The Night the Media Realized Bernie Could Win

A serious candidacy brought out the absurd questions.

Bernie Sanders.
Sen. Bernie Sanders at the debate on Tuesday night. Robyn Beck/Getty Images

Forty-three minutes into Tuesday night’s Democratic presidential debate from Iowa, after an unsettlingly civilized discussion about foreign policy, the CNN debate moderators couldn’t take it anymore and arrived at the hot gossip of the week: Whether Bernie Sanders—as Elizabeth Warren has claimed and Sanders has denied—told her in a 2018 meeting that a woman couldn’t beat Donald Trump. Only two participants were in that room, there are no recordings of the meeting, and the two participants have starkly different recollections of the conversation. After a long span of cordial campaigning between the left-most candidates, here was a dispute worth getting to the bottom of.

Here, though, is how the question was raised to Sanders. “CNN reported yesterday, and Sen. Warren confirmed in a statement, that in 2018, you told her that you did not believe that a woman could win the election,” CNN moderator Abby Phillip said.

“Why did you say that?”

Sanders denied that he said that, recalled how he tried to draft Warren for 2016 before entering the race himself, and cited Hillary Clinton’s win in the popular vote last cycle. He promised to do everything in his power to ensure the eventual nominee was elected.

“So Sen. Sanders,” Phillip followed up, “I want to be very clear here: You’re saying that you never told Sen. Warren that a woman could not win the election?”

“That is correct,” Sanders said.

There was the point of contention, in black and white. Then Phillip asked Warren about it: “What did you think when Sen. Sanders told you a woman could not win the election?”

Sanders chuckled along with the audience. Warren seemed almost surprised, at first, that she hadn’t been asked to litigate the essential truth of the claim, as CNN had granted her the assumption that her version was correct. She quickly transitioned, though, to an effective monologue about how the men on the stage had collectively lost 10 elections, and she was the only candidate on stage who had beaten an incumbent Republican in the past 30 years.

That was the slightly unreal tenor of the night. There was no particular candidate on stage earning most of the scorn and scrutiny from their fellow candidates, as Joe Biden earned in the first couple of debates, Warren earned during the October debate, and Pete Buttigieg earned in December. That reflects the tight, fluid race in Iowa a few weeks out from the caucuses, where the four candidates are within a few points with each other.

The moderators, however, had a clear focus, and it was Sanders. Their treatment of him reflected his dual status in the race: As a plausible front-runner in a narrowing field, he was due to receive sustained scrutiny; as the candidate furthest past the left edge of establishment politics, he faced questions that framed his positions as facially unrealistic, or dangerously in league with the Ayatollah Khamenei. The Sanders campaign has complained—not unreasonably—for much of the past year that the media has erased or ignored the candidate, even as he’s run a strong and steady race. Tuesday’s debate showed that they don’t have to worry about the press refusing to pay attention to him anymore.

During the opening segment about foreign policy, after Sanders had called out Biden’s vote for the Iraq war, Biden agreed with Sanders that his vote had been a mistake. It’s a key point for Sanders: Back then, he took a stand outside the mainstream of political opinion, and it has since been vindicated.

Rather than leaving it there, though, CNN moderator Wolf Blitzer immediately brought up how Sanders had recently expressed regret for his vote for the war in Afghanistan (or, more specifically, for the 2001 AUMF against al-Qaida). “So you both acknowledged mistakes,” Blitzer asked Sanders. “Why should the American people trust your judgment more?” (Sanders’ answer, in a nutshell, was: Because I didn’t vote for the Iraq war, dummy.)

Later in the segment, Blitzer introduced a question to Sanders about removing troops from Iraq the following way: “Sen. Sanders, in the wake of the Iran crisis, Iran’s Ayatollah Khamenei has again called for all U.S. troops to be pulled out of the Middle East, something you’ve called for, as well.”

Following a segment on the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement, during which Elizabeth Warren was asked “why is Sen. Sanders wrong” to oppose the deal, and the discussion of the 2018 meeting in which it was treated as established fact that Bernie Sanders told Elizabeth Warren, verbatim, that he doesn’t think a woman can beat Trump, the debate moved to well-trod territory of how dang expensive his signature proposal, “Medicare for All,” would be. Sanders was asked, first, “Don’t voters deserve to see the price tag before you send them a bill that could cost tens of trillions of dollars?”

It’s a fair topic. Sanders has not yet released a full funding plan, as Warren has. Candidates show up for the debates expecting to be put on the spot. But it was odd to see the next question, in which Biden was also invited to put Sanders on the spot: “Does Sen. Sanders owe voters a price tag on his health care plan?” Biden, startlingly, suggested that he did and said that Sanders’ plan would amount to “doubling the entire federal budget per year.”

A few minutes later, Phillip deployed Biden’s talking point: “Sen. Sanders, your campaign proposals would double federal spending over the next decade, an unprecedented level of spending not seen since World War II.

“How would you keep your plans from bankrupting the country?” she asked.

Sanders was later asked about how his health care plan would eliminate insurance industry jobs in Iowa. All of it built up to the Ur-question, asked near the end of the debate: “More than two-thirds of voters say they are not enthusiastic about voting for a socialist. Doesn’t that put your chances of beating Donald Trump at risk?”

Bernie Sanders is a big boy. If he’s the nominee—or even if he just wins Iowa, in the ensuing Democratic freakout—he should, and presumably does, expect to field not just extreme scrutiny, but extreme scrutiny that assumes the absurdity of his positions or electability, every minute of his life. In that respect, Tuesday’s debate was good preparation for the second half of the cycle. The only surprise is that it took debate moderators this long to recognize he was worth the time.