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Warren and Sanders’s dispute over a woman in the White House came to a head Tuesday night

Sanders denies he ever told Warren a woman can’t win the White House. She maintains that he did.

Elizabeth Warren participates of the seventh Democratic primary debate of the 2020 presidential campaign season at the Drake University campus in Des Moines, Iowa on January 14, 2020.
Robyn Beck /AFP/Getty Images

The January Democratic debate didn’t disappoint when it came to the moment everyone was waiting to see.

On Tuesday night, Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren finally addressed some of the escalating conflict between the two when they tackled a question about sexism and the 2020 election.

Sanders emphasized that he had championed Warren for the presidency in the past and said it was “incomprehensible” that he would argue a woman couldn’t win. Warren, meanwhile, seized on this exchange to make her case about why women’s electability in 2020 shouldn’t be questioned — the subject at the heart of a supposed disagreement she had with Sanders.

This recent point of strain first emerged on Monday, after a weekend of tension between the two normally friendly progressives, when CNN published a report that Sanders told Warren a woman could not win the presidential election, something he’s denied. Later in the day, Warren confirmed that the report aligned with her memory of the conversation, which happened in 2018.

“Among the topics that came up was what would happen if Democrats nominated a female candidate,” Warren’s statement reads. “I thought a woman could win; he disagreed.”

Sanders, meanwhile, has said he did not make this assertion, but focused more on the specific challenges of going up against Trump. “What I did say that night was that Donald Trump is a sexist, a racist and a liar who would weaponize whatever he could,” he said in a statement.

Both stuck to their positions on Tuesday and elaborated on what they meant, managing to stand their ground while declining to further fuel this feud.

Sanders explicitly denied making this comment and reiterated his longstanding backing for Warren along with other women candidates:

Well, as a matter of fact, I didn’t say it. And I don’t want to waste a whole lot of time on this, because this is what Donald Trump and maybe some of the media want.

Anybody who knows me knows that it’s incomprehensible that I would think that a woman cannot be president of the United States. Go to YouTube today. There’s a video of me 30 years ago talking about how a woman could become president of the United States.

In 2015, I deferred, in fact, to Sen. Warren — it was a movement to draft Sen. Warren to run for president. And you know what, I stayed back. Sen. Warren decided not to run, and I then did run afterward. Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by 3 million votes. How could anybody in a million years not believe that a woman could become president of the United States?

And let me be very clear. If any of the women on this stage or any of the men on this stage win the nomination — I hope that’s not the case, I hope it’s me — but if they do, I will do everything in my power to make sure that they are elected in order to defeat the most dangerous president in the history of our country.

Warren took this opportunity to not only restate her impressions of the meeting but also emphasize why coded questions about a woman’s electability are misguided. Among the points she highlighted: the fact that none of the women candidates onstage have ever lost an election, compared to the men onstage who have lost 10 elections among them:

Bernie is my friend, and I am not here to try to fight with Bernie. But, look, this question about whether or not a woman can be president has been raised, and it’s time for us to attack it head-on. And I think the best way to talk about who can win is by looking at people’s winning record. So can a woman beat Donald Trump?

Look at the men on this stage. 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.

Warren and Sanders seemed to manage to largely bury the hatchet on Tuesday. But their brief moment of tension isn’t just political jockeying as they stare down the looming Iowa caucuses — it’s touching on a real point of debate in the Democratic Party.

Some Democrats do question whether a woman candidate can beat Trump

Part of the reason Sanders’s purported comments have prompted such a response is that they wade into assumptions some voters have expressed about the electability of a woman president — questions Warren, and other women candidates, have had to tackle over and over again during their town halls and stump speeches.

Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders speak during the Democratic presidential primary debate in Des Moines, Iowa, on January 14, 2020.
Patrick Semansky/AP

“At the end of the day, what matters for me is whether or not they can beat Trump,” Lawrence Davis, an adjunct professor who lives in Sumter County, South Carolina, previously told Vox. Davis said he hoped the country would one day elect a woman for president, but he wasn’t sure it would be in 2020.

Effectively, because of Hillary Clinton’s loss in 2016, some voters are concerned a woman won’t be able to defeat Trump due to the sexism she’ll face from other voters.

It’s an assumption that doesn’t account for the many factors that contributed to Clinton’s defeat, including her political baggage, and it obscures the differences between women candidates. Additionally, there’s no data to suggest that a woman is on track to lose in 2020, experts have told Vox, especially since election predictions are notoriously difficult far in advance.

Because of this uncertainty, many see “electability” as a coded term that’s become a way to express existing biases about who matches longstanding expectations for what a presidential candidate looks like.

Though Sanders and Warren didn’t seem particularly keen to tangle more on this subject (aside from a somewhat awkward exchange that followed about Sanders’s track record of beating a Republican incumbent in the past), it remains to be seen if Democratic voters are done considering it.

Warren and Klobuchar capitalized on this moment to counter assumptions about electability

Warren, as well as Sen. Amy Klobuchar, capitalized on this moment to respond directly to questions that have been raised about a woman candidate’s electability.

Of the other points Klobuchar cited: Women drove the victories the Democratic Party experienced in 2018, including retaking gubernatorial seats in Michigan and Kansas:

When you look at the facts, Michigan has a woman governor right now and she beat a Republican, Gretchen Whitmer. Kansas has a woman governor right now and she beat Kris Kobach. And her name is, I’m very proud to know her, and her name is Governor Kelly.

Women also flipped the lion’s share of House seats that Democrats retook in 2018, as well as both Senate seats, and research has long shown that women candidates win at the same rate as men when they run for elected office.

All of this is to say that while sexism is a barrier that women candidates encounter, they’re continuing to win in spite of this challenge, something Warren and Klobuchar took care to point out.

Despite their non-aggression pact, the tension between Sanders and Warren boiled over this weekend

Sanders and Warren famously agreed to a “non-aggression pact” earlier in the election, though developments this past weekend signaled that it was getting dicier to stand by it as the Iowa caucuses approach.

Sparked by a Politico report that highlighted a script some Sanders volunteers were using to push back on other 2020 candidates, including Warren, that conflict has only grown and built to the leaks about Warren and Sanders’s 2018 meeting.

The candidates both put in strong performances in their efforts to address these disagreements on Tuesday and seemed ready to put their simmering feud on the back burner, at least for the moment.

In Iowa, however, where the RealClearPolitics survey average has former Vice President Joe Biden leading the field by a hair, the two progressives are polling extremely close to one another. The tightness of their competition signals the likelihood of even more conflict potentially to come — not only between Warren and Sanders, but across the 2020 field.

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