Hillary Clinton has torn open old wounds from her divisive 2016 battle with Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), putting Democrats on edge about whether the party will be able to unite after a 2020 primary that has produced new fault lines between the center and the left.
Clinton’s attacks on Sanders — and her refusal to commit to endorsing him or campaigning for him if he wins the Democratic presidential nomination — infuriated progressives and raised new fears among Democrats about whether supporters for the losing candidates will turn out for the nominee against President Trump in November.
Those questions come as Sanders and his allies are ramping up their attacks against former Vice President Joe Biden, who they view as representative of the same “Clinton corporate wing” of the party that fumbled away the 2016 election to Trump.
Tensions are boiling over as polls find Sanders, Biden, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg (D) in a tight race in the final two weeks before the Iowa caucuses.
Democrats and progressives interviewed by The Hill insist that the party will rally behind whoever wins the nomination. But many view Clinton’s remarks as unhelpful and self-serving.
“You feel like looking Hillary square in the eye and asking, ‘What the hell are you doing?’ ” said one Democrat who has worked on presidential campaigns. “Donald Trump is president. Bernie on a bad day would be better than Trump on his best day. We need to win.”
Clinton, who has largely stayed out of the Democratic nominating process, unloaded on Sanders in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter that ran on Tuesday, accusing him of fostering a movement that is abusive toward women.
“Nobody likes him, nobody wants to work with him, he got nothing done,” Clinton said. “He was a career politician. It’s all just baloney and I feel so bad that people got sucked into it.”
The former secretary of State refused to say whether she would support Sanders for president if he wins the nomination.
Sanders declined to engage, saying in a statement that his focus would remain on Trump’s impeachment.
“My focus today is on a monumental moment in American history: the impeachment trial of Donald Trump,” Sanders said. “Together, we are going to go forward and defeat the most dangerous president in American history.”
Sanders’s team largely followed suit, with communications director Georgia Parke encouraging the campaign’s online supporters to “type up texts for Bernie” instead of “typing tweets about Hillary Clinton.”
Still, there was anger and exasperation on the left over Clinton’s remarks.
Liberals noted that Sanders campaigned for Clinton in 2016 despite raw feelings over the outsized influence of superdelegates in the nominating process and the Democratic National Committee’s efforts to boost Clinton at the time.
“It’s bullshit,” said Jonathan Tasini, a progressive strategist who backs Sanders. “I’m confident, if Bernie is the nominee, that any sane Democrat will understand the singular objective of beating Trump. The same holds true if he’s not the nominee. Anyone whose candidate does not win will go through a mourning process, but the value of Donald Trump is that he’s the most powerful organizing force in politics and we are focused on defeating him in November.”
Some Democrats say Clinton has refused to take responsibility for losing the election in 2016.
“How many folks are responsible for her losing the most winnable campaign in history?” a Democratic strategist said.
A number of Clinton supporters remain bitter at Sanders, believing that he poisoned the well for her in 2016 and that many of his supporters stayed home on Election Day because of it.
“I think she said what a lot of us feel every single day,” said one longtime Clinton aide. “And he clearly hasn’t learned his lessons from 2016. I don’t think any of us have ever heard him apologize for not helping to ensure that all of his supporters were backing her. We got Donald Trump partly because of Bernie Sanders and I don’t even think he recognizes that wholeheartedly.”
Liberals reject that reading of Sanders’s complicity in Trump’s victory and say that they’re more concerned that mainstream Democrats will stay home on Election Day if a progressive such as Sanders or Warren is nominated.
“There is ample evidence to show that progressives turn out for Democrats when the stakes are high, period and end of story,” said Neil Sroka, a strategist for Democracy for America, which hasn't endorsed anyone but is supportive both Sanders and Warren. “If either Sanders or Warren wins, we’ll have the chance to see where corporate Democrats stand and if they’ll ally the with bigotry and hate of Donald Trump and enable his reelection or stand with the Democratic nominee. That will be a real proving point.”
Mainstream Democrats have been raising the alarm after Sanders launched a fierce line of attacks against Biden aimed at undercutting his support with black voters and old people, who make up the pillars of his support in the Democratic primary.
Liberal activist Zephyr Teachout, a Sanders ally, wrote an op-ed in The Guardian warning that Biden “has a big corruption problem and it makes him a weak candidate.”
Sanders stepped in to say that the “corruption” attack went too far.
“It is absolutely not my view that Joe is corrupt in any way. And I’m sorry that that op-ed appeared,” Sanders said to CBS.
Sanders’s allies are frustrated that Clinton is relitigating the 2016 primary and are eager to move on.
“It’s quite disappointing to see Secretary Clinton continue comments against Bernie or any candidate that divide the party,” said Larry Cohen, the founder of Our Revolution, which backs Sanders.