CLIVE, Iowa — Elizabeth Warren’s campaign is telling key online supporters that their “goal is de-escalation” and warning backers not to accuse Bernie Sanders of sexism, signaling a desire to move on from a story that has driven a rift between two longtime allies, and within the progressive community, over questions of gender and electability.
On Monday night, about five minutes after Warren issued a statement confirming that she remembers Sanders telling her in a private meeting he didn’t believe a woman could win in 2020, one of Warren’s campaign officials advised supporters in a large pro-Warren group chat on Twitter that their next step would be to dial back the confrontation. “Re: where we go from here — our goal is de-escalation and focusing on our shared goals,” the staffer wrote to the group, according to screenshots of the chat.
The next morning, hours before Warren and Sanders were expected to address the conflict in Des Moines at Tuesday’s Democratic debate, the campaign official followed up to caution supporters against accusing Sanders of sexism, saying that the line of questioning would be “really bad news for us.”
“I would be careful with the ‘sexism’ angle when it comes to the Bernie/Warren exchange individually — that’s not what this is about and I think it’ll be really bad news for us if that becomes what this is about (i.e. press asking her if she thinks Bernie is sexist),” the staffer told the group. “Is that what this is about broadly? Absolutely. But no one here is actually claiming Bernie himself is sexist (regardless of your own personal beliefs on that topic).”
Warren characterized the private December 2018 meeting in her statement as a simple exchange: “I thought a woman could win; he disagreed.” Sanders and his advisers have repeatedly said this account is false and that he only pointed out Trump would use gender against a woman candidate. “What I did say that night was that Donald Trump is a sexist, a racist, and a liar who would weaponize whatever he could,” Sanders said when the story was first reported by CNN, and before Warren confirmed it herself.
At one point in a lengthy DM to the Twitter group on Tuesday morning, the Warren staffer’s description of the controversy hewed closer to Sanders’s description than Warren’s. “Claiming you’re worried a woman can’t win/flagging that she’ll receive sexist attacks is something many, many people feel,” the campaign official wrote.
The distinction has become a knotty point of conflict in a controversy that touches on real concerns among Iowa voters about sexism, a general election against a candidate like Donald Trump, and whether the country is ready to elect a woman president.
Jeff Weaver, a top adviser for Sanders' campaign, also suggested the Sanders campaign did not want to continue the fight. “We’re not going to get into this tit-for-tat," he said on CNN on Monday night.
Sanders and Warren, he said, "have great respect for one another, they’re fighting for a lot of the same goals, again, there were some wires crossed apparently about this story.”
Asked to comment on the move to de-escalate, Warren's communications director, Kristen Orthman, pointed to the candidate’s statement on Monday night calling Sanders a friend and longtime ally. “Bernie and I have far more in common than our differences on punditry,” Warren said.
There are other signals Warren wants to move on from the story.
Former housing secretary Julián Castro, a Warren surrogate who was one of the most aggressive attack dogs of the 2020 Democratic primary, did everything he could to avoid conflict when he stepped in front of cameras Tuesday at a canvass kickoff here in Clive, Iowa.
Castro said he believed Warren — but he had no criticism for Sanders.
“I don’t think there’s an attack that’s happening,” Castro told reporters. “I didn’t see it that way at all.”
“Sen. Warren and Sen. Sanders have been friends for a long time; they know each other well; they’ve both run respectful campaigns,” he said. “I believe Elizabeth, and I know that she’s running a campaign that’s inspiring a lot of people. Both of them are.”
In Washington, progressive leaders who admire both Warren and Sanders as icons in their movement made public appeals for the two to stop fighting. “@BernieSanders and @ewarren,” one left-wing group, Democracy for America, tweeted, “you both are progressive champs & our movement needs to see you working together to defeat your corporate Dem opponents — not attack each other.”
At the canvassing event in Clive, some of Warren’s most dedicated supporters also said they had no desire to see a conflict between the two candidates. “It’s not something that we want to talk about,” said Taylor Larich, a 21-year-old Warren volunteer from nearby Waukee.
Some doubted the exchange had taken place exactly as described.
“I have trouble believing that — that he would say that,” said Devon McClurken, a church faith director in West Des Moines who said Warren was her “number one choice” in the election. “I do appreciate [Sanders’] policies. I appreciate all he’s done through his entire career.”
“That’s such a distraction,” said Heidi Baker, a Warren supporter from Clive. “While those two are fighting, you’re going to have people like Biden, who’s already ahead in the polls — those two need to knock it off and focus on their campaign.”
“That’s ludicrous. I almost don’t want to believe it,” Baker said.