IOWA CITY, Iowa — President Donald Trump’s confrontation with Iran is opening up some very old wounds in the Democratic Party, days before the first voters cast ballots in Iowa.
The race took a bitter turn over the weekend over the 2003 vote to authorize war in Iraq: Former Vice President Joe Biden voted for it, and Sen. Bernie Sanders was against.
Biden’s campaign accused Sanders of misrepresenting then-Senator Biden’s vote to authorize the war, arguing it didn’t equate to support for the war. Former Secretary of State John Kerry, stumping on Biden’s behalf, said those who voted for the 2003 authorization did so thinking President George W. Bush and his administration would exhaust diplomatic options before launching any offensive in Iraq.
“Don't misinterpret it, don't distort it. Democrats should not be guilty of doing what Donald Trump does, which is lying about records and lying about intentions. We deserve better in the Democratic Party,” Kerry told VICE News in an interview in Iowa City. “We fought this out 16 years ago, I'd say, and if anybody wants to rehash it, I think that's dangerous territory.”
Kerry said the Iran situation highlights the need for Biden, the only candidate with the experience to be commander-in-chief. He said attacks Sanders has deployed at debates and on the campaign trail against Biden for supporting the Iraq War are disingenuous, even if trusting Bush was a bad idea.
“That was a mistake, obviously, but we were betrayed.”
“That was a mistake, obviously, but we were betrayed, we were let down by a president and his administration that did not live up to what they said they were going to do,” Kerry said. “It wasn't some blindness.”
A clip of Kerry saying something similar to NBC News went viral over the weekend, causing an uproar among pundits and potential voters suspicious of Kerry’s claims. Sanders, who was representing Vermont in the House of Representatives at the time and voted against the authorization, said it was a “weak defense” of Kerry’s preferred 2020 candidate.
“We knew they were lying, we knew that they were altering intelligence information. You don't have to be a genius to figure that out,” Sanders told reporters on Sunday after a campaign stop in Iowa City. “When you had an administration that was itching to go to war — they were itching, everybody knew that — you don't give them the authority; you vote no. That's what I did.”
The fight over authorizing the war played out as an influential poll showed Sanders leading the field in Iowa, with Biden, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg within only a few percentage points of each other behind Sanders.
Though Biden remains the front-runner nationwide, some polls showed his campaign sagging in the early primary states of Iowa and New Hampshire.
Perhaps because polls are so close, the knives are out. Kerry and Biden’s other surrogates tried pumping some life into his campaign by blaming Sanders for Clinton’s loss to Trump last time.
Both Biden’s and Warren’s campaigns are implying the Vermont Independent is too divisive and that his last primary run contributed to a Democratic loss to Trump in 2016. On Monday, CNN reported that Bernie told Warren at a meeting between the campaigns in 2018 he didn’t think a woman could win, a claim Sanders denied.
After a campaign stop in Davenport, Iowa, Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, a Missouri Congressman who has endorsed Biden, told a supporter he thinks Sanders was to blame for turning his supporters against Clinton and worries that could happen again this year. Rep. Ami Bera, a California Congressman and Biden supporter, told attendees that other candidates could cost Democrats their majority in Congress.
Kerry said Democrats need to pick a nominee quickly, because the party needs to coalesce around a candidate and a message early to take on Trump, who has near unanimous support on his side of the aisle and is amassing incredible amounts of money. He said a Biden win in Iowa could lead to a clean sweep in the first four primary contests and the nomination.
“The sooner we can coalesce around a candidate, the sooner we eliminate the traditional circular firing squad in the Democratic Party.”
“The sooner we can coalesce around a candidate, the sooner we eliminate the traditional circular firing squad in the Democratic Party, where we just pop away,” Kerry told voters in Muscatine, Iowa, on Saturday. “That hurt Hillary last time, having Bernie go on and on and on. So we’ve got to end this thing, and we have a chance to do it.”
On the other side of the state, Warren raised questions about Sanders’ campaign too. A controversy erupted over the weekend after Politico unearthed a Sanders campaign document instructing volunteers to tell voters Warren is a candidate of the elite who won’t bring new voters into the Democratic coalition.
As she pitches herself as the only candidate who can unite the warring wings of the party, Warren told reporters she is disappointed Sanders is taking the low road and implied that the same kind of tactics led to a bitter loss in 2016.
“We all saw the impact of the factionalism in 2016, and we can’t have a repeat of that,” she said. “We cannot nominate someone who takes big chunks of the Democratic coalition for granted. We need someone who will bring our party together.”
Cover: Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) speaks to guests during a campaign stop at Berg Middle School on January 11, 2020 in Newton, Iowa. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)