At Tuesday night’s Democratic presidential debate, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders carefully sidestepped a potential scuffle over whether Sanders had once told Warren a woman could not win the presidency.
Instead, they got into a pithy skirmish about who was more electable — and what counts as three decades.
“Bernie is my friend, and I’m not here to try to fight with Bernie,” said Warren, asked for her reaction to Sanders’ reported skepticism that a woman could defeat President Donald Trump.
But she and Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar were, in fact, more electable than the men on the stage, Warren said.
“Look at the men on this stage,” she grinned. “Collectively, they have lost 10 elections. The only people on this stage who have won every single election that they’ve been in are the women: Amy and me. And the only person on this stage who has beaten an incumbent Republican anytime in the past 30 years is me.”
Sanders, for his part, again denied that he’d had any doubts about a woman running for president.
“Anybody who knows me knows that it’s incomprehensible that I would think that a woman cannot be president of the United States,” he said.
Sanders had sat out the 2016 presidential race until the Draft Warren effort had run its course, he said. And, he added, if either of the women onstage with him were to win the nomination, he would do “everything in my power to make sure they are elected in order to defeat the most dangerous president in the history of our country.”
The back-and-forth was a sign that the two progressive front-runners were eager to stifle any disagreement — their most public to date — about a divisive CNN report.
On Monday, Warren corroborated the story, which claimed that Sanders had cast doubt on her chances in a private meeting of the two candidates in late 2018: “I thought a woman could win; he disagreed,” she said in a brief statement.
Sanders’ campaign vehemently denied CNN’s reporting, which did not initially cite on-the-record sources. “It is a lie. Bernie Sanders has always stood for women and women’s rights,” Sanders campaign manager Faiz Shakir said. Sanders characterized the account as “lying” from “staff who weren’t in the room.”
“Do I believe a woman can win in 2020?” he told CNN. “Of course! After all, Hillary Clinton beat Donald Trump by 3 million votes in 2016.”
After Sanders repeated his denial on the debate stage in Iowa, the moderators spared Warren from having to say “did so.”
“Senator Warren, what did you think when Senator Sanders told you a woman could not win the election?” asked Des Moines Register politics chief Brianne Pfannenstiel.
“I disagreed,” she replied crisply before laying out the case for her electability.
Klobuchar one-upped Warren, saying, “Every single person I have beaten, my Republican opponents, have gotten out of politics forever … I think that sounds pretty good with the guy we have in the White House right now.”
But Sanders, in what became an irritated exchange with Warren, took issue with the senator’s claim that she was the only candidate to beat a Republican incumbent in 30 years.
“Just to set the record straight, I defeated an incumbent Republican running for Congress,” he said.
Warren asked when.
Warren counted in her head.
“That’s how I won,” Sanders said.
“Thirty years ago,” she said. “Wasn’t that 30 years ago?”
A Shaky Truce
In recent appearances with voters, Warren has made the sexism she faced throughout her career more of a prominent part of her story. She is one of the only women left running in the Democratic presidential primary, and she is the only female candidate with broad voter support in the early-nominating states.
Her account of her 2018 meeting with Sanders has some supporters worried that the truce between the two candidates is in peril. Sanders and Warren have avoided openly attacking each other so that neither alienates the other’s supporters and so progressive groups can focus on weakening former Vice President Joe Biden, an avowed moderate who remains the front-runner.
The truce — reportedly hammered out at that same 2018 meeting — preserves the possibility that one candidate could support the other if that person emerges as the clear favorite of progressives. But three weeks out from the all-important Iowa caucuses, neither candidate has faded, raising their incentive to try to tarnish each other.
To that end, the Sanders campaign has tacitly raised doubts about Warren’s commitment to longshot progressive ideas such as “Medicare for All” and grouped her with other elite candidates representing the old guard of the Democratic Party.
Sanders is supported by a diverse group of primary voters now, but he drew criticism during his 2016 presidential campaign for failing to emphasize gender and racial discrimination in his political vision.
Polling shows that a majority of voters who support Sanders would flock to Warren if he were knocked out of the Democratic primary and vice versa. “And I don’t think you win them over by going after him,” former Iowa state Sen. Steve Sovern (D), a Sanders-turned-Warren supporter, said Monday.
For some, the claim that Sanders did not think a woman could win the presidency caused just such a backlash against Warren.
“Shame on you,” RoseAnn DeMoro, the former head of National Nurses United and a prominent Sanders backer, tweeted at Warren on Monday. Sanders, she added, “was a feminist when you were a Republican.”