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Opinion Here’s what really matters about the Warren-Sanders feud

On Jan. 13, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) denied news reports alleging that he told Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) that a woman could not win the 2020 election. (Video: The Washington Post)

Six women ran for the 2020 Democratic nomination for president, and three are still in the race. Yet despite the fact that the incumbent president is a toxic misogynist who has been accused of various forms of sexual assault by two dozen women, the potential role of gender in the general election has been raised only sporadically in this campaign — and in ways that haven’t been all that illuminating.

But now it’s back, because of a micro-controversy involving Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. The details of that squabble are not the point here, but it raises some questions that ought to be considered carefully.

On Monday, CNN reported that in a private meeting in 2018, Sanders told Warren that a woman couldn’t win the presidency. Sanders then vehemently denied he had said any such thing. Warren released a statement in response saying that in the conversation, “I thought a woman could win; he disagreed” but emphasizing their friendship and common cause.

As a conflict between two candidates, this is all but meaningless. My guess is that Sanders said something he thought was innocuous about the higher odds a woman would face, but Warren didn’t like what it implied, so she remembered it and he forgot about it. Whether that’s what happened or not, nobody actually thinks Sanders is some kind of secret sexist.

As Sanders says now, “Do I believe a woman can win in 2020? Of course! After all, Hillary Clinton beat Donald Trump by 3 million votes in 2016,” which is a good point. But you can believe that a woman can win and still think that she’ll face challenges a male candidate wouldn’t. She might have to work twice as hard to get the same recognition and respect, a problem that would sound familiar to pretty much anyone who isn’t a white man.

To understand how Elizabeth Warren became a presidential contender, you have to start in Massachusetts. (Video: The Washington Post)

It’s likely Warren is already suffering because of her gender. Some number of Democrats may be saying “I’d vote for a woman, just not this woman” and say that about every female candidate. Others may have adopted precisely the assumption Sanders supposedly expressed. This is yet another variation of the pernicious beliefs about “electability,” whereby many assume that what makes a candidate electable is looking like the presidents that came before, i.e., a white man.

When people express that view as a justification for their own vote choice, what they’re saying is that regardless of which candidate they actually find most appealing, they assume other voters are racist or sexist — at least enough of them to make it less likely for a woman or person of color to win.

To be clear, that assumption might be correct, or it might not. The most persuasive argument against it is that we don’t nominate types of candidates, we nominate individual candidates, each with his or her own strengths and weaknesses. In the abstract, a black candidate with limited government experience whose middle name was Hussein would have been profoundly unelectable in 2008, but since that candidate happened to be Barack Obama, the opposite was true. On the other hand, a candidate with decades of experience in the Senate, a record of military heroism and a strong jawline seemed quite electable in 2004, but John Kerry turned out not to be.

So the real question isn’t so much “Can a woman be elected?” but “Can this woman be elected?,” whether you’re talking about Elizabeth Warren or Amy Klobuchar or someone else. And one question you have to ask is how her gender will affect the general election and how she’ll deal with the attacks that will come from Trump and his supporters.

One thing we can say is that it won’t be a precise rerun of 2016. Hillary Clinton had spent decades as a vessel into which people poured their fears and resentments about women’s equality. By 2016, there had been so much venom poured on her and so many jokes premised on the idea that because she had her own ambitions that meant she was in fact a man (the jokes usually involved her possessing male genitalia, har har) that it was built into the way people thought about her.

And of course, much of Trump’s campaign was based on giving his supporters permission to indulge and celebrate their worst impulses, whether it was racism or xenophobia or sexism. There was something both horrifying and narratively appropriate in the idea that after a lifetime of struggling against sexism, to reach the Oval Office Clinton would have to face the most proudly misogynist candidate of our lifetimes, like the final boss in a video game version of the patriarchy. And that she’d lose despite getting more votes.

But we don’t actually have much hard evidence that Clinton’s gender cost her substantial numbers of votes, especially when it’s so difficult to untangle it from all the other feelings people had formed in her quarter-century as a national figure. In any case, Elizabeth Warren is not Hillary Clinton.

It’s extremely hard to predict how this would all play out in a general election, even granted that Trump would inevitably make some kind of sexist attack on Warren if she were the nominee. Would that convince anyone who didn’t already support him to change his or her vote? Would it help Democrats boost turnout among single women? We don’t yet know.

So the best approach may be to understand and condemn that sexism where it exists but refrain from pretending to be certain about how it will or won’t translate into votes. And if you’re a Democratic voter, just vote for the candidate you like, no matter what you think other people might do.

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