On the menu today: On the eve of the last debate before the Iowa caucuses, Elizabeth Warren accuses Bernie Sanders of saying a woman can’t beat Donald Trump; as Cory Booker departs the race, most Democratic candidates demonstrate that they learned the wrong lessons from 2016; the outlook grows darker for the Iranian mullahs; and the weirder bits and pieces of Sanders’s life.
Elizabeth Warren Tries to Nuke Bernie Sanders
Elizabeth Warren, back in July, discussing her friendship with Bernie Sanders: “Bernie and I have been friends for a long, long time,” said Warren in an interview, insisting their civil relationship will carry over to the debate stage. “I can’t imagine why it wouldn’t.”
Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts said on Monday night that Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont told her in 2018 he did not think a woman could win the presidency. Ms. Warren’s description of the comment, from a private one-on-one meeting, represents a remarkable salvo at her leading liberal rival in the 2020 race just three weeks before the Iowa caucuses.
Mr. Sanders vehemently denied making the remark earlier on Monday and accused the Warren campaign staff of “lying” about it, in a statement intended to refute a news report by CNN that relied on anonymous sources. The New York Times and other outlets confirmed the CNN report on Monday afternoon, while the Warren campaign initially declined to comment.
I find myself in the odd position of feeling like Heath Ledger’s Joker. This was his assessment of the ethics of the people of Gotham City: “See, their morals, their ‘code’? It’s a bad joke, dropped at the first sign of trouble. They’re only as good as the world allows them to be. I’ll show you. When the chips are down, these, uh, these ‘civilized people,’ they’ll eat each other. See, I’m not a monster. I’m just ahead of the curve . . .”
As for whether it’s true, we’re in the odd situation where this is the sort of thing Sanders would say and simultaneously the sort of thing Warren would lie about. It’s extremely easy to believe Sanders would express some concern that a woman candidate might have a tougher time beating Trump. Then again, we’ve only seen one woman run against Trump, and she was pretty flawed. And even she came within 80,000 votes in three states of winning.
Maybe this is just a reflection of the cynical opportunism that will inevitably manifest itself in a hard-fought presidential primary. Then again, we’ve all seen how easygoing and lenient outspoken progressives are when someone expresses something that challenges their beliefs. The most zealous on the left see everything in politics through a personal lens and a rather Manichean worldview, despite their ardent belief that they’re the sophisticated thinkers who appreciate nuance. Think about what has to be going through Warren’s mind for her to unveil this charge at this moment. She knows darn well what the likely consequences of this are. This is going to be a big issue in tonight’s debate, and there’s a good chance that Sanders will lose some support among women. What’s more, there’s no guarantee that those voters will shift to Warren; the biggest beneficiary of this fight might well be Joe Biden. Sanders has spent his whole life working toward this moment, and now she’s kneecapping him, gambling that this helps her and not the aging centrist that they both would prefer to defeat. There’s no going back to being friends after this.
Bernie Sanders may seem like a good progressive, but if he ever uttered something that Warren construed as sexist or anti-feminist, he must be destroyed at the right time — years of friendship and shared political efforts be damned. Then again, she probably feels like Sanders has it coming, because in her mind he broke the truce and had his volunteers use those anti-Warren talking points.
Amazingly, after sticking the shiv between Sanders’ ribs, Warren then tried to downplay the importance of what she just said:
“Among the topics that came up was what would happen if Democrats nominated a female candidate. I thought a woman could win; he disagreed,” she said. “I have no interest in discussing this private meeting any further because Bernie and I have far more in common than our differences on punditry.” She added that she and Mr. Sanders were “friends and allies” and said she believed they would continue to work together to beat Mr. Trump.
Most of the 2020 Democrats Did Not Heed the Hard Lessons of 2016
As mentioned above, there’s a debate tonight — 9 p.m. Eastern, featuring Biden, Sanders, Warren, Pete Buttigieg, Tom Steyer, Amy Klobuchar . . . and that’s it. No Andrew Yang, no Tulsi Gabbard, no Michael Bloomberg, no Michael Bennet, no John Delaney, no Deval Patrick. Folks like me who complained that the crowded debate stage meant that almost no actual debating occurred will finally get a reasonably contained six-candidate stage.
From where I sit, the theme of the 2020 Democratic presidential primary is that a lot of the “rising stars” in the Democratic party — Kirsten Gillibrand, Kamala Harris, Beto O’Rourke, Julian Castro, Cory Booker — were paper tigers.
A grand total of 29 Democrats of varying stature looked at Donald Trump’s victory in 2016 and concluded: “why not me?” But that was entirely the wrong lesson to take; Trump entered the 2016 GOP presidential primary with 99.2 percent name recognition, according to a survey commissioned by GOP consultant Liz Mair. What a lot of people who cover politics missed in 2015 and 2016 — including myself — was how much Trump’s image and reputation in the political realm had already been shaped by his fame in the cultural realm. It almost didn’t matter what Trump said or did as a candidate, because a lot of people felt like they already knew him — and that they had known him for a while. Since the 1980s, Trump had associated his personal brand with ostentatious wealth, luxury, and success. He had somehow convinced major news organizations that he was an all-purpose expert who made for a good interview, no matter the subject — in part because he was never boring.
CNN’s Larry King would regularly have Trump on and ask about the news of the day, like what the U.S. government should be doing about Somali pirates — as if the Manhattan real estate mogul was some sort of naval-warfare expert. On Fox News, Greta Van Susteren asked him how he would negotiate a deal to avoid a government shutdown. He was a frequent guest of Regis Philbin. Barbara Walters declared him one of her “most fascinating” people of 2011, alongside Kim Kardashian.
Trump was such a celebrity that entertainment shows like the late-night talk and comedy shows didn’t treat him like a presidential candidate, even after he started running. In November 2015, while Trump was running for president, Saturday Night Live invited him to guest host — a decision that cast member Taran Killam later said: “only grows more embarrassing and shameful as time goes on.” (And members of the media wonder why no one heeded their criticism of Trump in 2016.)
The lesson of 2016 was not: “If Donald Trump can become president, anybody can become president.” The lesson was: “If Donald Trump can become president, any celebrity who is already extremely famous and associated with popular things can become president.”
Most politicians are not well known, and many politicians have no idea how obscure they are or are in deep psychological denial about it. Why, everywhere they go, people recognize them! Yes, because they remember the one person at the airport who recognized them and everyone else sitting at the gate who didn’t — or who didn’t care that they were a former mayor or senator or congressman.
Running for president is hard. Only one person succeeds at it each cycle. Successful candidates have to figure out how to appeal to a lot of people who are not their natural supporters. Gillibrand, Harris, O’Rourke, Castro, Booker — most of these figures had thrived in fairly liberal parts of the country and hadn’t faced a tough primary fight in a long time. None of these figures entered the presidential race with the kind of skepticism they deserved. Because members of the mainstream media want to discover the next Bill Clinton or Barack Obama, they greet Democratic up-and-comers with an optimistic willingness to believe.
Some of these failed candidates might complain that media choices, the debate formats, and the well-established bases of support for Biden and Sanders didn’t allow fresher faces to thrive. But that gripe doesn’t hold water. Buttigieg and Yang were even more obscure when this cycle started, and they figured out a way to gain traction in this environment.
Meanwhile, in Iran . . .
Hey, remember last week, when all of those wise foreign-policy voices warned us that the U.S. strike on Soleimani had made our country isolated and strengthened the mullahs? Eh, never mind, apparently:
Britain, France and Germany triggered the dispute resolution mechanism in the 2015 Iran nuclear deal on Tuesday, a tough warning to Tehran and the first step toward reimposing further United Nations sanctions on Iran.
Triggering the dispute resolution mechanism will set the clock running on what could be some 60 days of negotiations with Iran about coming back into full compliance with the deal, and could end up with a “snapback” of United Nations sanctions on Iran, including an arms embargo.
CNN: “Though demonstrations were smaller on Monday and nearly outnumbered by riot police, some observers have already begun to wonder if this could be the beginning of the end for the current regime.”
The New York Times: “The bleak economy appears to be tempering the willingness of Iran to escalate hostilities with the United States, its leaders cognizant that war could profoundly worsen national fortunes. In recent months, public anger over joblessness, economic anxiety and corruption has emerged as a potentially existential threat to Iran’s hard-line regime.”
ADDENDUM: Yesterday’s piece on Bernie Sanders, and how he’s just about the last person in the world anyone would expect to be a top-tier Democratic presidential candidate, had a lot of bits and pieces that just didn’t fit in the final draft: his long-ago complaint about fake news, his 1987 folk album (no, really), his comparison of American lack of interest in voting to Apartheid South Africa, his call for massive defense cuts while keeping the pork-barrel spending coming to Vermont, and his astonishing write-in rate in the 2016 general election.