What Is the Warren-Sanders Spat Really About?

Sexism, honesty, and the best way to govern.

Warren and Sanders face each other in conversation as Tom Steyer stands behind them.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren confronts Sen. Bernie Sanders after the debate Tuesday night as Tom Steyer awkwardly looks on. Scott Olson/Getty Images

On this week’s Political Gabfest, Emily Bazelon, John Dickerson, and David Plotz discussed the real meaning of Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders’ squabble over electability and the wanness of the Democratic race. This transcript of their conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

David Plotz: On Tuesday, Democrats had their final debate before the Iowa caucus, which will take place on Feb. 3. That leaves about three weeks of debatelessness, much of which will be dominated by the impeachment trial. The debate itself was massively overshadowed by the progressive family squabble that erupted between Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders about a conversation they had in December of 2018. John, what was their fight about?

John Dickerson: In 2018, the two of them met together to talk about their joint ambitions to run for president. In the course of that conversation, Elizabeth Warren says that Bernie Sanders said that a woman can’t be elected president. It’s not exactly a “he said, she said,” because there are other people who anonymously testified to Sanders having said this. It was brought up in the debate. Sanders said he didn’t say it. Warren said he did. Then, after the debate, Warren said, essentially, “You accused me of lying.” Sanders said: “Let’s not do this here. You accused me of lying.” There have been various press releases since.

The context for this is that Sanders’ people, in various places, had been pushing against Warren in low-level talking points on the doorstep in Iowa. Bernie Sanders has made a big thing about not attacking other candidates. He’s known Elizabeth Warren for 30 years; they’re friends. The big point here, of course, is whether this basement fight in the progressive clubhouse is going to undermine the overall goal, which for progressives is destroying what they call the corporate wing of the Democratic Party.

Plotz: There’s a telling statistic you see cited, which is that an overwhelming majority of Democratic and independent voters say they will vote for a woman for president—In fact, they already have proved it; in 2016 they voted for Hillary Clinton, overwhelmingly—but only a minority of them say they believe their neighbors feel that same enthusiasm. There should be a term, maybe one already exists, for this kind of prejudice by proxy, or anticipatory prejudice, or second-degree sexism. How are we supposed to think about this belief that one’s own neighbors are more prejudiced, and therefore you make a strategic decision to not support a candidate because you believe other people will not support that candidate?

Bazelon: When women run for other offices, like Congress, they win at the same rate as men at this point in history. So, yes, we have lots of evidence that women can win. I think that Warren’s best run on the debate stage was when she pointed that out about herself and Amy Klobuchar.

This question of whether in 2020, going up against Donald Trump, after the defeat of Hillary Clinton, people are going to be hesitant to vote for a woman. That’s really tricky. I think there are a lot of women who worry that latent sexism could damage a female candidate. At the same time, just talking about it is creating a kind of perceived weakness, especially at a moment when Democrats care most about electability.

Let’s imagine the best-case scenario for this dinner that Bernie and Warren had. You could imagine Bernie saying, “Look, Trump is going to use every weapon he can, and with a woman, he’s going to use sexism.” Maybe Bernie made that seem like a problem, was adamant about it in a way that was frustrating to Warren, as someone who her whole life has exceeded expectations, has just rolled up her sleeves, got ahead, and did whatever it was she wanted to do, and didn’t put her female identity forward, didn’t deny it, but also didn’t lead with it.

They’re not having any kind of nuanced conversation about that now. Now they’re accusing each other of calling each other liars, which is just not a word that is in the interest of Democrats to be throwing around. I think it diminishes both of them. I worry that people are going to worry a little bit more than they would have otherwise about the potential for sexism to infect the election. That seems like a perfectly fine conversation to have, except if you start talking about it too much, then you make it true. I think that’s part of why Bernie was backing so far off it on the debate stage in a way that, actually, I found irritating. I feel irritated with both of them.

Dickerson: What I want to know is what we’re actually talking about when we talk about this exchange. In other words, is this a question about honesty? Is it a question about whether Bernie Sanders would be a sufficient advocate for women as president? Separate and apart from everything you raised, Emily, that’s one of the things I would have loved to have seen examined in the course of the debate. Ask Elizabeth Warren: Do you think, based on your conversation with Bernie Sanders, that he has some view about women that will somehow make him a worse advocate for their interests as president than you otherwise would’ve thought, or than you would be?

Honesty is an important question when it comes to presidents. I tend to have a more elastic view of honesty and its role in the job, but leaving that aside, I think some perspective is probably worth rolling in, which is that we all have been in conversations where we remember something differently than the other person.

This is an interesting question about the country. It’s not just about men and women, it’s about basically men and women in seven states, against a president who is really unpredictable and plays on identity at a root level. Some people penalize you for even asking the questions, but thinking it through, it seems to me, is in the interests of both parties.

Plotz: Does this dispute benefit any of the candidates?

Bazelon: Well, it’s great for Donald Trump, both because it’s a distraction and because now everybody calls everybody a liar. I think it helps Biden, marginally.

I don’t think it’s helping Bernie or Warren. I just find it disappointing. I don’t really think that either Warren or Bernie thinks the other is to be distrusted on some deeper level. In any other situation, you would give each other the benefit of the doubt. There’s no tape of this conversation. She heard more doubt than Bernie thinks he expressed. Now they’re in these political boxes they’ve created where Warren’s saying, “Amy and I are the ones with the winning record,” and Biden is saying, “It’s preposterous to question whether a woman could be elected in 2020.” It’s not preposterous to question that!

Dickerson: If you’re Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders, and you know it’s going to come up, you have a chance to say: “Look, I know what Bernie’s heart is, and despite this dispute, I know that he cares about women. But here’s the thing: When you don’t have health insurance, it doesn’t matter whether it’s a man or a woman who’s going to bring you health insurance. When you can go to college and not have crippling debt for the rest of your life, it doesn’t matter if it’s a man or a woman who can make that possible.” In other words, use the moment in the sunlight, the moment when everybody’s looking, to soar to 30,000 feet and make the articulate case for your campaign.

Then, since this is a contest about who can beat Donald Trump in a general election, show that you have the skill to articulate the progressive values that everybody who follows you cares about, and show other Democrats who are worried about whether you’re going to be able to run in the general election that you have all this amazing talent and skill. Theater in politics is way overemphasized, but this was a moment that called for it. I was struck that no one had the tools to milk it for what it was worth in a purely political context.

Plotz: That brings me back to the one thing that gives me pause about Warren, who I think has generally been a really interesting and theatrically excellent campaigner. She’s engaged people and gotten great crowds, and she’s done things that are visually exciting. But at several big moments in this campaign, she has done things that make you think, “Ah, you really botched it here, Elizabeth.” With the DNA test, with “Medicare for All,” which I understand was a risk that she took, but she really put a pin in her campaign balloon with that one. Now here, where there was an opportunity, I’m not sure it’s an opportunity she saw. I don’t know that it’s clear that she leaked this in order to get the story out, but she did not handle it in a spectacular way.

And just to pile on, I find the wanness of this campaign—which is so important—bizarre, in particular the wanness and quietness of the Biden campaign. I can’t remember a front-runner presidential campaign that has been this uninteresting and this bad in my lifetime. It’s such a bad, boring campaign from Biden, and yet what does it matter? Apparently he’s still leading.

Dickerson: I’d like to recommend as a piece of really smart analysis Ezra Klein’s piece about Elizabeth Warren. The presidency requires theater, but it also requires playing the inside game. What is the inside game? Part of what the Democratic debate is about right now is what does the inside game look like? Joe Biden says, The inside game’s this game in the Senate. I know how to negotiate. I can get people who are on the other side to work with me. Many people, including his former boss Barack Obama would say: That system is broken. The partisanship is too calcified. No Republican senator can cross the aisle because they’ll get primaried and Fox News will kill them.

Operating in the world as it is and not the world as you’d like it to be, you need to be able to use the administrative state to achieve goals that Democrats care about. In order to do so, you need to have a clear understanding of how that works and how to best maximize it. Ezra Klein makes the case, incredibly well, for Elizabeth Warren knowing better than perhaps any president maybe since Hoover—lot of good it did him—how the administrative state works, and how, if you care about the balance-of-power system, this should horrify you. Nevertheless, if you want to get something done, you need somebody who knows how to use the administrative state to get those things done at the executive level without having to bother with Congress. Elizabeth Warren has the temperament, the skills, the focus, is really basically tailor-made for that job. It’s an interesting argument to make, and he makes it very well.

Bazelon: I was looking back at my interview notes from talking to Warren when I was profiling her last spring. At one point I asked her, “Is there any upside to running as a woman right now?” And the first thing she said was, “It is what it is,” in this kind of like matter-of-fact way. Then she said, “Oh, yeah, of course there’s an upside. It’s all those girls who I get to pinky promise with and tell, This is what women do; they run for president.”

That is a real sense of inspiration she has, both in receiving it from the girls who she sees on the campaign trail and also in providing it. She is such a good person to have in this role, because for her whole career, she surmounted barriers that women face without a whole lot of fuss.

There’s something a little surprising and odd that she’s now confronting this issue in such a public way. She was avoiding making it an issue, and now it seems that, right before the voting, she realized she was going to have to address it, and now it’s upon us. I just wish it wasn’t.

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