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The Shadow Of Sanders vs. Clinton Loomed Over Final Days Before Iowa Caucuses

DES MOINES, Iowa ― The final days before the first contest of the 2020 Democratic presidential primary were consumed with people relitigating the 2016 version of the same race.

A series of electorally insignificant but symbolically potent events before the Iowa caucuses ― a smattering of Democratic National Committee members suggesting a rules change to stop Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, a Sanders surrogate booing 2016 nominee Hillary Clinton ― served as a reminder of the trauma that many Democratic voters still feel over President Donald Trump’s victory, and a further prod to prioritize beating Trump this year.

The events, which are likely to reawaken hurt feelings, anxiety and anger left over from 2016, could spark new urgency among Democrats on all sides of the divide in the hours before Iowans start voting Monday evening. Supporters of former Vice President Joe Biden and some portions of the Democratic establishment could feel more determined than ever to stop Sanders from winning their party’s presidential nomination. Sanders partisans could be filled with a fresh rage at the DNC and the establishment. And backers of Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg could be even more determined to find a middle path out of the 2016 morass. 

Sanders struck a conciliatory tone at a rally in Indianola, Iowa, on Saturday afternoon.

“Let me say this so there is no misunderstanding: Certainly I hope that we’re going to win,” Sanders told the crowd at Simpson College. “But if we do not win, we will support the winner and I know that every other candidate will do the same. We are united in understanding that we must defeat Donald Trump.”

But at the same time, Sanders and his surrogates played up what they claim is the Democratic establishment’s growing anxiety that he might take the nomination.

“You can tell how good I feel by how nervous the establishment is getting,” he said in a video posted to Twitter by his campaign. “Suddenly, we have the Democratic establishment very nervous about our campaign.”

Sanders’ rhetoric is likely to delight the “Bernie would’ve won” crowd that blames the DNC’s failure to stay neutral in the 2016 primary for Sanders not grabbing the nomination and then subsequently defeating Trump. At the same time, it’s likely to aggravate Clinton loyalists who ― like Hillary Clinton herself ― still insist Sanders did too little to help her win. 

Clinton kicked off the latest round of recriminations with a podcast appearance in which she blamed Sanders’ allies for encouraging people to vote for third-party candidates in 2016. Michigan Rep. Rashida Tlaib, a Sanders endorser, responded by encouraging voters to boo a mention of Clinton.

“You all know I can’t be quiet. No, we’re going to boo,” Tlaib told a crowd on Friday night. “That’s all right. The haters will shut up on Monday when we win.”

The congresswoman apologized the next morning. “I allowed my disappointment with Secretary Clinton’s latest comments about Senator Sanders and his supporters [to] get the best of me,” she said.

Sanders’ allies sent mixed messages about Tlaib’s comments. Campaign manager Faiz Shakir and documentarian Michael Moore both suggested that no apology was necessary, while California Rep. Ro Khanna, a Sanders campaign co-chair, released a statement praising Clinton. But Nick Merrill, a spokesman for Clinton, released a statement after Tlaib’s apology suggesting that the Michigander would pay a political price for her Clinton criticism.  

In the middle of this back-and-forth, Politico reported that a “half-dozen” DNC members were discussing a proposal to bring back superdelegates ― unelected convention delegates who can vote for whichever candidates they choose ― as a way to deny Sanders the nomination. This effort is almost certainly doomed: Six people are a tiny portion of the DNC, which has hundreds of members, and the party just went through a painstaking process to limit the power of superdelegates after the 2016 nomination fight.

While Sanders’ candidacy evokes memories of 2016, Buttigieg and Warren are pitching themselves as the only candidates who can avoid a repeat of that clash between the party’s liberal and moderate wings. 

“The one thing we can’t afford to do is get caught up in the politics of the past, whether it’s the distant past and arguing over who said what about Social Security in the 1990s ― I’m worried about protecting Social Security today ― or whether it’s the recent past and reliving the 2016 primary,” Buttigieg told a Saturday crowd in Anamosa, Iowa, with a nod to Sanders and Biden’s recent battles over whether the latter previously pushed for Social Security cuts. “I did not much care for that experience the first time around. I definitely don’t want 2020 to resemble 2016 in any way.”

At times in the past week, Buttigieg has explicitly referenced both Sanders and Biden as relics of the political past. 

Warren, meanwhile, has turned up her efforts to portray herself as the only candidate who can hope to stop the fighting between the party’s squabbling wings. Her campaign has been airing ads featuring Sanders, Clinton and Trump voters from 2016. “We can’t afford a fractured party,” says one voter who backed Sanders in 2016.

And on Saturday, Warren went out of her way to praise candidates who have dropped out of the Democratic race, including California Sen. Kamala Harris, New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker and Washington Gov. Jay Inslee. 

“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 said as part of her stump speech in Cedar Rapids. “It’s a campaign that says, ‘Come on in,’ because we are in this fight together.”

Biden, for his part, has avoided directly weighing in on the 2016 battle in recent days, though he has mentioned Sanders’ resistance to joining the Democratic Party. But the Democratic establishment’s efforts to stop Sanders, however limited they are so far, tacitly support him. 

And Sanders supporters remain ever vigilant in their search for establishment meddling. Olivia Samples, a 23-year-old dula and activist from Des Moines who was attending a Progress for Iowa Super Bowl party on Sunday night, said she didn’t trust the Democratic National Committee to stay neutral. 

“They make it really difficult for someone who’s not their chosen candidate to win,” she said of the DNC. “The people in leadership at the DNC are mostly established older folks with some level of privilege, power and money, so it makes sense that they would choose someone like Joe Biden.” 

Dan Wright, a Sanders-supporting database engineer from out of state touring Iowa caucus campaign events with his wife, naturopathic doctor Krissy Haglund, and their two kids, worried that the reforms disempowering superdelegates on the first convention ballot did not rule out establishment meddling.

“They’ve got other tricks,” he said.

Arthur Delaney and Daniel Marans contributed reporting from Iowa.

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