Can Democrats Keep Things Friendly?

In Iowa, Sanders surrogates take diverging paths responding to establishment snubs.

WATERLOO—If you were an East Iowa Democrat looking for a presidential rally to attend at about 7 p.m. Saturday night, you had a few options available.

At that moment, you could’ve been at the National Cattle Congress in Waterloo, listening to freshman Rep. Abby Finkenauer and former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack warm up a receptive crowd for Joe Biden.

“Growing up here in Iowa and in this country, we were never promised it was going to be easy,” Finkenauer told the (mostly older) audience of about 350. “But we were promised that if you work hard, you can make it. … That is what we have to fight for, and what we know Joe Biden as our next president will think about every single day in that White House.”

Or, you could’ve been 50 miles southeast at the U.S. Cellular Center in Cedar Rapids, where a raucous crowd of 3,000 young people had gathered to see indie band Vampire Weekend play and hear Sen. Bernie Sanders speak, accompanied by a who’s who of national progressive activists—Susan Sarandon, Cornel West, Rep. Ilhan Omar—who, at that moment, were experiencing a highly energetic speech from filmmaker Michael Moore.

“Next time you hear a pundit say that on TV, Bernie can’t win, what they’re really saying is: We don’t want Bernie to win. Of course you don’t want Bernie to win!” Moore yelled. “It’s not that Bernie can’t win, they’re actually saying”—here Moore’s voice climbed an octave into a petulant wail—“BERNIE CAN’T WIN! PLEASE! NO! NO-O-O-O!”

Presented with those options, not many Iowans would have found it hard to pick. The Waterloo folks, as a rule, would’ve found the Cedar Rapids event jarring and unsettlingly iconoclastic; the Cedar Rapids crowd would’ve found the Waterloo event trite and unbearably dull.

For the last few months, that’s been okay—Iowa going into a presidential election year is an all-you-can-eat buffet of political content, and nobody in the state has gone hungry. But all that changes tonight, as Democrats convene in each of the state’s 1,681 precincts to begin the process of hashing out which single candidate will carry their torch forward in November—and how they’ll settle on one without rekindling the internal angst that many still believe damaged their chances in 2016.

In the early going, it didn’t look like this would be an issue. It seemed like everyone agreed that nothing was more important than beating Donald Trump in November. Outwardly, Democrats remain bullish on the issue—at the Waterloo event, Vilsack told The Dispatch that “I think Democrats learned a lesson in 2016.”

But as tonight’s caucuses have drawn nearer and nearer—and as Sanders has crept out to a lead in the polls—traces of the bad blood have started to creep back in. Hillary Clinton has spent a good chunk of the past month sounding off about Sanders—telling The Hollywood Reporter that “nobody likes him, nobody wants to work with him” and blaming him for party disunity on the “Your Primary Playlist” podcast.

Then, just yesterday, former Secretary of State John Kerry, a leading Biden surrogate in Iowa, was overheard talking on the phone about the worrisome possibility of “Bernie Sanders taking down the Democratic party—down whole.” We’re not to open war yet, but we’re getting there.

All this has left the Sanders campaign in a bit of a bind. On the one hand, talking straight with supporters is a huge part of the brand, and both staffers and supporters are indignant that Hillary would take potshots from the sidelines. On the other, they suspect that they’re being baited by establishment types who want to put the battle of the primary back on their own home turf: away from policy issues like free public college and single-payer health care, where the rest of the pack has been playing catch-up to Bernie, and back toward questions of civility and decorum that cast him as a party outsider.

This tension has resulted in some mixed messaging from Sanders surrogates. On the one hand, you’ve got Moore railing against “corporate Democrats” and Clinton and the DNC, and Rep. Rashida Tlaib, who encouraged a Des Moines crowd to boo Clinton on Friday night. (Tlaib later apologized, saying she “allowed my disappointment with Secretary Clinton’s latest comments about Senator Sanders and his supporters [to] get the best of me.”)

On the other, you’ve got surrogates like Rep. Mark Pocan—the Wisconsin congressman who chairs the Congressional Progressive Caucus, and who spoke at Sanders’ Super Bowl party in Des Moines on Sunday night. In his speech, Pocan characterized Trump’s takeover of the Rust Belt in 2016 as a cautionary tale of what can happen when Democratic candidates fail to energize their base, but avoided mentioning Clinton by name. And when asked about Moore’s rhetoric specifically, Pocan was dismissive: “I think people at the doors in Iowa aren’t talking about that,” he said. “They’re talking about the need for health care, the need for good-paying, family-supporting jobs, talking about the Green New Deal, talking about those kinds of ideas. And that’s why they’re going to go caucus. And I think the rest is just a lot of chatter.”  

That sentiment was echoed again and again at Sanders events over the weekend. “What I’ve seen of Sanders is, he stays on message, and he makes it about the issues we’re most concerned about,” said Daniel, an American living in Germany who flew to Iowa last week to knock doors for the campaign. “I think a lot of people are sick of this politics of manners, and who offended who, when people are actually really here suffering and communities are falling apart, and the economic inequality is growing, and we’re seeing the Midwest deteriorating. … I think there are a lot more real pressing issues that we’ve got to deal with.”

Grant Wilson, a sales rep in Des Moines, praised Sanders for playing a clean game in the primary—“I don’t hear much about him bashing other candidates”—and for trying to de-escalate after Hillary’s comments: “I thought he handled it well. … I thought it was really funny when he said ‘my wife on a good day likes me, you know.’ ”

It’s important to note that the “Sanders vs. the moderates” narrative that permeates coverage of these intraparty squabbles is in a sense asymmetrical. It’s true, for instance, that Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden are the most prominent representatives of the party’s two wings—but neither Biden nor the bulk of Biden’s supporters seem particularly concerned with any threat Sanders poses to party unity. Speaking at the Waterloo event, Biden stuck to criticizing Sanders for the budget-busting nature of his policy agenda. Several voters in the audience told me they thought Sanders was too far left to beat Donald Trump, or that they preferred Biden to Sanders because his executive experience would help him hit the ground running once he took office, but none mentioned Sanders’ supposed refusal to play nice as part of their calculations. Talking to them, it was easy to believe Rep. Pocan’s assertion that that narrative was being kept on life support by a drama-hungry pundit class.

There is one candidate, however, who has been leaning into the narrative that Bernie can’t win because he is not a unifier: Elizabeth Warren, whose closing pitch in Iowa has been that she is the single candidate with the demeanor and agenda to stitch a fragmented party back together. “I’ve been building a campaign from the beginning that is not a campaign that’s narrow, not a campaign that says it’s us and nobody else,” Warren told voters at Coe College in Cedar Rapids, in what Politico noted was a rare deviation from her ordinary stump speech. “It’s a campaign that says, come on in, because we are in this fight together.” It’s an odd quirk of the Iowa cycle that a candidate who spend much of 2019 matching Bernie blow-for-blow on leftist policies has now maneuvered to a place where she could assume the Clinton role—but perhaps the increasing relitigation of 2016 made it necessary that somebody would.

It’s a fine balance for candidates to strike: Subtly working to pull each other down while refraining from sowing enough bad feeling to keep voters feeling factional in the general. After a year of that jockeying, the voters start to take their own turn tonight.

Photograph of Bernie Sanders at a rally in Perry, Iowa, on January 26 by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images.