For the first time, I believe Elizabeth Warren.
Bernie Sanders’s and Warren’s campaigns have been moving toward open warfare this week due to a comment Bernie either did, or did not, say to Warren in 2018 about whether a woman could be elected president. The episode reached full-boil at Tuesday’s Democratic debate with this bizarre exchange:
CNN Moderator Abby Phillip: Let’s now turn to—let’s now turn to an issue that’s come up in the last 48 hours. Senator Sanders, CNN reported yesterday that—and Sen. Sanders, Sen. Warren confirmed in a statement, that in 2018 you told her that you did not believe that a woman could win the election. Why did you say that?
Sanders: Well, as a matter of fact, I didn’t say it. And I don’t want to waste a whole lot of time on this, because this is what Donald Trump and maybe some of the media want. Anybody knows me knows that it’s incomprehensible that I would think that a woman cannot be president of the United States…
Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by 3 million votes. How could anybody in a million years not believe that a woman could become president of the United States? And let me be very clear. If any of the women on this stage or any of the men on this stage win the nomination, I hope that’s not the case, I hope it’s me.
But if they do, I will do everything in my power to make sure that they are elected in order to defeat the most dangerous president in the history of our country.
Phillip: So Sen. Sanders—Sen. Sanders, I do want to be clear here, you’re saying that you never told Sen. Warren that a woman could not win the election?
Sanders: That is correct.
Phillip: Senator Warren, what did you think when Sen. Sanders told you a woman could not win the election?
Ignore, for the moment, that Abby Phillip pulled a Candy Crowley and adopted one candidate’s assertion of disputed facts as the truth. And ignore, for the moment, Warren’s persistent problem with, shall we say, presenting facts about her biography that are on less-than-friendly terms with reality.
I still believe Warren’s account of the exchange.
Not because I trust Warren over Sanders—I don’t trust either of them. But in this moment of political panic about which candidate can beat Donald Trump, many Democrats aren’t thinking of electability in terms of who they might like to see as president, but rather as a cold-blooded calculation about who they think voters in Midwestern swing states will vote for.
And there’s reason for Democrats to be cynical.
Lest we forget, Donald J. “Grab ’em by the p—y” Trump was elected president in 2016, despite his frequent, undisputed, unrepentant displays of misogyny. So many allegations of sexual misconduct have been leveled against Trump—everything from harassment to rape—that they have their own Wikipedia page. And it’s a long one.
Yet Trump beat the first female major-party candidate. (All disclaimers about the popular vote aside.)
If Sanders had said privately that he had fears about America voting for a female candidate, he’s not saying anything you don’t hear from pretty much every other Democrat who is desperate to beat Trump in 2020. Because today Democrats find their pragmatism about the election in tension with their egalitarian impulses.
I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard voters say, “I really like Pete, but do you think he can win? I mean, will Americans vote for someone who is . . . uh, well, you know.”
Why, no, what ever could you mean? Short? Young? Harvard Educated? Oh, gay. You mean gay.
As a point of analysis, I don’t agree with the view that a woman couldn’t beat Trump in 2020. I just happen to think that Amy Klobuchar would have much better odds than Elizabeth Warren who is, totally aside from her gender, almost a dream foil for Trump.
And for that matter, I think a gay man might be able to beat Trump, too. And we know an African-American can get elected in America.
But it’s not crazy that people are uncertain about who their fellow Americans might be willing to vote for these days. After all, in June of 2015, the idea that a thrice-married reality TV host with a multiple-bankruptcies and a history of shady business relationships—who also happened to be a big donor to Democratic candidates—would become the godhead of the Republican party was highly implausible. We now live in a world where just about anything seems possible—including the idea that maybe there are structural reasons why a Democratic woman can’t win the presidency.
For those of us who believe that the defeat of Trumpism is vital for the health of the republic, then electability is the cardinal virtue in any Democratic candidate. A recent poll found that a candidate’s perceived strength against Trump in November was African-American Democrat-leaning adults’ top priority—well above policy positions and strong personal character.
When it comes to taking sides between Warren and Bernie, my preferred position is: neither. I think they have similarly long odds against Trump. But in this instance, my money is on Bernie being unwilling to own up to some straightforward (and completely self-interested) commentary about voters being more retrograde on gender than America had previously thought.
Because if being a woman is more of an electoral vulnerability than being a socialist, we’ve got bigger problems than getting to the bottom of this he said/she said.