Democrats face new civil war in primary fight

The bell has rung on round two of the Democratic Party’s civil war.

Former Vice President Joe BidenJoe Robinette BidenButtigieg on Trump tweets: 'I don't care' Buttigieg: The future 'is personal' for me Donald Trump, president for life? We need term limits now MORE’s entry into the 2020 presidential primary sets the stage for another knock-down, drag-out fight between the establishment wing of the party and the ascendant left, led by Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersButtigieg defends appearing on Fox News: Many Americans don't hear Dems' message Buttigieg: The future 'is personal' for me Donald Trump, president for life? We need term limits now MORE (I-Vt.).

That showdown threatens to tear open old wounds the party suffered in the bitter 2016 primary contest between Sanders and Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonDe Blasio pitches himself as tough New Yorker who can take on 'Don the con' From dive bars to steakhouses: How Iowa caucus staffers blow off steam Warren policy ideas show signs of paying off MORE.

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Party leaders have tried to move on from that divisive episode, but deep wells of suspicion and distrust remain between mainstream Democrats and the left.

"The civil war that started in 2016 never ended," said one veteran Democratic hand. "It’s still going on."

The 2016 primary contest left liberals fuming at what they viewed as establishment interference in the race, underscored by the hacked Democratic National Committee (DNC) emails that showed favoritism toward Clinton.

And some mainstream Democrats are unnerved by what they view as a group of left-wing interlopers, online brawlers and sore losers trying to take over the party.

The same fight played out in 2017, when party officials elected Tom PerezThomas Edward PerezClinton’s top five vice presidential picks Government social programs: Triumph of hope over evidence Labor’s 'wasteful spending and mismanagement” at Workers’ Comp MORE to be the next DNC chairman. Perez, who was backed by Biden, narrowly defeated Sanders’s preferred candidate, former Rep. Keith EllisonKeith Maurice EllisonDemocrats face new civil war in primary fight 18 state attorneys general call on Justice Dept to release Mueller report Keith Ellison: Evidence points to Trump being 'sympathetic' to white nationalist point of view MORE (Minn.). That race similarly cut along establishment and grass-roots lines.

Now liberals are on the lookout for any whiff of malfeasance and warning party insiders that they’re playing with fire if they meddle in the 2020 primary.

"If I were in charge of the DNC or Joe Biden’s campaign or any other entity associated with the traditional Democratic Party, I would be going out of my way to embrace the new energy on the left and these anti-establishment forces," said Robert Reich, former President Clinton’s Labor secretary and a leading progressive thinker.

"I hope the establishment wing understands how dangerous it would be to attack Bernie Sanders or anybody else who they may feel represents the left wing of the party. That would be a really stupid thing to do," he added.

The left has won a slew of victories in the years since Sanders’s primary defeat. 

There have been changes at the DNC to limit the power of superdelegates, the party officials who propelled Clinton to victory in 2016. A robust debate schedule will ensure that voters are exposed to the full field of candidates.

And many of Sanders’s once-fringe ideas have gone mainstream in the Democratic Party.

"Bernie Sanders has already defined the soul of the party if you look at the current conversation on health care, college tuition, foreign policy and wealth inequality," said Jonathan Tasini, a progressive writer. "That debate is over if the party looks at what voters thirst for."

But many on the left feel like outsiders in the Democratic Party. They’re still worried about officials exerting influence over the primary, particularly if there is a contested convention, which seems likelier this year with the massive field of candidates splitting votes.

"A lot of people still feel burned," said Jacob Limon, who was the Texas state director for Sanders’s 2016 campaign. "We corrected a lot of the imbalances, like the unfair superdelegates dynamic, but there are still a lot of raw feelings around that and a sense that you absolutely cannot burn the grass roots again."

Biden is trying to avoid the perception that he’s the anointed establishment candidate. In an interview on ABC’s "The View," Biden said that he specifically asked former President Obama not to endorse him in the primary.

"I didn’t want it to look like he’s putting his thumb on the scale here," Biden said. "I’m going to do this based on who I am, not by the president going out and saying, 'This is the guy you should be with.'"

But many centrist Democrats are just as worried about how the left will approach the primary contest.

They’re frustrated by Sanders’s steadfast refusal to officially join the Democratic Party and worried by what they view as his team of political assassins. And they wonder whether Sanders’s supporters will accept the outcome of the primary and turn out to vote for the nominee in the general election if Sanders falls short again.

"There is a 'Bernie-or-bust' coalition, and they have no allegiance to the party," said the Democratic strategist. "They don’t care about campaign infrastructure or winning up and down the ballot. They’re just concerned about bullshit litmus tests and defending their guy no matter what and pretending that everyone else is a member of the big bad establishment."

Liberal groups have torn into Biden since he launched his campaign, casting him as a relic of the "old guard" and an establishment figure beholden to corporate interests.

The Sanders campaign swiped at Biden for holding a fundraiser at the home of a lobbyist. The Justice Democrats, a liberal group started by former Sanders campaign aides, tore into the former vice president, saying he "stands in near complete opposition to where the center of energy is in the Democratic Party today."

"The level of nastiness we see here is completely up to Sanders and his camp," said Jon Reinish, a Democratic strategist. 

"Joe Biden is an optimistic guy. I can’t think of a sunnier or more unifying person. The way he communicates is in stark contrast to Sen. Sanders, who unfortunately tends to campaign in a language of grievances, conspiracies and victimhood. It’s my hope that Sen. Sanders campaigns on his own merits and policies, but so far his surrogates and he have engaged in the same old attacks. No other Democrat is doing that. Sanders is the one that sets the tone for his campaign here," he added.

Still, some Democrats are optimistic that the party will come together in the end no matter the outcome.

"In 2016, the question was, do you want Bernie or Hillary?" said Howard Gutman, a former Obama administration ambassador. "The circumstances couldn’t be more different this time around. We have a broad array of strong candidates from the entire Democratic family, and the only issue is, how do we beat Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump: 'I will not let Iran have nuclear weapons' Rocket attack hits Baghdad's Green Zone amid escalating tensions: reports Buttigieg on Trump tweets: 'I don't care' MORE? That’s the great unifier."