Advisers to Bernie Sanders presented him with a memo in early 2018, outlining his biggest vulnerabilities in the event of another presidential run. They included his independent party registration, his age — and Elizabeth Warren.
The missive was delivered as Sanders was weighing whether to mount a repeat campaign, according to two people familiar with it. Sanders’ unexpectedly strong 2016 bid was made possible in part by Warren’s decision to forgo taking on Hillary Clinton, but this time he would likely have to compete head-on with his longtime ideological comrade and friend.Story Continued Below
Some members of the Sanders team became less fearful of a Warren run through 2018 as they watched the backlash to her DNA test and what they considered her underwhelming online fundraising. But as she’s rebounded the past several months, their mutual respect and solidarity in their broader progressive crusade is coming under duress.
The candidates themselves have largely kept things cordial. But signs of tension have trickled out. As Warren’s poll numbers ticked up, Sanders staffers took digs at her on Twitter for not participating in a Fox News town hall, while suggesting her rise was a manufactured media narrative. One anonymous adviser told U.S. News & World Report that her handling of the DNA test “just fundamentally killed her.”
In the weeks after, some of the tweets were deleted and aides said Sanders made it clear he did not condone attacking Warren.
But on Tuesday, their awkward détente will face its biggest test when the two stand side by side onstage for the second Democratic debate. CNN moderators will undoubtedly try to goad them into conflict, but both candidates have signaled they will do their best to resist.
Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders greet one another during a rally on March 31, 2017, in Boston. | Steven Senne/AP Photo
“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.” Asked by reporters last weekend in Iowa about what he expected from sharing a stage with Warren, Sanders replied: “Intelligence.”
Based on conversations with their advisers, it’s more likely the candidates will face off against the more moderate candidates onstage than against each other.
The two senators have taken very different paths to this moment. Sanders has been involved in Vermont politics for decades, an unapologetic Democratic socialist and loner in Congress. Warren was a Republican until she was 47 and didn’t run for office for the first time until 2012, when she was in her 60s.
They both share a populist streak that has set them apart not just from Republicans but from many in their own party as well.
“It’s a friendship at least by the Washington definition,” said Michael Briggs, a former longtime Sanders aide who was communications director during the 2016 campaign.
Their ties stem from well before Warren’s arrival in the Senate.
In April 2008, Sanders invited Warren to present her work at a town hall on the “Economy & the Middle Class Squeeze” at Montpelier High School in Vermont. At the time, she was teaching at Harvard Law School and was an increasingly visible player on the national scene calling for closer oversight of the banking industry.
“She is regarded as one of the most knowledgeable and articulate writers in America in terms of what is going on in the middle class,” Sanders gushed as he introduced her.
Warren was just as effusive about Sanders.
“I want to say this to you from my heart,” she told the crowd as the event wrapped up. “I go down to Washington and try to talk to these guys about what goes on,” she said, adding that members of Congress often asked her what the banks or credit-card companies thought about her proposals.
“It is so meaningful to have someone whose office you can walk into who says ‘How does this affect the people who live in my state? How does this affect the American people?’ That’s what Bernie Sanders said the first time I walked into his office, and as a result, I keep walking in,” she said to applause and whistles.
Back then, the duo’s similar messages but differing styles were already clear. Warren, PowerPoint in hand, tied her work to growing up in Oklahoma on the “ragged edge of the middle class.” Sanders, hair unkempt and arms waving wildly, railed against the exorbitant wealth of the “1 percent” and bashed the “mainstream media” for not covering poverty and policy.
Their relationship hit a bump during the 2016 race when Warren faced pressure to endorse Sanders or Hillary Clinton in the Democratic presidential primary. While some people close to Sanders still resent that she decided to remain neutral, none has heard him complain about it.
But now, for the first time, the two are competing for the same office.
“I don’t doubt that their friendship and their partnership is real. But it’s a competitive business, so they still are going to go after the votes as vigorously as they can,” said Hawaii Sen. Brian Schatz, a progressive senator who is close to both of them. “My sense is they want to do it within certain boundaries.”
Democrats said there are reasons beyond their friendship for the two to keep relative peace. They both know that bludgeoning one another would hurt either’s chances of winning the nomination and potentially ease the path for a more moderate candidate to prevail. Warren and Sanders also could find themselves back in the Senate a year from now, still leaders of the progressive movement and needing to work together.
“When Bernie and Elizabeth have worked together as they have in the past, it’s a powerful coalition,” said Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.). “Both of them want to be president, but I’m sure neither one of them wants to give up the ability to work on issues [if] they get back here.”
Stylistically and tactically, though, the two aren’t in lockstep. Sanders has defended the legislative filibuster and initially frowned on trying to impeach Trump; Warren immediately called for impeachment after the Mueller report and is open to killing the filibuster in the hopes of passing a progressive agenda. Polling shows that the two are currently drawing from different pools of voters: Warren’s base is generally older, better educated and more female than Sanders’.
And while Sanders has remained a political independent — some of his advisers urged him to change his party registration to Democratic when he ran for reelection to the Senate 2018, to no avail — Warren has been a Democrat since her midlife ideological awakening.
But those differences are small next to their shared critique that the country’s political and economic systems need to be upended, not just reformed. On the campaign trail, their ideological overlap is heard in Warren’s call for “big, structural change” and Sanders’ rallying for “revolution.”
But even if they don’t personally engage, Sanders and Warren may be on a collision course in the primary.
The split on the left has been evident even in a political organization that Sanders launched after his 2016 loss, Our Revolution. The national group has endorsed Sanders. But he failed to land the endorsement of the group’s chapter in Massachusetts — Warren’s home state — in a vote last month. Sanders fell just shy of the three-fifths threshold with 59.96 percent of the vote, and the group plans to hold another vote in August.
One centrist Democratic senator, West Virginia’s Joe Manchin, said he hasn’t detected friction between the two in the chamber.
“They’re coming from the same wheelhouse but [from] a different direction,” Manchin said, describing Warren as more of a policy specialist and Sanders as a “big-picture guy.”
Sanders and Warren have both kept low profiles in the Capitol, particularly since they launched their presidential campaigns. Warren often zips into the Capitol with an aide, quickly votes and then shuttles back out. Sanders also frequently darts in and out to cast votes — an increasingly rare occurrence for both of them, but particularly for Sanders, who has missed 33 of the Senate’s 40 votes this month.
When Warren came to the Senate in 2013, Sanders half-joked to aides that he admired the way that Warren managed to avoid press questions while walking in the Capitol. Warren used to ignore even a “hello” from reporters but has since begun to see media accessibility as a strength. This week, Warren was on the telephone and got off the line for a moment to ask a reporter if he needed anything.
Once accessible and chatty, Sanders has tired of political reporters and often refuses to answer questions if they stray from his preferred topics.
Sanders’ key legislative achievement was a massive veterans affairs deal struck with John McCain in 2014, which both expanded health care choices for veterans and gave Sanders a rebuttal to those who knocked his legislative résumé as thin. Warren has alternated between small-bore bills introduced with Senate Republicans and big, meaty policy prescriptions for everything from rebuilding the State Department to helping entrepreneurs.
“Their friendship’s still there,” Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin said of his recent observations of the two, “although I’m sure there’s some tension there because of the presidential campaign.”
This article tagged under:
Missing out on the latest scoops? Sign up for POLITICO Playbook and get the latest news, every morning — in your inbox.