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Sooner or Later, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren Must Part Ways

The camaraderie that the Democratic Party’s most progressive presidential contenders once espoused on the campaign trail is coming undone as the primary race tightens

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Bernie Sanders has few powerful allies in the Democratic Party. He’s been endorsed in the presidential election by first-term representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, and Rashida Tlaib, who build upon his left-wing agenda in Congress, but the Vermont senator remains largely at odds with his party’s establishment on many issues. He can, however, count one of his presidential rivals, Elizabeth Warren, as an ideological ally, even if they’ve been at odds with each other on the campaign trail recently. The Massachusetts senator echoes Sanders more enthusiastically than the other presidential candidates, including former vice president Joe Biden, former South Bend mayor Pete Buttigieg, and Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar.

Sanders has more powerful critics within his party than he’d likely bother to count. Hillary Clinton distrusts Sanders most notoriously: “Nobody likes him, nobody wants to work with him,” she said recently at the Sundance Film Festival while promoting an upcoming documentary series. Barack Obama reportedly regards Sanders with trepidation. Biden represents the party’s most formalized and formidable opposition to Sanders, presenting his candidacy as the ideal continuation of Obama’s legacy. Biden still polls highest among the remaining primary contenders, but he’s lost some confidence among his party’s leaders as he’s fumbled through various news cycles for the past year. Sanders, who has been surging in the polls in Iowa, New Hampshire, and Nevada, never earned their confidence in the first place.

Warren must distinguish herself from Sanders in a nomination contest so largely defined by his influence. She co-opted Sanders’s signature health care proposal, “Medicare for All”—Sanders, of course, “wrote the damn bill,” and by reclaiming his legislation with this humorous interjection, he reasserted himself as the mastermind in modern Democratic politics. At the start of the campaign, Warren and Sanders offered a unified front, united behind a shared progressive platform and fueled by anti-Biden desperation. The math complicates their camaraderie. Sanders leads Warren by nine points in Iowa, by 10 points in New Hampshire, and by eight points in national polls. Warren’s campaign risks a swift collapse if she loses Iowa and New Hampshire.

Earlier this month, CNN reported a December 2018 conversation in which Sanders privately warned Warren that a woman couldn’t beat President Donald Trump in the general election. Sanders denied the report when he was asked about it on stage during the most recent debate. After the debate, Warren confronted Sanders, saying he called her “a liar.” In doing so, Warren reinforced the distinction between their respective campaigns and, for once, engaged with Sanders directly, even if Sanders’s supporters viewed it as a traitorous act. It was a tense exchange that spelled the end of whatever nonaggression pact the two candidates seemed to be honoring, as leftists-in-arms, in the previous debates. Sanders hectors the bosses and the billionaires who favor his rivals in both parties. Warren hectors the bosses and the billionaires, too, but she also makes sentimental appeals to identity politics where Sanders would prefer to discuss inequality as class warfare. So Warren positions herself as a passionate progressive in contrast with the curmudgeonly, iconoclastic Sanders, both of whom are vying to take on the world’s most powerful bully, Trump.

Warren is courting voters who might have grown disenchanted with Clinton—especially after she lost the general election against Trump—but who also remain skeptical of Sanders’s promise to revolutionize the government. Biden describes bipartisan dealmaking; Sanders advocates for massive and unrelenting public pressure on Republicans as well as Democrats to overcome Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s opposition once and for all. Clinton derides Sanders’s manner of grassroots governance when she says, “Nobody wants to work with him,” and he’s gotten “nothing done” in his 29 years serving in Congress. Clinton insists Sanders is a legislator without legislation and commands nothing as effectively as he commands a campaign rally.

It’s a common critique that characterizes his appeal as something altogether distinct from national politics and presidential elections; it’s a passion in search of a purpose, which, Democratic leaders hope, can be easily reoriented in favor of a much more moderate candidate. The Atlantic’s David Frum, a Republican, wrote about the gamble Democrats would be taking if they nominate Sanders. “The Sanders campaign is a bet that the 2020 race can be won by mobilizing the Americans least committed to the political process while alienating and even offending the Americans most committed to it,” Frum said. He posits Sanders as a presidential candidate whose appeal exists entirely on paper as a list of potential achievements, which can be co-opted by any future Democratic presidential administration. “The ultimate winner will have to plagiarize from his campaign, copying not Sanders’s literal ideas, but his themes.” Though he chooses no favorites, Frum may as well be describing Warren’s campaign.

On Saturday, The Des Moines Register endorsed Warren, citing her reformist agenda, which is bolstered by her aggressive rhetoric about struggling workers and bloated corporations. “Warren has proven she is tough and fearless,” the editorial board wrote. “But toughness can also be perceived as divisive, as can rhetoric that vilifies the wealthy, lobbyists and corporations that employ millions of people. Relentless attack mode threatens to further fracture a country riven by party, income and racial divides.” The “relentless attack mode” against “the wealthy, lobbyists and corporations” defines not one, but two presidential campaigns. “Much like Warren, Bernie Sanders champions the working class,” the editorial board conceded. But, of course, there can be only one, and so allies become critics.