No one will be quite so pleased with the collapse of the Bernie Sanders-Elizabeth Warren non-aggression pact as Joe Biden. Maybe Pete Buttigieg will feel some sort of positive emotion, but it’s not all that easy to tell. The Sanders and Warren camps are in a significant tiff heading into the Democratic debate Tuesday night in Des Moines, less than three weeks out from the inexplicably important Iowa caucuses, and high-flying centrists Biden and Buttigieg look like the debate-stage residents most likely to benefit.
After a dispute over whether and/or how severely Sanders campaigners had gone negative on Warren, CNN cited anonymous sources to report on a private meeting between the two senator-friends back in 2018 where Sanders allegedly told Warren a woman could not win the presidency. This was a grenade dropped into the Online Primary electorate, a significant chunk of which still believes Sanders critically damaged Hillary Clinton’s campaign in 2016, and that misogyny—at least among his supporters—played some role. Sanders supporters deny that. Sanders himself denied this new claim, saying instead that he’d told Warren that, “Donald Trump is a sexist, a racist, and a liar who would weaponize whatever he could.”
Warren’s campaign went quiet on the issue until late on Monday, and it remains to be seen whether the candidate herself was involved in making this public. BuzzFeed News reports the campaign is trying to “de-escalate” the situation, though the damage appears done. When Warren did comment publicly, she couched the following in some talk about how they’re great friends fighting for the same things: “I thought a woman could win; he disagreed.”
This clashes with Sanders’ public record—he has long encouraged women to run for office and said a woman could be president—but it is possible he said this in private. It also seems possible he meant a female candidate would run up against the same misogyny in media coverage and public perception that was a factor in Hillary Clinton’s defeat, or—as he now claims—that Trump would weaponize these forces to his advantage once again. Biden, for his part, has made this real politik argument explicitly in public as part of his general electability pitch.
One weakness of that pitch was garnering some new scrutiny before the Bernie-Warren blowup, and that’s another reason the former veep is likely chuffed about the development. Biden has in recent months started to fudge the historical record on his vote for the Iraq War, the same vote that damaged Clinton in 2016. (Trump lied relentlessly about his supposed opposition to the war before it began, while slamming Clinton for her support.) Biden does not deny his vote outright, but he’s started to offer self-exonerating explanations for it. He’s said he thought the purpose of the resolution was just to get nuclear inspectors into Iraq. He’s said he turned against the war effort as soon as the Bush administration engaged in “shock and awe” early on in the invasion. After Sanders suggested that “it is appalling that after 18 years Joe Biden still refuses to admit he was dead wrong on the Iraq War,” Biden surrogate John Kerry said on Face The Nation this Sunday that Bernie was distorting Biden’s record.
But the fact is that in the lead-up, Biden backed the Bush line on WMD and floated the possibility Saddam Hussein could “share them with terrorists.” That’s a nod to the false al Qaeda link, too. He chided Democrats who failed to support the war, and suggested of Bush that “the President of the United States is a bold leader and he is popular.” In 2013, Peter Baker reported in his book Days of Fire that Biden’s support was vociferous indeed, and included talk of a Nobel Peace Prize for Bush if he could avoid a lengthy stay in Mesopotamia. In July 2003, well after the war had begun, he maintained open support for the war in a Senate hearing. “I personally think this job is doable, or I wouldn’t have voted for us going into Iraq in the first place,” he said. “I think it is doable, but I think it’s going to require a much more intensified and urgent commitment of resources. And beyond that, I think it’s going to take a lot of time, a lot of troops, and a lot of money.”
That last part was accurate: the war took up 18 years and cost well over $2 trillion and lost thousands of American lives—not to mention hundreds of thousands of Iraqis. But Biden’s claims in this campaign are increasingly not. He’s undoubtedly trying to spin out of this because he watched in 2016 as both Sanders and Trump buried Clinton in talk about her Iraq war vote. Clinton acknowledged it was a mistake, and maybe Biden has taken a page—or perhaps a paragraph—out of the new political playbook in the age of Trump and decided that just never admitting wrongdoing is the way to go. But the truth, in the end, is simple: Biden supported the Iraq War, even after the occupation began to go south, because he thought it was the right thing to do. If he wants to tell the truth now, he could acknowledge that.
Or maybe he just won’t, and will hope that CNN—which broke open the Sanders-Warren tiff yesterday and just happens to be co-hosting the debate featuring both of them tonight—will concentrate on the progressive wing onstage. The way things are shaking up, Biden could well continue to make the case he’s the Safe Choice all the way to the nomination, even as Ukraine lingers in the background. Biden still does not have an answer for why his son was getting paid six-figures by a Ukrainian oligarch to sit on the board of Burisma, and The New York Times reported Monday that Russian intelligence engaged in cyber attacks on the Ukrainian energy firm timed to an explosion of Ukraine talk in November of last year.
The writing really is on the wall. There isn’t a shred of evidence that Joe Biden himself committed any act of malfeasance with respect to Ukraine or Burisma, but there will be a slow drip of information about it—the Russian hackers were reportedly looking for emails and financial records—until the end of time. Conservative media will eat every morsel up with glee. The mainstream media, terrified of accusations of bias from the right and continually seeking Balance in a hopeless effort to defuse those claims, will dutifully report on the allegations and the shadows descending on the Biden campaign. Social media will be a festival of mudslinging, egged on—as surely Sanders and Warren supporters are today—by bots and trolls stationed…abroad.
In this way, the same real politik Biden used to argue for his candidacy’s immunity to misogyny could be deployed against him: he will, without a lick of doubt, get ratfucked on the Ukraine issue. It will be another sequel to The Emails (2016). Is that a telling argument against his candidacy, or will any Democrat get ratfucked just as bad? Clinton suffered from what political scientists call “priming,” where the electorate had been conditioned over decades to believe claims about her corruption. Biden is getting a dose of the same, albeit on a much shorter timeframe. Would other candidates prove as susceptible? Are there Emails and Benghazis lurking in the future for each of them? Perhaps the best candidate is whichever one has the singular focus to weather the inevitable storm of insane bullshit. They’ll likely get some practice in Des Moines tonight.