP one. No one is going to go full Trump, with nicknames and rumor-mongering, in this primary because the Dem electorate has no interest in that.
Margaret: Yeah, I think the idea that they were going to be nice throughout it was entirely unrealistic. I’m actually surprised it’s taken them this long to start lobbing attacks at each other, particularly when Biden is out there saying some pretty retrograde stuff.
Gabriel: The interesting thing with these “attacks,” though, is that they aren’t all that personal (yet?). They’re about past votes or quotes, not about, like, Biden’s integrity as a human being.
Margaret: Yeah, that’s very true.
Gabriel: That was one of the reasons 2016 got so touchy between the candidates, actually — because Clinton thought Sanders was accusing her of being corrupt, even though he never explicitly said so.
Margaret: Bernie’s remark about Warren last night seemed the least “nice” to me, and it wasn’t quite as bad when you got past the “people would like to see a woman elected” headline.
Ben: I agree that 2016 was more about the animosity between the fan bases than between the candidates themselves
Margaret: Right, it’s kind of weird we perceive the Clinton-Sanders dispute as being nasty when we also had Trump out there making jabs about “size” and low-energy Jeb.
Ben: I think we view Republicans as being in a different universe with this stuff, which is true.
Margaret: What is the nastiest thing Bernie actually said to Hillary? I can’t think of it.
Ben: “You corporate neoliberal sellout.” Wait, he didn’t say that.
Gabriel: In her team’s eyes, it was when he called her unqualified. But listen, as our colleague Josh Barro tweeted this afternoon, it’s weird that people act slightly precious about attacks. This is what primaries are about! Someone has to win! So of course it will be more aggressive than it is now. It’s so early. Doesn’t mean everyone will suddenly turn into Mike Gravel’s Twitter persona, but drawing contrasts is the whole point of a primary, and if you are desperate to break through, that’s what you do.
Margaret: Is it bad I kind of like it? Probably yes! I think I’m just tired of them edging around each other and I’m eager to see them actually engage at the debate. I predict I’ll be over it by 11 p.m. next Thursday.
Ben: There’s a common belief that tough primaries are ultimately good for the candidate who survives them, since they’re exposed to attacks that toughen them up for the general election. Do you agree with that calculation? Is there a possible downside if things get too nasty in terms of being properly equipped to take on the Dems’ real adversary, Donald J. Trump?
Gabriel: Of course! If the eventual nominee is so poisoned with part of the Dem electorate after the primary that they won’t turn out, that’s the ball game. That’s the central concern, after all, with nasty primaries. I think the question for the next few months is whether the candidates have calculated that party voters are so likely to turn out in historic numbers that this is basically not going to happen, no matter what?
That may be part of the reasoning now in how many of them go after Biden — that they think even if he is the nominee, even if they don’t love him, voters will still back him, because no matter what, they hate Trump more. But, uh, this all sounds familiar, doesn’t it?
Ben: I fear we’re going to have a lot of panic-inducing “this all sounds familiar” moments in the next 17 months.
Gabriel: Fun fact: 2016 is the only election that’s ever happened, or ever will.
Ben: It’s actually still 2016, and you’ve always been the caretaker.
Margaret: I think it can go both ways. My general feeling is that the tough race helped Obama in ’08 and hurt Hillary in ’16.
Ben: I agree, because the soulless insider image of her was solidified, and that never went away.
Margaret: In this case I think (hope?) that a tough primary could help someone like Elizabeth Warren. For a lot of voters, their concern with her is electability. If she can survive a hearty attack from fellow Democrats, I think people will be way more convinced that she can take on Trump. I’ve become way less confident in Biden’s ability versus Trump (though the polls don’t reflect this) because he’s already mishandling, in my view, these controversies that are cropping up.
Ben: If, as we expect, the comity begins to fade among the Democratic candidates, are there are any incipient rivalries you see forming other than Warren-Sanders?
Margaret: Well, Booker is going for Biden. Seems like he’s going to press him hard on his racial baggage.
Gabriel: I have a story coming soon that touches on this, but it basically depends on who candidates perceive to be atop their lane, insofar as lanes exist. Short answer: for right now, everyone versus Biden.
Margaret: I guess if he can fight ’em all off, I should be confident about his ability to take on Trump.
Ben: But no preexisting feuds that might break out into the open regardless of poll placement?
Gabriel: Well, everyone knows about the long and painful rivalry between Marianne Williamson and John Delaney, right? (No, nothing like that.)
Ben: I guess vaccines, Williamson’s primary enemy at the moment, aren’t technically a candidate.