In covering the first US Democratic Party Presidential Debate of 2020, held last Tuesday evening, the mass media tended to gloss over most of the major issues and political philosophies discussed and to focus instead on a petty spat between the two most progressive candidates, Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders. This focus is part of a “reality TV” trend that has been accentuated in news coverage over the past three years as an outgrowth of the mentality generated by the administration of President Donald Trump—himself the former host of a TV reality show called The Apprentice, in which his signature line was, “You’re fired!”
The debate, held on the campus of Iowa’s Drake University and hosted by the CNN cable news network and The Des Moines Register, delved into numerous pressing issues, but CNN had already been pushing the supposed rift between Sanders and Warren as a talking point in its news and commentary broadcasts since the day before when the story broke. And in hosting the event, CNN moderators continued to pick at it during the debate. According to reports from CNN and The New York Times that quoted anonymous sources, Warren had claimed on Monday night that Sanders had told her in a private one-on-one meeting in 2018 that he didn’t think a woman could win the presidency. Sanders reacted to the reports accusing Warren’s campaign staff of lying about what had happened in that meeting.
|Elizabeth and Bernie, old friends|
The reports clearly took Sanders by surprise, particularly since, until now, he and Warren have been drawing on their long-time friendship and their similar liberal values to maintain a kind of political honeymoon, while other Democratic candidates for the 2020 presidential race have increasingly indulged in eating their own. Former Democratic hopeful Kamala Harris’s attack on former Vice-President Joe Biden for consorting with racists in Congress during the civil rights era and Warren and Amy Klobuchar’s attempts to portray former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg as inexperienced, sold out to the rich and talking from a kind of script rather than from experience have been among some of the most damning of these assaults.
Until now, Sanders and Warren have managed to remain above the fray and have not only shown restraint but also great respect for each other. But with Sanders increasingly trending as the number one challenger to Biden’s lead among Democratic candidates and with Bernie’s rise coming at the expense of both Biden and Warren, it appears likely that the rift was indeed engineered by Warren’s campaign as a means of differentiating her from Sanders. Instead of doing so based on the broader issues, however, Warren’s campaign strategists seem to have decided to play the gender card by seeking to show Sanders as somehow misogynistic, when, by all accounts, he is probably the male candidate from either party who least deserves the term.
Perhaps the idea was to create hostility between Sanders and women voters. A study in The Economist last September showed that women under 45 made up a larger share of Bernie’s base than men in their same age group did, running counter to the previous idea that Sanders’ supporters were overwhelmingly white and male, to the virtual exclusion of other groups. This has to have worried Elizabeth Warren’s strategists, and it seems clear that they felt it was important to come out of their corner throwing haymakers from the start in the first month of the election year. But the fact that, when the story first broke, Warren refused to comment might point to ambivalence on the senator’s part about going the route her campaign was marking. In the end, however, she did. She later appeared to be toning down the language of the initial claim, saying that Sanders had said he didn’t think a woman could win and she had “disagreed”.
At the debate, although both Sanders and Warren must both have suspected that it was inevitable, the question came out of the blue about halfway through the event. That was when CNN's Abby Philip—one of the first journalists to report the rift and now a debate moderator—addressed Sanders saying, “...Senator 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?” To which Sanders replied, “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 that knows me knows that it’s incomprehensible that I would think that a woman could not be President of the United States. Go to YouTube today. There’s a video of me 30 years ago, talking about how a woman could become President of the United States. In 2015, I deferred, in fact, to Senator Warren. There was a movement to draft Senator Warren to run for President, and you know what? I stayed back. Senator Warren decided not to run, and I did run afterwards.
“Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by three million votes. How could anybody in a million years not believe that a woman could become President of the United States? 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.”
Abby Philip insisted then, “So, Senator Sanders, I do want to be clear here. You’re saying that you never told Senator Warren that a woman could not win the election?”
“That is correct,” Sanders replied.
What the CNN moderator did next showed quite clearly that she was trying to bait the two liberal senators into a “he said/she said” argument. Totally disregarding the denial that she had just asked Sanders to confirm, she turned to Elizabeth Warren and said, “Senator Warren, what did you think when Senator Sanders told you a woman could not win the election?”
The bias in her question was so ludicrously obvious that there was a ripple of laughter in the audience. It was a question that seemed to say, “He’s lying.” Despite the opening Abby Philip was giving her, however, Warren was measured in her answer. She said, “I disagreed,” going on to add, “Bernie is my friend, and I am not here to try to fight with Bernie. But look. This question about whether or not a woman can be President has been raised, and it’s time for us to attack it head-on...I think the best way to talk about who can win is by looking at people’s winning record...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. The only person on this stage who has beaten an incumbent Republican anytime in the past 30 years is me, and here’s what I know. The real danger that we face as Democrats is picking a candidate who can’t pull our party together or someone who takes for granted big parts of the Democratic constituency.”
But it wasn’t until the debate ended that the real fireworks erupted, unfortunately on camera and with an open mic. That was when Warren walked over to Sanders and, when Sanders extended his hand and smiled, she refused to shake it and kept her own hands tightly clasped in front of her chest. “I think you called me a liar on national TV,” she said.
Taken aback, Sanders said, “What?”
“I think you called me a liar on national TV,” Warren said again.
Visibly irritated, Sanders said, “You know, let’s not do it right now. If you want to have that discussion, we’ll have that discussion.”
“Anytime,” Warren said.
Sanders responded, “You called me a liar. You told me...” but then he thought better of continuing the discussion to the delight of the media and said again, “All right, let’s not do it now,” before rushing off the stage.
Encompassed within the answer that Senator Warren gave to Abby Philip was the key to why Warren’s campaign might have decided to allege the content of a private 2018 conversation at this particular time. It was because it appeared to be a convenient response to a question that isn’t being asked aloud, but which is arising among many of those who want to make sure the Democratic candidate, whoever it might be, can indeed beat Donald Trump, because the thought of another four years of Trumpism is terrifying and repugnant to them.
And here too might well be where the 2018 private discussion between two old friends and Senate colleagues came up. As Sanders said, it is practically impossible to imagine him saying that a woman could not be president of the United States, but perhaps what he wondered aloud was whether, in the misogynistic, discriminatory, white-male-privileged, un-politically-correct climate generated by the Trump regime, would a woman, indeed, be able to win a presidential election in 2020 for the first time in US history? (Well, second if you count Hillary Clinton’s having the last election plundered from her by the Electoral College). It’s an honest question that, despite its honesty, certainly doesn’t preclude a female-led Democratic ticket, no matter what the odds against her might be, since the two women on that debate stage last Tuesday are nothing if not competent to serve.
So perhaps it’s not that either of the senators involved is lying. But that they’ve allowed the media and their political rivals to buffalo them into a public spat over what is very likely a complete misunderstanding based on words taken out of context.
In the end we’ll never know. Since it would appear that the only people who really know what was said in that private meeting are Elizabeth and Bernie. And we can only hope that they will mend their fences soon since there has never been a moment when a united liberal front has been more vital to American democracy.