One of the stranger moments in Tuesday night’s Democratic Presidential debate, in Des Moines, came during an exchange between one of the moderators, Abby Phillip, of CNN, and Senator Elizabeth Warren, of Massachusetts. The backdrop was a dispute between Warren and Senator Bernie Sanders, of Vermont, about what Sanders had said to Warren at a private dinner that the two of them had in December, 2018, when both were on the verge of entering the Presidential race. On Monday, CNN ran a story, attributed to people who were “familiar” with the meeting or had spoken to Warren soon after it, claiming that Sanders had told her that a woman could not win the Presidential election.
That would, of course, be the kind of undermining, sexist thing that women with ambitions hear all the time. But Sanders strongly denied that he had said it. In fact, he said in a statement, it was “ludicrous” to think that he would tell Warren such a thing; instead, the statement read, “What I did say that night was that Donald Trump is a sexist, a racist and a liar who would weaponize whatever he could.” (That is almost a truism.) Sanders added that it must be that “staff who weren’t in the room are lying about what happened.” This inference was, at least, undiplomatic and, perhaps, reckless. (There is a concurrent dispute about whether people on Sanders’s staff had coached volunteers to suggest to voters that Warren’s appeal was narrow and concentrated among “highly educated, more affluent people.”) Warren then came out with her own statement, which included this description of what each of them had said in the December meeting: “I thought a woman could win; he disagreed.” Neither of them left much room for the possibility that the truth was somewhere in between, or that, for example, Sanders might have sent a message that went beyond his words.
Neither did CNN. Phillip simply asked Sanders, “Why did you say that?” “Well, as a matter of fact, I didn’t say it,” Sanders replied. “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.” He cited a raft of evidence, including statements he had made decades ago, his own willingness to defer to Warren if she had decided to run for the White House in 2016, and Hillary Clinton’s popular-vote victory that year (when, after losing the Democratic nomination, he vigorously campaigned for her). The expression on Warren’s face as he spoke—CNN went with a split screen—was one of studied indifference punctuated by brief sidelong glances that seemed to convey bemusement.
“Senator Sanders, I do want to be clear here,” Phillip said. “You’re saying that you never told Senator Warren that a woman could not win the election?” He replied, “That is correct.” Phillip, without missing a beat, said, “Senator Warren, what did you think when Senator Sanders told you a woman could not win the election?” It was as though he hadn’t denied it, or as if there were no need to grapple with a different view. The audience, anyway, laughed, and Warren, after a flash of a smile, said, “I disagreed.” With that, she closed the loop of a story in which her version of the meeting was an unquestioned fact.
It was not Warren’s job, of course, to be conciliatory, when Sanders himself had said that her account was false. He might also have allowed for more ambiguity and wondered, for example, whether the effect of his words had been very different from what he’d intended; he can be inflexible. At the same time, his acknowledgement that he did speak about the particular challenges a woman would face went part of the way toward a middle ground and offered Warren an opening that she shut off.
After noting that she wasn’t there to “fight with Bernie,” who, she said, is a friend, Warren spoke in spirited terms about how women can and do win—and ended up in another odd tiff with Sanders. “So, can a woman beat Donald Trump?” Warren asked. “Look at the men on this stage. Collectively, they have lost ten elections. The only people on this stage who have won every single election that they’ve been in are the women: Amy and me.”
“So true!” Senator Amy Klobuchar, of Minnesota, said. In Klobuchar’s case, that includes two victories in races for the Hennepin County Attorney and three for the Senate, in a purple state. Warren has won twice, for the Senate, the first office she sought. She seems to have arrived at the number of losses for the men by including the former Vice-President Joe Biden’s two failed Presidential runs. (He hasn’t lost any other races since winning one for the County Council in Delaware, in 1970, which he followed with seven Senate victories and two as Barack Obama’s running mate.) Tom Steyer, the businessman who is still, somehow, in the race, has never won or lost an election. Warren also seemed to tally not only Pete Buttigieg’s failed run for state treasurer of Indiana, in 2010, but also his unsuccessful bid to become chair of the Democratic National Committee; he was elected mayor of South Bend twice and came out as gay before his reëlection. The balance of the ten seems to consist of six Sanders losses: five, in the nineteen-seventies and eighties, as a third-party or independent candidate for various offices in Vermont and the one to Clinton.
Warren had another number to throw out: “And the only person on this stage who has beaten an incumbent Republican any time in the past thirty years is me.” (Perhaps that was meant to emphasize that she has an edge over Klobuchar.) Sanders corrected her: he had beaten a Republican incumbent, too. “That’s how I won, beat a Republican congressman.” This is true; in 1990, Sanders, who was then the mayor of Burlington and openly socialist, ran for Congress, as an independent, and won—defeating the Democratic nominee, too.
Warren wasn’t having it. “Wasn’t it thirty years ago?” she said firmly. She added, “I said I was the only one who’d beaten an incumbent Republican in thirty years.” Sanders replied, “Well, thirty years ago is 1990, as a matter of fact.” He was right about the math; the election of 1990 was on November 6th, twenty-nine years and a couple of months ago. But, in the blur of the debate, it might have struck some viewers that he wasn’t listening to Warren, or was spuriously correcting her, or maybe just that he was old, winning an election before many of them had been born. (He is seventy-eight; Warren is seventy.) That misses the small but perhaps telling matter of whether Warren slipped in the “thirty years” to exclude that election, and whether she or her staff got the math wrong or just figured that it was close enough for cable and Twitter. Little in this exchange bodes well for Democratic unity. After the debate ended, Warren either did not register or declined Sanders’s outstretched hand; they exchanged words that were not picked up by the microphones, but their demeanor did not telegraph conciliation.
Previously, of course, Warren and Sanders have been in synch, and they still are in terms of their larger policy goals. At the Democratic debate in October, Warren described tax plans as an expression of “values,” then said, “My question is not, Why do Bernie and I support a wealth tax. It’s, Why is it—does everyone else on this stage think it is more important to protect billionaires than it is to invest in an entire generation of Americans?” Klobuchar had the strongest response to what was, in effect, an accusation of bad faith on the part of Warren’s opponents. “I want to give a reality check here to Elizabeth, because no one on this stage wants to protect billionaires. Not even the billionaire wants to protect billionaires!” (She meant Steyer.) Klobuchar continued, “We just have different approaches. Your idea is not the only idea.” Whatever one thinks of Klobuchar’s tax plan, or about her and Warren’s passion for addressing inequality—or, for that matter, about the scorn and dismissiveness that women face at every level of politics, including, at times, from people who imagine themselves as their allies—there is an undercurrent in Warren’s rhetoric that some Democrats might well be wary of.
The Iowa primary is on February 3rd. The Real Clear Politics polling average puts Biden and Sanders in an effective tie for first place, followed by Buttigieg and then Warren. But they are within a few points of one another. (Klobuchar is holding on, in the high single digits.) Iowans will, no doubt, have been listening to what the candidates have to say about a dozen other issues that were covered at the debate. Some were examined in depth, such as the misuse of dated authorizations for the use of military force, and the pros and cons of the United States-Mexico-Canada trade agreement. One issue that received surprisingly little attention was impeachment, which the moderators turned to toward the end of the debate, even though Trump’s Senate trial will begin in the coming days. Sanders, Warren, and Klobuchar will, as senators, serve as jurors weighing the President’s guilt. And, on that verdict, they are bound to agree.