Round 1 of the first real fight of the Democratic primary was scheduled to take place on stage at Drake University in Des Moines on Tuesday, the last debate before the Iowa caucuses.
The preliminary bout took place in the days leading up to the CNN debate when Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, the best of friends, unexpectedly became the bitterest of enemies.
The signal the debate could be the continuation of the Sanders-Warren war by other means came at the outset when Bernie, either distracted or unable to hide his feelings, didn’t shake Warren’s hand until she stuck it right in front of him. It looked like kumbaya a half hour later when Warren name-checked Sanders positively on their similar trade policies and he name-checked her back.
But 30 minutes later, Bernie got a direct question about their dispute. He laughed nervously and then outright denied that he said a woman couldn’t be president. This was different from his answer the day before, when he’d hedged slightly, admitting the subject came up but by way of his criticizing Trump who would weaponize whatever he could in the general election, including the sex of his opponent. He also referenced a video in which he said a woman could become president (in 1987 to third graders). He also asked, rhetorically, why he would ever say such a thing when a woman had actually won the popular vote in 2016.
When it came to her, Warren delayed the fight, saying that she disagreed with his recollection but that she did not come “to fight with Bernie.” Collectively, she pointed out, the men on stage had lost 10 elections and the women on stage had won every election they’d been in. She added: “The only person on this stage who has beaten an incumbent Republican any time in the past 30 years is me.”
Sanders mansplained that he’d not lost a race in 30 years and he disputed what the meaning of 30 years is. He beat a Republican in November 1990; it’s January 2020. And they left it there, staying together for now for the sake of the kids and the party.
Which is a shame. Warren should have come “to fight with Bernie.” Not about what she said he’d said to her about “what would happen if Democrats nominated a female candidate. I thought a woman could win; he disagreed.” There’s no way to resolve that on the stage.
But she should have turned to Sanders, raised an eyebrow, peered over her glasses skeptically, and asked him to explain how he’s going to pay for his Medicare for All plan, now that she’s taken a hit for modifying and accounting for hers. How’s he going to convince people happy with their health-care insurance to vote for the Democratic nominee who’s vowed to take it away at a cost unknown when Trump is promising all the private insurance you could ever want at a lower cost—and covering pre-existing conditions?
Instead, Warren went conciliatory. She declared the real danger for Democrats “is picking a candidate who can’t pull our party together or someone who takes for granted big parts of the Democratic constituency (and she should have added, “that means you Bernie”). “We need a candidate who will excite all parts of the Democratic Party, bring everyone in, and give everyone a Democrat to believe in.“
As the woman who supposedly can’t be president, Warren had the most to lose discussing it. The disadvantage hurts so much we mostly joke about the additional challenges females face: what they can wear—serious without being dowdy, fashionable without being slutty. They make videos to show they’ve set foot in a kitchen, to prove the children are all right despite Mom running around the country; they play along when questioned about their morning routine, which sometimes includes queries about moisturizing. You’d think with six women running early in the contest, likability would be a thing of the past but it isn’t. A study by the Barbara Lee Family Foundation confirms that “voters will not support a woman that they do not like, even if they believe that she is qualified, but they will vote for a man that they do not like if they believe he is qualified.”
More to the point, 74 percent of (Democratic and independent) respondents claimed in another survey that they’re comfortable with a woman president. But only 33 percent believe their neighbors are, and a middling 57 percent said their spouse or immediate family are.
When sexism raises its ugly head, it does more to remind people of the low place women have occupied for so long rather than how unfair the field on which they play is. Some of it has to be their fault, right? It makes it all the harder to picture a woman behind the Resolute Desk where none has sat before.
Warren is finally talking directly about that. Until now, rather than talk about gender, Warren preferred to talk about the achievements of unelected women throughout history. Her biggest rally in Washington Square in New York City took place a few blocks from the Triangle Shirt Factory fire site, where hundreds of women died in 1911 because the men who owned it locked them in. Two decades later, one of her heroines, Frances Perkins, became the first woman Cabinet member as secretary of labor. She’d avoided talking about the glass ceiling or the time four years ago when Hillary Clinton, the first woman nominated by a major party and who talked a lot about that fact, won the popular vote but not the election.
Clinton’s loss was a reminder that it’s not just Trump and Sanders—or not—who make the point about the weaker sex. Women warn other women; men warn women they love. In 2016, Clinton wasn’t the perfect candidate but if she’d been treated fairly by the men in her life, from her husband to James Comey, she might well have defeated the deeply flawed character who now occupies the Oval Office.
It’s time that Democrats sharpened their differences, whether or not they sharpen their knives. Warren kept hers sheathed when she could have wielded it at Bernie to get him to say what he meant. The biggest applause line came when Warren—pulling in Sen. Amy Klobuchar—pointed out that women are winning so many elections they might get tired of all the winning.
Eventually, Warren and Sanders will need to clash more directly if Warren survives Iowa and New Hampshire. There’s only room for one in the left lane, if that lane isn’t going to run into a wall.
After the debate ended, Bernie confronted her. There was no open mic to catch what they said, but a camera did show what he did: a faint move towards a farewell handshake followed by pointing a finger at Warren and his two hands, palms out, raised ending their encounter.
In fairness to Warren and to paraphrase Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady, a woman can’t be more like a man. Not yet. I was hoping for a fight but she did the right thing by not pressing for one. She did what she safely could against a candidate who sniped at Hillary before and after she won the nomination. Warren delayed the sniping until after the debate when we heard her clearly: “I’ll make you proud every day as your nominee, and”— here she paused—“as the first woman president of the United States of America.” Game, set, match.