(Written by Sydney Ember)
When Joe Biden released a video Tuesday night suggesting that Bernie Sanders’ campaign was engaging in “dishonest attacks” over Biden’s record on Social Security, it created an opportunity that some Sanders advisers had hoped for months would come.
The Sanders campaign’s in-house advertising team had already created a video attacking Biden’s record on Social Security but had not released it, waiting for the right moment, aides said. Internally, some feared it might be perceived as negative campaigning. But after watching Biden’s video, Sanders and his advisers agreed: It was go time.
The decision to release the video, which used Biden’s own words from years ago about freezing Social Security, constituted part of a striking shift for Sanders. Through much of 2019, he had resisted mounting forceful attacks on Biden, seeing it as a risky tactic and counter to Sanders’ policy-focused brand. Although some of Sanders’ aides have been in attack mode for months, firing salvos on social media at Biden and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Sanders has largely avoided going on offense himself, dodging questions from reporters meant to instigate and distancing himself from supporters’ negative comments.
Yet as the Iowa caucuses approach, with his advisers urging him to be more aggressive, a resurgent Sanders has been more assertive against Biden, infusing his campaign with a harder edge.
“When people want to attack, we will counterpunch, and we will counterpunch very aggressively,” Faiz Shakir, Sanders’ campaign manager, said in an interview Wednesday.
Social Security, he added, “was one of the areas that we had always planned on having a distinction that never fully got an opportunity to air itself.”
“Now,” he said, “we’re having that opportunity.”
Using the airstrike that killed one of Iran’s top military commanders as an opening, Sanders has ramped up his criticism of Biden’s vote to authorize the war in Iraq. And he has begun highlighting Biden’s record on Social Security, a new line of attack that Sanders’ advisers believe will help him appeal to older voters, particularly African Americans — Biden’s most devoted constituency — and women.
The intensifying attacks have coincided with strong showings for Sanders in several recent polls. A national poll conducted for CNN that was released Wednesday showed Sanders with a narrow lead ahead of Biden. It was the first time Sanders has led nationally since Biden entered the race last April, though his lead was within the poll’s margin of error. (A second national survey conducted by a different pollster shows Biden in front.)
Sanders’ offensive has also led to more frequent sparring and heightened tensions between the campaigns.
Over the weekend, Biden accused the Sanders campaign of deliberately distorting his record on Social Security, prompting Shakir to issue a scathing attack on Biden. On Monday, Sanders apologized to Biden after a top surrogate for the Sanders campaign published an op-ed that claimed the former vice president had “a big corruption problem.”
Biden later thanked Sanders on Twitter for the apology, adding, “These kinds of attacks have no place in this primary. Let’s all keep our focus on making Donald Trump a one-term president.”
The truce was short-lived. Biden continued to fundraise off the candidates’ clashes.
And Tuesday night, there were the dueling videos over Social Security. “Bernie’s campaign is not telling the truth,” Biden’s video said.
Sanders’ video, which he quickly tweeted out Tuesday night in response, features Biden saying in the past that he wanted to freeze federal spending, including Social Security. “When I argued if we should freeze federal spending, I meant Social Security as well,” Biden said. The video then cuts to Sanders declaring, “We are not going to cut Social Security; we’re going to expand benefits.”
In his decades serving as a senator from Delaware, Biden at times supported freezes and proposals that worried some Social Security advocates. He has also released a plan that calls for strengthening Social Security and expanding certain benefits.
On Wednesday morning, in an interview on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” Biden demurred when asked if the attacks from the Sanders campaign were dishonest. But in suggesting that his past statements on Social Security were being taken out of context, he invoked Sanders’ record on gun control, an area that has previously drawn scrutiny for the senator from Vermont.
“It’s like my going back and pointing out how Bernie voted against the Brady Bill five times while I was trying to get it passed when he was in the House, or how he voted to, you know, protect gun manufacturers,” Biden said. “It’s the only group in America you can’t sue. I mean, he’s made up for that. He’s indicated that was past.”
Biden was referring to Sanders’ opposition in the 1990s to a bill that required background checks for gun purchases as well as his 2005 vote for a bill that shielded gun manufacturers and dealers from liability lawsuits.
As a group of reporters congregated around Biden at a campaign event in Mason City, Iowa, on Wednesday, Ed O’Keefe of CBS News pressed Biden on why his campaign had continued to criticize Sanders even after Sanders had apologized for his surrogate’s op-ed. “Why wasn’t his apology enough?” O’Keefe asked.
Biden responded sharply.
“Why, why, why, why!” Biden repeated, briefly grabbing O’Keefe’s lapels. “You’re getting nervous, man! Calm down. It’s OK. He apologized for saying that I was corrupt. He didn’t say anything about whether or not I was telling the truth about Social Security.”
Sanders’ newly combative posture has been met with some relief inside his campaign: With the two men competing for an overlapping slice of working-class voters, some top aides have been quietly urging Sanders to draw more explicit contrasts with the former vice president. Not only would such an offensive help Sanders whittle away at Biden’s support, some advisers believe, but it would also satisfy supporters and donors to Sanders who crave a fight. Some also think he pulled punches against Hillary Clinton in 2016, to his detriment.
Since autumn, they have encouraged him to go after Biden aggressively on the debate stage, a strategy Sanders followed tepidly. During the debate last week in Des Moines, some advisers had prodded Sanders to confront Biden on Social Security and were frustrated the topic did not come up.
Sanders seemed to telegraph his willingness to engage in rougher campaigning during a question-and-answer session with reporters this month in Iowa City.
“We will contrast records — nothing wrong with that,” he said. “That is what a serious campaign is about.”
Aides said Sanders has been true to his word, highlighting differences in his record while adhering to his long-standing opposition to personal attacks.
“Sen. Sanders’ career has been one of saying, ‘I can win on the merits of our positive argument and the values and the vision that we have for this country,’” Shakir said, adding that to the extent the campaign has gone after other candidates, “we have done so on record and on the issues.”
“What he has always felt very strongly is, we don’t do negative character attacks,” Shakir said.
There have been other instances of sniping between the two campaigns. Earlier in the race, with the Iowa caucuses a distant date on the horizon, Sanders and Biden took aim at each other over health care, with both arguing that their position was the only one that made sense. Sanders backs “Medicare for All,” a single-payer program that would eliminate private insurance, while Biden views such a proposal as too costly and complex and instead favors fixes to the existing health care system and the addition of a public option.
Sanders has also criticized Biden over his support for the North American Free Trade Agreement from almost the moment Biden jumped into the race.
But unlike those clashes, which played out before many voters had tuned into the race, their recent fights have taken place in the caldron of primary season, with media attention at a high point and their fate in the Iowa caucuses at stake.
On Wednesday, Sanders officials marveled that Biden was perpetuating an argument they believe only favors them. Protecting Social Security is a perennial issue in general election campaigns because it affects so many voters and polls as a top priority, especially with the sort of older caucusgoers Biden is counting on in Iowa. But it has scarcely come up in this contest, in part because so much of the Democratic debate has centered on health care.
Sanders’ aides had all but given up hope that their relentless baiting of Biden on the topic would draw a response. Then a voter raised the issue with Biden over the weekend, prompting him to accuse the Sanders campaign of doctoring a video against him, which revived the issue.
Still, it was unclear whether the former vice president’s campaign wanted to fully engage on the fight — until Tuesday, when it released the video condemning Sanders’ attacks. That spurred Shakir to pronounce it the first negative commercial of the primary.
And it was all the prompting Sanders needed to return fire.
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