How Warren Handled the Dustup, How Sanders Did

Start with the caveat: I’ve wanted Elizabeth Warren to run for President since 2009, when she first came to national prominence helping manage the Troubled Assets Relief Program. I was thrilled when she took Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat back from the Republicans, and I would have loved her to run in 2016, though I understood why she might choose not to. I’ve been a supporter since she announced in 2019, and I think of all the candidates running she’d make the best President, for reasons I’ll get into in a different post.

Bernie Sanders is my second choice. I was thrilled when he announced in 2016. Even though it was the longest of longshot candidacies, I was glad to see an out loud and proud progressive democratic socialist in the race, making news and getting the kinds of policies and critiques of the status quo I believe in into the mainstream discourse. I was thrilled with how far he exceeded expectations. But a tipping point came, at which he’d done what good he was going to, and the math was against him, with or without superdelegates and Clinton’s institutional support. And Bernie kept going.

Still, I’m glad that, this time around, not one but two progressive champions are not only in the arena, but have made it to the quarter-finals, when votes start getting cast and delegates allotted. And while I prefer Elizabeth over Bernie, I’ll be glad to see either of them collect delegates, because it means more legitimacy and power for the progressive wing of the Democratic party. If either of them win the nomination, they’ll have my full-throated support and whatever time or money I can cobble together to give them.

Okay? Okay.

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Isn’t this peaceful? Take a moment and appreciate it. Please.

You probably haven’t been hiding under a rock, but in case you have, the non-aggression pact Warren and Sanders worked out a year ago, and that’s been working out for both of them pretty well, started to fray a bit last week. Whether it’ll crumble further’s up for grabs, as much as the mainstream press would like it to, since news means eyeballs and progressives in elected office means cracking the oligarchy trying to murder American Democracy right now and their salaries depend on their not understanding that.

Bernie swung first, with some talking points for canvassers that could be read as anodyne or insulting depending on where you sit. Warren stayed mum for a day, then made either a proportional response or a sacrilegious slander in which she revealed that Bernie Sanders told her a woman couldn’t win the Presidency of the United States. Bernie denied it, blamed it on lying staffers. Warren confirmed her recollection. Bernie denied it, calling Warren a liar by implication. Then the debate happened.

 

 

 

Wolf Blitzer was clearly trying to get them to fight, wording his questions in such a way as to presume Sanders had said it. It was obvious, it was trite, and it showed Blitzer for what he is, a hack more interested in causing news than a journalist whose work is to report it.

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This guy, amirite?

There’s not a whole lot of daylight between Warren and Sanders, policy-wise. Certainly compared to the rest of the candidates on stage (don’t get me started on the Republicans). But there are differences of temperament and character that I think are telling and important, and I think the way the two of them handled the question in the moment — and after the debate, while the cameras were still running, though they mics weren’t hot anymore — tells us a lot about those differences.

I think it tells us a lot about the different standards men and women are held to, also. Even on the progressive left, where we really ought to know better.

You could see Elizabeth Warren on the split-screen while Bernie answered. Because he is Bernie — and, like so many men of his generation, can never do or be wrong, nor have done, or been, wrong, ever — he denied outright that he said it, called it ludicrous he or anyone would ever say such a thing (as if the person to whom he said it it were not right there next to him and also his longtime friend and ally), and corrected the record surprisingly meticulously for a conversation had a very busy year ago.

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TFW your friend says you lied.

If you’re at all able to read facial expressions, you could actually watch Elizabeth Warren swallow her rage at being called a liar in public in real time. (Link is to the exchange in question)

Now, I’m not here to try and settle the he-said/she-said here. The fact is human memory is unreliable, language is complex, perception of subtext and body language and facial expression necessarily idiosyncratic. They could very well both be telling the truth as they know/recall it. To be honest, settling that particular ambiguity — saying who’s right, who’s wrong, yadda yadda yadda — is beside the point I’m making here.

Given her chance to respond, Elizabeth Warren confined herself to two words, “I disagreed.” Then she turned and faced the 800-pound gorilla in the room head-on, and talked about how being a woman running for President in 2020 is not only not a disadvantage, it’s an outright advantage. She got the line of the night with how the men on stage had lost ten elections while the women hadn’t lost any. She made the case that the wave election of 2018 was attributable to the engagement of women as candidates and voters, which led to the Democratic House majority that have brought us not only four hundred plus pieces of legislation but impeached our corrupt gangster wannabe oligarch President.

In the back-and-forth after, Sanders reiterated his denial (reiterating his implicit claim that Warren is lying about what she said he said to her), and, in the middle of a pretty good line about how if any of the women — or men — onstage with him got the nomination, he’d be happy to support them, went off on a tangent about how he hoped it wasn’t any of them, he hoped it was him.

Elizabeth Warren talked about what she wanted to do as President, and made a case for why she was the candidate to unite both sides of the party. A thing that’s pretty important going into a campaign year that could decide more than just who’s in charge of various government entities for the next few years (hey there, climate change! Whatcha got in store for us?).

Then, at the end, when the debate was over and the mics turned off, Warren confronted her erstwhile buddy. From the transcript:

“I think you called me a liar on national TV,” Warren told Sanders.

“What?” asked Sanders.

“I think you called me a liar on national TV,” Warren said.

“You know, let’s not do it right now. If you want to have that discussion, we’ll have that discussion,” Sanders said.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) speaks with Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) as billionaire activist Tom Steyer listens after the seventh Democratic presidential debate in Des Moines on Jan. 14. (Shannon Stapleton/Reuters)
Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) speaks with Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) as billionaire activist Tom Steyer listens after the seventh Democratic presidential debate in Des Moines on Jan. 14. (Shannon Stapleton/Reuters)

“Anytime,” Warren said.

“You called me a liar,” Sanders said, adding: “You told me — all right, let’s not do it now.”

She ignores his proffered handshake. He’s confused, then dismissive. We’re not having this conversation right now, says his body language.

I have a feeling every woman I know has had something like that happen to her. Had her concerns — her integrity, even — dismissed and devalued by a man constitutionally incapable of admitting he was wrong.

[Caveat/Spoiler alert: I have also been that guy. Count me chagrined.]

Bernie Sanders could have done a little diplomacy and defused this whole nonsense. He could have made the whole situation disappear just by telling his friend and respected colleague that he recalled their conversation differently, but that he regretted giving her the impression he meant otherwise. He could have accepted some small degree of fault, apologized, and the whole thing would have been over.

Elizabeth Warren does not and did not have that option. Even if she did, that’s not her style. She’s done her damnedest this whole campaign not to go negative on anyone. She’s pointed out behaviors, and drawn distinctions between herself and, say, Pete Buttigieg. But she’s run a relentlessly positive campaign about what she means to do, how she means to do it, and why she’s the person who ought to be doing it. Even in the face of a callous, off-the-cuff insult from a self-proclaimed friend, she kept her cool and kept on mission.

And that, much as anything else, is why she’s my first choice, and Bernie only second. Because my political allegiance is not a fandom, it’s a reflection of my values, my character, and my honest best assessment of political effectiveness. Bernie’s good, and I think he’ll do the things I’d want a President to do more than he won’t, and it’ll be good for the country to elect someone so progressive. But Elizabeth Warren has a better temperament, is a more effective leader of large organizations, and will, I think, not only do better unifying the Democratic party behind her, she’ll do a better job winning the campaign and then governing after.

In more ways than one, I think it’s because she’s a woman.

***

You may feel differently, and that’s fine. That’s what primary season’s all about. And in the next month or two, we’ll all have a way better idea which candidate’s doing better. Til then, I think we’re all gonna be way better off remembering we’re all on the same side, and concentrating on who the real bad guys are.

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