Here we go: Bernie and Warren starting to jab each other as Iowa approaches

Can’t believe I’m going to have to watch tomorrow night’s debate because there’s a decent chance two old reds are going to start brawling onstage.

But you know the first rule of American politics in 2019: Drama is everything.

In fairness to Bernie, this is the mildest conceivable criticism he (via his volunteers) could have thrown at Warren:

The script instructs Sanders volunteers to tell voters leaning toward the Massachusetts senator that the “people who support her are highly-educated, more affluent people who are going to show up and vote Democratic no matter what” and that “she’s bringing no new bases into the Democratic Party.”

“I like Elizabeth Warren. [optional]” the script begins. “In fact, she’s my second choice. But here’s my concern about her.” It then pivots to the criticisms of Warren…

“We were told never to go negative or contrast with other candidates,” a person close to Sanders’ campaign told POLITICO. “Bernie would let us know when it was O.K.. So if that’s happening, he’s aware.”

Rarely does a bruising attack on a fellow candidate come with the caveat “in fact, she’s my second choice.” If you want to knife Warren you don’t hit her on alleged electability grounds, as Bernie has enough problems of his own on that point that he shouldn’t want Iowans thinking hard about it. You knife her by highlighting her history as a corporate lawyer, a phony class warrior who’s happy to scoff at Buttigieg’s “wine cave” fundraisers despite having held a few of those herself in the past. Maybe you also knife her by highlighting her failure of nerve on Medicare for All, first fudging the numbers on how she’d allegedly pay for it without new taxes on the middle class and then backburnering the topic on the trail as her polls began to fade. Is that someone whom Democrats can count on as president to fight tirelessly for bold change?

“She won’t turn out new voters” is a love tap by campaign standards, especially given how hot the race is in Iowa at the moment. It’s true that Warren’s numbers have crumbled nationally since her high point in October and it’s also true that Bernie’s numbers have risen since Thanksgiving, encouraging progressives to rally behind him. But the race between them is closer than it appears in the states that count. The Des Moines Register poll published on Friday night had Sanders leading the field at 20 percent with Warren a scant three points behind. Fully 45 percent of Iowa Dems say they’re undecided. The most recent poll of New Hampshire, meanwhile, had Buttigieg at 20 percent with Bernie and Warren bunched up behind him at 18 and 15 percent, respectively. By no means has Sanders gained a decisive edge.

If Team Bernie is playing to win, it’s now or never in going negative to push Warren aside among progressive voters. And although the electability argument against her is weak, I think it makes sense in context. The way Warren wins Iowa is if Dems there go out on caucus night and decide that they want someone who’ll be more aggressive than Biden and Buttigieg in fighting for lefty priorities but not so aggressive that they’re going to hang the “socialist” label on the party in the general election. Warren may be a goldilocks compromise to some, the “electable” left-winger. Sanders sees the possibility and is doing what he can — delicately — to counter it.

He played dumb this weekend when asked about the script his volunteers are following:

In a rare question-and-answer session with reporters after his final event of a weekend Iowa swing, Mr. Sanders — in response to a question on whether he approved of his campaign’s criticism of Ms. Warren — denied responsibility for the script, saying he himself had never attacked Ms. Warren. And he blamed the news media for overstating the tension between the two campaigns. “I got to tell you, I think this is a little bit of a media blowup, that kind of wants conflict,” he said.

“Elizabeth Warren is a very good friend of mine,” Mr. Sanders, of Vermont, said. “We have worked together in the Senate for years. Elizabeth Warren and I will continue to work together, we will debate the issues.”

Was that enough de-escalation for Warren to overlook the reports that Team Sanders was coming after her? It was not:

Note the point about factionalism. She knows that for some lefties this election is “Bernie or bust.” If she beats him and they stay home in November protest, Dems are looking at another 2016 nightmare. But I think that fear is overblown: Sanders was a reluctant supporter of Hillary Clinton in 2016 but he’d be less reluctant to stump for his friend Elizabeth and coax the contingent of butthurt progressives in his base into showing up for her. Between that and the urgency leftists feel to oust Trump, she’ll do fine as nominee in turning out the party’s left wing.

I leave you with a question I asked last week: Is there a scenario in which ObamaWorld mobilizes to try to stop Bernie if he wins Iowa and New Hampshire — and if so, behind which alternative would they mobilize? We all assume it’d be Biden, but that depends in part on how badly Grandpa Joe does in those two states. Imagine that Warren finishes second in both while Biden finishes a disappointing fourth. At that point Team Obama could go all-in on Joe, knowing that he’s likely to win South Carolina and maaaaaybe build off that to rebound on Super Tuesday. But they might also swallow hard and conclude that Biden’s too weak to stop Sanders given his showing in the early states, even with SC in his pocket. Maybe they’re better off lining up behind Warren, hoping that that nudge puts her over the top in Nevada, and then she springboards off of that to finish a strong second in South Carolina. “If I were a campaign manager for Donald Trump and I look at the field, I would very much want to run against Bernie Sanders,” said Obama crony Jim Messina this weekend, reflecting what appears to be the O-World view that it’s more important for Bernie not to be nominated than for Grandpa Joe to be nominated. If that’s their position then Warren should be in play for them, pending the results from IA and NH.