Bernie versus Beto: Democratic cannibalization begins

The Democrats can screw up their 2020 chances by beating each other to a pulp. And Bernie Sanders' fans are already waging against Beto O'Rourke.

Left: Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky) 
Right: Rep. Beto O'Rourke (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

Left: Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky) Right: Rep. Beto O'Rourke (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

Donald Trump seems beatable in 2020 – unless Democrats screw things up by beating each other to a pulp. And if you think that scenario is impossible, you clearly haven’t noticed the war that Bernie Sanders’ fans are already waging against Beto O’Rourke.

Hey, that didn’t take long. The Democrats’ 40-seat House triumph is so seven weeks ago. Now come the purity tests and the rites of cannibalization. Welcome to the next 18 months.

I have no idea whether Beto has the right stuff to run for president (assuming he even runs). What I do know, since I was alive in 2016, is that Bernie and his cult followers are fully capable of sowing vicious intraparty strife, thus greasing the wheels for Trump. As ex-Hillary and Obama aide Neera Tanden, president of the liberal Center for American Progress, recently tweeted, “This is seriously dangerous.” (For that, she was predictably attacked on social media; one Bernie fan called her “a lying sack of s–t.” Natch.)

Nearly three dozen people are definitely or theoretically interested in the Democratic nomination – God help us – and most of them are pondering the future in relative quietude. But Bernieworld is clearly freaked about Beto’s rapid ascent; in recent polls that measure grassroots Democratic sentiment, charismatic Beto (who lost his Texas race by only 2.6 points in a state that hasn’t elected a Democratic senator in 30 years) is crowding Bernie for second place behind front-runner Joe Biden. Granted, these early polls are largely worthless – Biden gets a boost from his universal name ID – but Bernie fans are nevertheless in battle mode.

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

They’re ticked off that Beto met recently with Obama and that Obama (or at least some of Obama’s ex-aides) appeared supportive. They’ve interpreted that meeting as evidence that the party “establishment” remains hostile to Bernie (who’s not even a Democrat, but never mind); therefore, it’s deemed imperative to attack Beto early and often. Their chosen method is to give Beto an F on their ideological litmus test. They’ve been stung by a recent survey of progressives, conducted by, which ranks Bernie as the number three candidate – two rungs lower than Beto – so they’re trying to take down Beto with all deliberate speed.

They have studied Beto’s speeches and House voting record, and found some problematical behavior. Beto doesn’t support Bernie’s “Medicare for All” Senate bill. Beto does want to empower the EPA and rejoin the Paris Climate Accords, but he got more donations from people in the oil and gas industries than any other federal candidate in 2018. (Context for the latter: Those donations accounted for roughly one-half of one percent of all the money he raised – none of which came from corporate political action committees.)

Litmus-testers have also been busy highlighting other potential candidates’ alleged impurities – Biden, Kamala Harris, Cory Booker – and that was inevitable, because many on the left will abide nothing short of perceived perfection. (If we really want to play that game, Bernie fails it as well. Check out his gun-friendly Senate votes.) But the Bernie camp’s beef is not about Beto’s ideology (or lack thereof). The Bernie camp is mostly worried that Beto will snatch their market share.

In the 2016 Democratic primaries, Bernie cornered the market on voters under 40; the latest polls show that Beto is ascendant with voters under 40. Bernie and his fans cannot abide that. They view Beto as the beneficiary of a personality cult (which may be true), and that’s a potential threat as well, given the fact that Bernie is the beneficiary of a personality cult. Hence, there can be no compromise. Check out #NeverBeto. This recent tweet from a self-described hardcore “Berniecrat” is typical: “No one can compare to Bernie…Beto’s evil record has nothing to do with Bernie because I always will be #NeverBeto and #NeverHillary for the rest of my life. I will only support Dem Socialists who are the real progressive of Dem Party.”

Note the anti-Hillary hashtag. My Twitter feed has been packed lately with Bernie fans (and perhaps some Russian bots pretending to be Bernie fans) railing even now about how horrible Hillary is. I kid you not. And the Bernie-Beto clash is likely a grim portent of what awaits us during the run-up to the Democratic debates that begin next June.

Ben LaBolt, a former Obama aide, tells NBC News: “There are going to be two ways for candidates to run their primary campaigns – one is to sharpen the contrast against Trump without cannibalizing the other Democratic candidates, and the other is to run a scorched-earth campaign against the other Democrats…Democrats should keep their eye on the prize and avoid fueling the next Jill Stein boomlet.”

What are the odds that Democrats, especially the Berniecrats, will maximize their ’20 potential? Anyone who still believes that Donald Trump won’t be able to exploit those schisms is living in a dream world.


WHYY is your source for fact-based, in-depth journalism and information. As a nonprofit organization, we rely on financial support from readers like you. Please give today.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal