January’s debate, the first in a long year of debating, ended on a sad and ominous note for many progressives. “I think you called me a liar on national TV,” Ms. Warren told Mr. Sanders after the presidential debate in Des Moines on Tuesday night. She said these words while rejecting Sander’s outstretched hand for a handshake. The tension between the two had been building for days ahead of the debate over Warren’s accusation that Sanders told her once that he didn’t think a woman could win the Presidency. Warren used the debate to push the drama into the forefront of the news cycle for a few days afterward. Unfortunately, the dust-up has confirmed something that should concern all of Warren’s fans: she is not good at pulling off political attacks in general. This spat with Sanders is yet another misfire in a long string of ill-conceived attacks.
Just think back on her prior history. One time, Warren took a DNA test in response to Trump calling her a racist epithet, and the DNA test came back demonstrating the validity of Trump’s attack. Warren did not realize that the endeavor had backfired completely and went on to ask for Trump to pay up regarding a bet he had wagered. It was only when several prominent leaders in Native American communities expressed concern and anger about Warren’s actions that she asked for forgiveness.
Another time, when she briefly held the lead in the polls last October, she was confronted on stage during a debate with the demand for an answer to the question: how would she pay for her healthcare plan? She was unable to answer the question. Amy Klobuchar, in particular, hammered into Warren on this point. After all, Warren had spent the last few months touting her various plans for the economy, education, and immigration, among other topics. She had become well known for all of her plans. But when she was asked about the basics of her plan, she was not able to answer, and that cast doubt on the reliability of all of her previous plans. Finally, a few weeks later, Warren announced her answer to the question along with a revised healthcare plan: she would tax the wealthy and not raise taxes on the middle class. Importantly, however, she also introduced a transition plan which would move the nation incrementally toward medicare for all, instead of going directly to Medicare For All from where we are now. There would be a period of expanded Obamacare, then a transition period where a single-payer option would exist alongside private options, then after all of that, Medicare For All would be implemented. Many progressives felt betrayed. This was a step back from the full-throated support for Medicare For All that Warren had vocalized in the past. That attempt to thread the political needle roiled her more moderate rivals, who said she was waffling, while worrying some on the left, who saw Warren’s commitment to a single-payer system wavering. It was a lose-lose situation for Warren.
In another attack that actually was half-way effective, Warren managed to take Buttigieg down a notch or two with a scathing remark about a fundraiser he held in a wine cave. Here are Warren’s full remarks:
“So, the mayor just recently had a fundraiser that was held in a wine cave, full of crystals, and served $900-a-bottle wine. Think about who comes to that. He had promised that every fundraiser he would do would be open-door, but this one was closed-door. We made the decision many years ago that rich people in smoke-filled rooms would not pick the next president of the United States.”
To this, Buttigieg simply responded, “You know, according to Forbes magazine, I’m literally the only person on this stage who is not a millionaire or a billionaire. So this is important. This is the problem with issuing purity tests you cannot yourself pass… Senator, your net worth is 100 times mine.”
Just like that, Warren was back on her heels, spending the next few segments of her time defending herself and talking about how she doesn’t take money from large donors either. Tactically, Buttigieg had her back on the defensive almost immediately. What made the wine cave attack successful, however, had less to do with Warren’s delivery and more to do with Buttigieg himself. Still, the debate about wine cave access only raged for a few days before dying out. Buttigieg’s popularity in the polls continued to climb, and Warren’s continued to fall.
And now Warren has turned on Bernie Sanders, her major ally and friend. Here is the basic context of the current dust-up: Sanders and Warren are personal friends who share similar political goals and view each other as being on the same team. In 2015, Bernie had actually been part of a group of politicians who were outsiders in relation to the dominant Obama-Clinton power structure who had encouraged Warren to run against Clinton. This friendship led them to have an unofficial truce to generally not attack each other, which you can see in earlier debates. Importantly, the candidates followed this but their supporters (particularly the Bernie supporters) did not.
That brings us to the events of the past few weeks: Notes given by the Bernie campaign to canvassers were revealed publicly with talking points against Warren that emphasized how her base was mostly white and highly educated. Warren’s campaign took offense to this and Warren stated in interviews that she was disappointed she was being “trashed” by Bernie. A few days later and a few days before the debate, three of Warren’s campaign aides leaked to CNN that Bernie had told Warren in a private conversation in 2018 that a woman would not be able to win the presidency. Sanders’ campaign denied this accusation and demanded Warren make a statement saying it wasn’t true. Warren released a statement doubling down and saying it was true. The debate occurred and the issue was revisited in the suboptimal CNN way, then given an extra media cycle due to the heated exchange between Warren and Sanders after the debate ended, captured on mic, where Warren refused to shake Sanders’ hand and each accused the other of calling them a liar on national TV.
Over the past few days, the tiff seems to have died down. But it is still unclear what Warren’s goal was or what she accomplished from the ordeal. Sanders does not seem to have been hurt by the situation. He simply ignored and downplayed the controversy for the rest of the week, and now, with tensions relaxing, it’s clear that Sanders’ strategy has effectively weathered Warren’s aggression. Ironically, many progressives have been endorsing Sanders in recent days. The drama has not finished playing out completely, but already it seems as though Warren has demonstrated yet again her inability to launch well thought out and shrewdly executed political attacks.
A lack of skill in political attacks is a major flaw for any candidate for president to have, let alone a candidate who will go up against Trump. Warren has already sparred with Trump, and she came away from the confrontation well bloodied. It’s not clear that her skills have improved over the past year. Unless she learns to throw a punch soon, she won’t stand a chance in the general election, even if she does win the nomination.