Up until now, Sanders has only sporadically criticized his opponents, and they have mostly refrained from criticizing him as well. There are a number of reasons for their reluctance (not least fear of his supporters, some of whom might cause the same sort of trouble they did once Hillary Clinton wrapped up the nomination in 2016), but until now many of the candidates have seemed to tiptoe around him while he showed little inclination to attack them, either.
All of which is why it was deemed newsworthy when Sanders volunteers were given a script to read to voters that says of Elizabeth Warren, “people who support her are highly-educated, more affluent people who are going to show up and vote Democratic no matter what” and “she’s bringing no new bases into the Democratic Party.”
This is an old argument, that one candidate appeals to middle-class voters (which is good) and the other appeals to more elite voters (which is bad). The trouble is that even if it’s true at a particular moment, it seldom stays that way. In 2008, Clinton was supposedly the “beer track” candidate while Barack Obama was the “wine track” candidate, but as soon as he started winning primaries, he got support from across the income spectrum.
Yet while this is a trivial argument between candidates, it’s bound to get overplayed, if for no reason other than Sanders and Warren sniping at each other is a novel development. The truth is that the criticism of Warren is pretty mild, as was her response (“I was disappointed to hear that Bernie is sending his volunteers out to trash me”). It’s hard to imagine too many people changing their votes based on this kind of trifle.
Especially when there are more serious things they could be thinking about. Which brings us to an issue that is highly relevant to the moment: the Iraq War.
It might seem odd that we’re still adjudicating the war nearly 17 years after it began, but there are two reasons for this. First, we’re still suffering the consequences of that disastrous decision. Second, the front-runner for the Democratic nomination is still downplaying the mistake he made in supporting it.
So on Friday, John Kerry, stumping for Joe Biden, repeated a claim Biden himself has made many times, that when the two of them voted in October 2002 to give George W. Bush the authority to launch the invasion, they weren’t really voting for war because they thought Bush was just going to pressure Saddam Hussein to allow further inspections and would only invade as a last resort.
“It was a mistake to have trusted them, I guess, and we paid a high price for it,” Kerry said. “But that was not voting for the war.”
Though Biden has called his vote a mistake, he continues to propagate this revisionist history. And since we need to know exactly how the candidates will approach the Middle East and the use of U.S. military power, this is a highly relevant means by which to understand their prospective presidencies.
So let’s clear up this matter once and for all.
In 2002, there were certainly people saying they hoped the Bush administration would invade only as a last resort. But anyone who doubted that Bush would have his war was willfully naive. Every statement from the administration promoted fear and panic, making it clear what their intentions were. The unchanging message was that Iraq would attack us any moment if we did not invade.
Everyone knew what they were voting for, and it’s important to note that at the time, lots of people didn’t buy Bush’s propaganda campaign. It didn’t take a genius to figure out that the administration was dissembling and determined to invade, which is why more congressional Democrats voted against the war resolution than for it. Unfortunately, their numbers did not include the party’s most prominent leaders, including Biden, Kerry, Clinton, Chuck Schumer and many others.
That showed cowardice and bad judgment in supporting the worst foreign policy disaster in American history. But the more important question now is, what did we learn that the next president should apply to his or her own decision-making? While Biden presents himself as the steadiest hand on the foreign policy wheel, he hasn’t said much about if, or how, he would alter the course of that policy. He has accurate criticisms of all of Trump’s appalling choices, but he seems to be offering not much more than a reset to the Obama years.
Which is a legitimate position to take. Sanders, however, has a fundamentally different idea of how we should conduct ourselves, centered on a much deeper skepticism of military interventionism. That skepticism is shared by Warren, who also wants to link foreign policy more closely to some of her domestic priorities, such as fighting corruption and enhancing labor rights, to make them part of a single agenda.
This is the kind of question the candidates ought to be debating, not which of them is the choice of voters with graduate degrees or who’s being mean to whom. They should fight all they want — as long as it’s about things that actually matter.