If you were shocked by the sudden flare up of soap opera drama from the Warren campaign over the weekend leading up to the January Democratic debate, then her PR campaign had been working. It started with an article in Politico from Alex Thompson and Hollie Otterbein. The writers obtained what they said was a new script for volunteers that contrasted Sanders with Warren by pointing to the relative economic comfort of her base. This was portrayed as attacking Warren.
There are a few problems with this. It’s factual and matches reporting from Otterbein in July. The Sanders campaign denied sharing the awkwardly worded script. Many volunteers made the point that it was the opposite of the campaign messaging, which doesn’t mention other candidates. One volunteer tweeted that it had been shared in a Slack channel by a volunteer posting for the first time and it was removed by a team leader. It should be noted that Otterbein and Thompson are embedded with the Warren campaign. As evidence of the story they shared a retyped copy of the memo obtained from “a person close to the campaign” (we’re meant to assume that the person is close to the Sanders campaign and not the one in which they’re embedded). They retyped it to protect the identity of the source because campaign materials meant to be disseminated to many volunteers often carry identifying markers like classified materials.
This faux conflict was quickly put away as another story dropped from CNN. It reported on a private dinner conversation from over a year ago in which Bernie was to have told Warren that a woman couldn’t win the presidency. The Sanders’ campaign called the reporting erroneous and pointed to Bernie’s long history of encouraging women to run for office, including Warren in the 16 presidential cycle. Warren put out a statement in which she said she disagreed with Bernie at the time, while never quoting the words with which she disagreed, and that she wanted to focus on policy. When given an opportunity to move on, Warren instead leaned into it in one of the most absurd moments of the debate. After clarifying with him that Bernie denied what was reported, the moderator asked Warren how she felt about him saying the thing he denied saying. Warren accepted the skewed framing of the question, and again reiterated that she disagreed with the thing Bernie denied saying. The debate ended with Warren refusing to shake Bernie’s hand in a moment of seeming conflict. Viewers were left to guess what was said until the following day when CNN released the audio, just to stretch it out.
In the audio we hear Warren timidly say, “I think you called me a liar on national television(?)” which she repeats when Bernie asks for clarification. The odd thing is, she’s never publicly said exactly what she’s attributing to Bernie. The original story came from 4 sources, none were Warren. He didn’t call her a liar, he said that what was reported was wrong. During the debate, she essentially said that he was lying. Although there are denials that it came from Warren’s campaign, it’s based on the telling of Warren. What seems apparent is that this was a deliberate campaign strategy. And a strange one considering her history of embellishment and outright lying and the respect Bernie receives, even from Republicans, for his honesty. The purpose seems less clear. Was the idea that portraying Bernie as sexist would dislodge support and drive it to her? Was the purpose to run interference for Biden and prevent a forceful attack on his Social Security history? The effect so far has been the largest post debate donation haul for Bernie so far. Although Biden’s Social Security history didn’t come up, he’s receiving questions on the campaign trail. Despite his dishonesty over his advocacy for freezing and cutting Social Security, the reporting is expanding.
This floundering by the Warren campaign, while somewhat frustrating/enraging, is completely uninteresting. I found it difficult to detail it even as much as I have here. However, it’s worth considering what this episode suggests Warren’s campaign has always been: a PR campaign promoting her as the product. This matters because there are a number of individuals and organizations promoting “progressive unity” in the wake of Warren attempting to elevate herself by dragging Bernie down. Unity presumes that Warren is progressive, she isn’t. Unity also presumes that Warren and Bernie share the same goals. They don’t. Despite co-sponsoring Medicare For All, Warren, when asked directly in 2012 said that she didn’t support single payer. She chides the reporter for assuming that she did.
It’s not clear around what exactly we’re being asked to unite. She’s only progressive because many of them project themselves on her. It’s been clear for some time that she’s been working to undermine Medicare For All. The most glaring example of that, which infuriated me, occurred last Spring. At a forum of Black women she talked about addressing the disproportionate maternal mortality rate for Black women, which she blamed on prejudice. She said this was according to the best research. She was clearly either completely incompetent at finding relevant research, or lying cynically to avoid promoting universal healthcare as a solution. For the many still assuming that Warren was a lite version of Bernie the illusion finally broke at the end of October.
After being challenged repeatedly to explain how she’d pay for Medicare For All, Warren offered a rube goldberg-like plan to avoid raising middle class taxes. It was dependent on passing other politically difficult policies on immigration, and would begin with a public option, before starting the fight for Medicare For All in the third years. It was panned as being unserious. This episode explains where we are now. Since declaring her candidacy Warren has thrown out a flurry of plans. The media has trumpeted that she has plans without much examination. The moment they turned to basic questions, her technocratic veneer collapsed under the weight. This should not be surprising, her entire platform is made up of things mostly never mentioned prior to running. It was not meant to be serious.
As a result of this collapse the campaign has increasingly moved from any pretense at promoting policy to just promoting Warren. She went from talking about plans to ‘selfies’ as democracy. Her poll numbers dropped as it became clear that she didn’t support Medicare For All. Having nothing left to promote, her campaign manufactured an opportunity to portray her as a fighter (victim). Rather than go after Biden for helping to grow student loan debt, or for his role in creating any of the problems for which she’d created fake plans, she went after Bernie for saying something contrary to his record and his denial. Rather than make one last bid for relevance of policy, she made clear that her candidacy had only ever been about her personal ambition.
How we unite around her focus on her personal ambitions and Bernie’s focus on the growing desperation of everyday Americans, I have no clue, but then, neither do the advocates of “unity”.