In the Democratic Primary, It's Time to Accept—No, Embrace—the Attacks

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In the Democratic Primary, It's Time to Accept&#8212;No, <i>Embrace</i>&#8212;the Attacks

This was inevitable, and anyone who thought it wasn’t is crazy. Back in June, when the first Democratic primary debates took place, things were largely peaceful. There were a few snipes and memorable one-liners here and there, but mostly it was about attacking Trump and pushing the line that any Democrat would be better. It was a superficial act of theater, and most people watching knew it. In my estimation, the “winners” of that meaningless debate were Booker, Castro, DeBlasio, Warren. Six months later, three of them are out, and the fourth is staggering to the finish line in Iowa.

The point is, peace and unity are fine six months away from the first caucus, but the corresponding displays are eminently forgettable, and make zero impact on the voting public. Now, here in mid-January, we’re exactly three weeks away from the Iowa caucuses, the race is agonizingly close, and the candidates with a legitimate shot can taste it. It is 100% inevitable, just as it has been in every primary and presidential race in American history, that things are going to get more aggressive. That immutable truth became even more urgent when a new Des Moines Register poll came out showing Bernie Sanders was in the lead, albeit marginally—at that point, you knew the candidate who usually gets the short end of the stick was about to walloped mercilessly for a month straight.

Ironically, the current line of attack, for as long as it lasts, seems be “Bernie’s attacking!” Politico fired the first salvo via a reporter who covers the Warren campaign, writing about a script allegedly used by Team Sanders when knocking on doors. Regarding Warren in particular, here’s the dirt:

The script instructs Sanders volunteers to tell voters leaning toward the Massachusetts senator that the “people who support her are highly-educated, more affluent people who are going to show up and vote Democratic no matter what” and that “she’s bringing no new bases into the Democratic Party.”

“I like Elizabeth Warren. [optional]” the script begins. “In fact, she’s my second choice. But here’s my concern about her.” It then pivots to the criticisms of Warren.

Beyond being true, these “attacks” are incredibly tame even by primary standards, and, of course, impossibly polite compared to what Trump would drudge up in a general election. Interestingly, Warren opted to play up the aggression, and was on hand to scold Bernie for “trashing” her. The video was quickly tweeted out by the same reporter who wrote the story:

Meanwhile, her surrogates went further, with one telling the NYT that it “doesn’t surprise me about Bernie…he went straight to the gutter with Hillary. More of the same.”

NBC News outlines the other recent devastating broadsides by Team Sanders (under the hilarious headline of “Bernie Sanders Goes on the Attack, Reviving Memories of 2016, with the even more hilarious partial byline of ‘Chuck Todd’), including:

On Saturday night — a day after the Des Moines Register poll showed Sanders narrowly leading the Dem race — his campaign blasted Joe Biden’s vote to authorize the Iraq war.

“It is appalling that after 18 years Joe Biden still refuses to admit he was dead wrong on the Iraq War, the worst foreign policy blunder in modern American history,” said senior adviser Jeff Weaver in a statement from the campaign.


On Sunday morning, Nina Turner, the national co-chair of Sanders’ campaign, went after Biden on the issue of race in South Carolina.

“Will our community side with former Vice President Joe Biden, who has repeatedly betrayed black voters to side with Republican lawmakers and undermine our progress?” Turner wrote in a published op-ed in South Carolina’s The State newspaper.

Again, anyone who doesn’t think this is fair game is living in a fantasy-world, and that’s doubly true if anyone thinks these kinds of “attacks” are novel or new in Democratic primaries, or were invented by Bernie Sanders.

That said, what’s good for the goose is good for the gander, and Sanders supporters need to accept the attacks by turn. Anything that puts a dent in him in the primary will be run back for the general election, and this should be viewed as a useful stress-test. If it’s a stress-test he fails, then maybe he wasn’t strong enough in the first place. Which doesn’t mean either side should refrain from fighting the contentions—just as Sanders should outline why it’s important to point out differences between the candidates, Warren should explain why she can expand the base, and Biden should defend himself on Iraq and racial policy.

But voters, too, bear a responsibility. It’s no coincidence that the other candidates are attempting to shine a light on Bernie’s “meanness” just before a caucus. The institution of the caucus is a godawful relic that should have been put to death years ago, and success in each individual precinct is largely a measure of the relative charisma of the surrogates at that precinct. When a candidate is not “viable” on first count because his or her supporters can’t reach the minimum threshold, everyone supporting that candidate is then allowed to re-align with one of the viable candidates. Warren is pitching herself as a “unity” candidate, and by painting Sanders as a mean man, she’s hoping that when the time comes for caucus re-alignment, the potentially nonviable supporters of candidates like Klobuchar and Bloomberg and maybe even Buttigieg will see Sanders as the arch-demon of the race, the bad guy who was mean to their preferred candidate, and subsequently come to Warren’s side.

It’s not a bad strategy…cynical, but it makes some sense on paper. And yet I can’t help but think that playing the victim, throwing your hands up and appearing helpless against the onslaughts of an opponent, won’t play quite as well with the voting public as Warren believes. It isn’t just Republican voters who crave strength in their candidates, but then again, when the numbers look iffy, it’s probably time for extreme measures.

Which is all part of the game. Attacks are going to happen, and over the next month and for as long as the primary is competitive, they will get worse. There is no such thing as unity in a political race, and though this point has been made often, it bears repeating: Primaries are about sussing out the differences between political candidates, learning where their policies diverge, and learning how they run a campaign. The whining needs to stop—this is what’s supposed to happen.