Assuming Bernie Sanders Said It, Just What Did He Do Wrong?

Sen. Elizabeth Warren speaks with Sen. Bernie Sanders after the Democratic primary debte in Des Moines, Iowa, January 14, 2020. (Shannon Stapleton/Reuters)

It’s hard to believe that behind closed doors, lifelong outspoken feminist Bernie Sanders suddenly transforms into Andrew Dice Clay and suddenly goes on about all the things a woman could never do.

But for a moment, let’s assume that Sanders said what was contended in that original CNN report — that “he did not believe a woman could win” against Donald Trump in 2020.

First, this isn’t that outlandish a belief, particularly in Democratic circles. Hillary Clinton herself said in 2017: “I started the campaign knowing that I would have to work extra hard to make women and men feel comfortable with the idea of a woman president. It doesn’t fit into the — the stereotypes we all carry around in our head.  And a lot of the sexism and the misogyny was in service of these attitudes. Like, you know, ‘We really don’t want a woman commander in chief.’” Right after the election, her running mate Tim Kaine declared America “has made it so uniquely difficult for a woman to make it into a federal office.”

In CNN’s account, the comment from Warren that preceded Sanders’ statement was Warren expressing the belief that she could “earn broad support from female voters.” But Clinton won the women’s vote, 54 percent to 41 percent, and still lost. “Broad support from female voters,” by itself, is probably not sufficient to beat Trump, unless it considerably expands upon Clinton’s margin in those key swing states. There’s no indication that a sufficient number of voters are hungering for a woman president. A 2018 Pew poll found that 38 percent of men and 51 percent of women hope to see a woman president in their lifetime.

The account from Warren didn’t include any suggestion that Sanders was mocking, belittling, or otherwise snide or hostile in his response to her presidential ambitions. There’s no indication that Sanders thought it was a good thing that, in his assessment, a woman wouldn’t be able to beat Trump. If he said it, he seemed to be warning his friend about an obstacle he thought she was underestimating. Maybe he’s right, maybe he’s wrong, but it hardly constitutes some sort of sexist attack on Warren. And if Sanders secretly harbors a sexist low opinion of Warren, he’s hidden it well. He’s certainly been, at minimum, cordial to her in the primary until recently.

For what it’s worth, I doubt he said it, at least in the way she describes. Apparently, his comment didn’t bother Warren enough for her to mention it at the time or at any other point in 2018 or 2019. No, she and her camp didn’t start telling reporters about it until two days before the last televised debate before the Iowa caucuses. The spectacularly convenient timing of this story strongly suggests deliberate political opportunism.

I happen to think the assessment that a woman couldn’t beat Trump is wrong; if politics has taught us anything in recent decades, it’s that just about anybody can beat just about anybody if the outside circumstances are right. If enough Minnesotans are unimpressed with the major party candidates, they’ll make Jesse Ventura governor. If enough Alabamans are repulsed by Roy Moore, they’ll elect Democrat Doug Jones to Senate. If the national mood is sufficiently against Democrats and Martha Coakley claims that Curt Schilling is a Yankee fan, then Republican Scott Brown can win a Senate seat in Massachusetts.

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