Littwin: The Warren-Bernie feud is about to be swept away in the impeachment war — or maybe not

Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders in a more congenial moment. A 'feud' between the two has since erupted.
DETROIT, MICHIGAN - JULY 30: Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) (R) and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) greet each other at the start of the Democratic Presidential Debate at the Fox Theatre July 30, 2019 in Detroit, Michigan. Both candidates say they support Medicare4All, which is expected to be a hot topic during round 3 of the Democratic primary debates on Sept. 12, 2019. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

(Updated at 9 p.m., Jan. 15)

We have to get this done quickly because it may be the last time in a while anyone outside of Iowa or New Hampshire will spend much time thinking about the 2020 Democratic primary — unless, that is, the Sanders-Warren flare-up starts burning out of control.

As I write this, Nancy Pelosi is naming the impeachment managers — including Colorado’s Jason Crow in a big moment for the rookie congressman — and the House voted to send the Articles of Impeachment to the Senate. In a few days, the trial begins. And unless four Republicans senators stand up to Donald Trump and Mitch McConnell, there won’t be any witnesses. (Pundits often list Cory Gardner as one of the potential rebels. I laugh each time I read that. It’s possible that he could eventually vote to hear witnesses, but I promise he won’t be the deciding vote.)

Whatever happens, the Senate trial will dominate the news. Already, the release of the explosive Lev Parnas documents was far more interesting than anything that happened during the debate, if not after. And the four senators in the race — and, yeah, I’m still counting Michael Bennet — will all be tied to their desks for the duration. Stealing here from political writer Walter Shapiro, you might call it house arrest if it weren’t happening in the Senate.

And yet. If the debate had none of the fireworks some were expecting/hoping for, they had only to wait until the debate ended for the real fireworks to begin. With the four polling leaders closely bunched, it’s basically impossible to predict what will happen in the caucuses, which are now less than three weeks away. But it is more than possible to predict that the audio CNN found of the Warren-Sanders exchange will play a key role. Progressive leaders are already begging the two sides to somehow get this thing behind them.

If you watched the debate, you probably saw the post-debate-handshake-that-wasn’t that surely got the Twittersphere in even more than the usual high dudgeon. It reminded me of the great John Sayles’ short story, The Anarchists’ Convention, in which a ballroom full of long-ago anarchists hilariously re-litigate every minor (but in their minds, irreconcilable) slight. But then it turned out that CNN has found audio of the exchange, in which Elizabeth Warren had accused Bernie Sanders of calling her a liar on national TV, after which Sanders accused her of calling him a liar.

You can pick your own side here, but it’s clear that Warren was angry and obviously believed she had been wronged by Sanders. Maybe it was a misunderstanding. Or not. Even if it was, history tells us where such misunderstandings can lead — and it’s often no place good. As the leading progressives in the race, they basically had a non-aggression pact that will be difficult now to put back in place.

Meanwhile, back at the actual debate, no one laid a glove on Joe Biden, or even tried to. There’s a reason for this. All of the Democrats are fairly popular with Dem voters. Attacking is dangerous. And besides Biden usually attacks himself with a series of verbal miscues. It must be good to be the frontrunner whom everyone basically ignores. 

Amy Klobuchar, the distant fifth polling contender, figured to go after Biden and Pete Buttigieg, her main competition in the moderate lane. She declined. They call this in the biz a missed opportunity. 

Mayor Pete was Mayor Pete — smart, in control, a good debater and, while that may be plenty, he did not dominate the stage in any way. I’ve pointed out before that the most successful recent Democrats were young Bill Clinton and young Barack Obama, who both campaigned on a vision of the future. I’m not clear at all on young Buttigieg’s vision except that his elders probably wouldn’t understand. (Was it just me, or did everyone else miss Andrew Yang on the stage?)

Tom Steyer? I feel like I’ve already said enough.

OK, that’s your roundup of the debate, which was only preliminary to the real fight. In case you missed any of the back story on the feud, it began with news that some Sanders’ canvassers had been instructed to say that Warren’s appeal is to educated elitists and won’t bring anyone new to the general election.

A few days later, Warren apparently struck back. Anyway, anonymous sources told CNN that in a 2018 meeting between Sanders and Warren, Sanders said something along the lines that woman couldn’t win the presidency. If he said it, or something like it, I’d be inclined to think it was commentary on whether a woman could beat Donald Trump and not on women as potential presidents.

When Sanders got the question, he defended himself ably, pointing to the fact that he deferred to Warren as a potential candidate in 2015 — she rejected the idea — before Sanders got into the race. He denied ever saying anything about women as presidential candidates.

When Warren got the question, she shifted the story quickly to the general issue of women as candidates in a moment that was the highlight of the debate. Warren noted that the only politicians on the stage who had never lost a race were the two women — Warren and Klobuchar. It was a clear take on the fact that many Dems are worried about a woman opposing Trump even though Hillary Clinton beat him soundly in the popular vote. Warren, who had slipped in the polls of late, needed something to charge her campaign. Pundits were mixed — not surprisingly — on whether the exchange helped or hurt.

And it looked like it was all over when the debate ended — that both candidates had handled the issue well.  But then Warren approached Sanders, ignored his outstretched hand and launched into what became a heated exchange. (Let me say here in full disclosure, as I’ve noted before, that my law-professor daughter was a Warren law student and protege and they remain close. Also, I had several social dinners with Warren and her law-professor husband, Bruce Mann, long before Warren became a politician.)

On Tuesday night, everyone was calling the brief conversation between Warren and Sanders tense, but no one at that point knew the half of it. I woke up to find my Twitter feed alive with Bernie-ites calling Warren a snake, adding multiple snake emojis for emphasis, and saying now they’d never support her while Warren supporters argued back about whether Sanders had hurt Clinton’s candidacy, with charges of sexism flying. Of course, Twitter is Twitter and then there’s the real world.

And that was all before we heard the audio, which means that in the real world both candidates will now have to address the issue. It’s anyone’s guess how either will play it or how voters will react. My guess is that once Trump’s Senate impeachment trial begins, it will be hard for much other news to break through. But now I’m wondering — as are many worried Democrats — if this will be the exception.

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  1. So many reasons to attack Trump and his minions, so little to be gained by quibbling among Democratic candidates. There are a variety of pundits listing “winners” of the debate and include Bloomberg, who wasn’t even in the room,

    Live audience for the first debates were something like 18 million one night, 15 million the next. The ratings for last night suggest 7.3 million or so tuned in “live.” That is hard to reconcile with CNN’s poll last month saying “Half the electorate (50%) say they are extremely enthusiastic about voting…That’s the highest percentage ever recorded in a CNN poll”

    The debates are not drawing in never Trump Republicans, don’t seem to be drawing in Obama/Trump voters who now regret their choice, don’t seem to be attracting the nonvoters from a variety of demographics which COULD push Democrats to success. So what are they doing to help determine “the best” choice for Democrats?

  2. There were only two people in the Sanders-Warren meeting. The only way anyone learns of what (supposedly) happened is because Warren went public, so she put this issue into play and Sanders, of course, defended himself. There is no other way to determine what happened and Warren knows this–it seems she decided to make this an issue for her own political reasons.

  3. The reason is pretty clear: Sanders edged ahead if her in the Iowa polls. In the debate before this one, she jumped the young Buttagieg for taking money from rich donors in a wine cave. And guess who was ahead in Iowa then? Does anybody seriously think that Sanders is a misogynist? .

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