NEW YORK (AP) — Bernie Sanders was minutes away from walking onto a Brooklyn stage last weekend to launch a second presidential campaign that he insisted would be all about the future. The problem: Some of his allies were still fighting Hillary Clinton.
Shaun King, the activist and writer who was introducing the Vermont senator, hinted at what might have been had Sanders won the 2016 Democratic nomination.
"In 2016, like so many of you, I campaigned hard for Bernie to be president. And to this day, I still believe that he would have beaten Donald Trump," King told a cheering crowd gathered on a snowy college lawn and waving signs with the same logo that Sanders' campaign used in 2016.
The 2020 Democratic primary may be in full swing, but the bruising 2016 contest between Sanders and Clinton never ended for some. In the opening days of Sanders' latest campaign, Clinton's supporters have warned that he will drag the party to the extreme left and have threatened to reveal unsavory details about him. Sanders and some of his backers have been strikingly dismissive of the first woman to be a major party's presidential nominee. In the process, the entire Democratic field risks getting bogged down in the last campaign instead of positioning themselves to beat President Donald Trump.
"One of the biggest cliches in politics is that elections are about the future, not the past, and there's a reason that cliches are cliches — because they're true," said Mo Elleithee, a former Clinton spokesman who now leads Georgetown University's Institute of Politics and Public Service. "To sit here and relitigate what happened in the 2016 Democratic primary means we're not talking about the 2020 Democratic primary. How's that good for anybody?"
But the 2016 campaign — and all the fallout from its surprise result — isn't going away without a fight.
Trump lamented on Twitter on Tuesday that he won't be able to take on Clinton for a second time after she ruled out running for president again. Sanders, a self-described democratic socialist, sought to move past the ambiguity over his party affiliation by signing a Democratic National Committee pledge to seek the presidency as a Democrat and govern as one if he's elected. And in recent interviews, Sanders has sought to deflect criticism that he divided the party and contributed to Clinton's loss by painting himself as a relentless surrogate for the 2016 nominee, something he doesn't think he gets enough credit for.
The 2016 hangover is following some candidates on the campaign trail. Pressed in Iowa this weekend about why she didn't back Sanders in 2016, Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts encouraged Democrats to "keep our focus on how we're going to win in 2020."
It's the long-simmering feud between the Clinton and Sanders camps that's proving the hardest to overcome. In 2016, Sanders and his supporters said the primary was stacked against them because of perceived favoritism among Democratic leaders toward Clinton. Her backers argued that Sanders left her bruised heading into the tough fall campaign against Trump.
Those lingering hard feelings have been amplified by a debate among Democrats in the Trump era over whether the ambitious liberal proposals championed by Sanders could backfire. Bill and Hillary Clinton don't believe Sanders can beat Trump, according to people who have spoken to them and requested anonymity to discuss private conversations.
From nearly the minute Sanders announced his second campaign last month, Clinton supporters worried he would drag the party too far to the left. Sanders, meanwhile, spoke of his "differences" with Clinton during an appearance on ABC's "The View" and said he wasn't interested in her advice.
Clinton spokesman Nick Merrill tweeted that "crap like this 613 days before Election Day is irresponsible, counter-productive, & sets us all back."
By the time Clinton and Sanders made a rare appearance together on Sunday in Selma, Alabama, the tension was clear. Clinton and Sanders shared only a brusque exchange, in contrast to the hug she gave to New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker.
There's no sign that the strain will fade away soon. David Brock, who in 2016 ran the pro-Clinton super PAC Correct the Record, helped produce opposition research against Sanders. He said only a limited amount of the group's work was released during the campaign because they were "waved off (from) going very hard on Bernie" to avoid alienating his supporters.
"He wasn't really scrutinized," said Brock, who also founded the Democratic opposition research group American Bridge.
Brock wouldn't provide details on what he learned about Sanders but said he and Clinton supporters won't hold back in 2020.
"It's extremely unlikely that he is going to be the nominee, and yet he can cause a lot of problems along the way," he said.
Jeff Weaver, who ran Sanders' 2016 campaign and serves as a senior adviser to his second run, brushed off such threats, saying that there's a small group that could be described as the "Bitteratti" who is interested in fighting the last primary and that he isn't one of them.
"There is a very small sliver, particularly within some donor circles, who for their own class interests would be very disappointed to see Bernie Sanders be the nominee of their party," Weaver said. "David Brock is paid by and represents those people."
"Fortunately," Weaver added, "the rank and file of the Democratic Party does not agree with the small group of millionaires who holds the leash of David Brock."
Rebecca Katz, a New York-based liberal strategist, said, "Establishment Washington has to come to terms with the fact that, yes, Bernie Sanders might indeed be the nominee."
"Not only that, but they also need to know that Bernie Sanders is very well admired outside of Washington, and they can't discount that just because they don't like him," he said.
Associated Press writers Alexandra Jaffe in Waterloo, Iowa, and Julie Pace in Washington contributed to this report.