DES MOINES, IA – 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: “Medicare for All,” tuition-free college and a “Green New Deal” to combat climate change.
Now the race’s most progressive candidates are fighting over the politics of gender, and regardless of who prevails, the party’s most liberal wing is nervous the ensuing fallout could torpedo its once-ascendant ideals. That’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 centrist policy solutions. It could also end up helping President Donald Trump’s reelection bid.
In an interview Wednesday, Sanders’ wife, Jane O’Meara Sanders, downplayed lasting repercussions.
“Our campaign has always been about bringing people together. Not dividing them up like Trump does by gender, race or ethnicity,” said O’Meara Sanders, who defended her husband but also refused to criticize Warren. “We remain committed to continuing a progressive movement made up of women and men, black and white, gay and straight. The message is unity. We’re not going to go into that realm. We’re just not going to play that game.”
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 Trump’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 in Iowa and beyond whom they may not see again.
“To 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,” said Jeff Weaver, Sanders’ chief adviser.
In the meantime, all of this is “dividing the left and pitting the two progressives in the race against each other at a time where we can’t afford division,” said Alice Nascimento, a progressive activist in New York who has been leading protests against Buttigieg in recent weeks.