When reports of the encounter surfaced Monday, Sanders’s camp denounced this version as a “lie” — shortly before Warren confirmed it. Yet Sanders’s own recollection of the encounter is, in fact, only a few shades of nuance different from Warren’s. In Sanders’s telling, he didn’t say a woman couldn’t win, only that Trump would unleash the full and ugly force of the Trumpian arsenal onto his opponent. “What I did say that night was that Donald Trump is a sexist, a racist and a liar who would weaponize whatever he could,” Sanders said. “Do I believe a woman can win in 2020? Of course! After all, Hillary Clinton beat Donald Trump by 3 million votes in 2016."
On one level, the emergence of this story, more than a year after the meeting between the two progressive leaders at Warren’s Washington apartment, reflects the fact that the campaign has entered a new gloves-off phase three weeks before the Iowa caucuses. With the field so bunched and the stakes so high, it is time to take down the opposition.
Thus, over the weekend, the Sanders campaign went after his most formidable opponent, former vice president Joe Biden; Sanders’s campaign co-chairman, former Ohio state senator Nina Turner, attacked Biden for having “repeatedly betrayed black voters to side with Republican lawmakers and undermine our progress.” It was no mere coincidence that the Sanders-Warren encounter became public just as Warren has found herself losing ground to Sanders in recent polls.
On another level, what Sanders copped to saying — and the more pointed version that Warren credibly claims to have heard — is not very far removed from what the female presidential candidates have themselves said about the hurdles they face, in the form of both overt sexism and less conscious bias. Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar has suggested that one of her chief rivals, former South Bend, Ind., mayor Pete Buttigieg, would not be taken as seriously, given his rather scant résumé, if he were a woman. And any number of Democratic voters, male and female, have expressed apprehension about the degree to which sexism served as a drag on Hillary Clinton’s presidential prospects, and anxiety about the risks of nominating another female candidate in 2020.
What is the difference between acknowledging the reality of sexism in politics by calling it out — and acknowledging the reality of sexism in politics by making a clear-eyed assessment of what it will take to prevent Trump from winning a second term? The answer, I think, is that the first, identifying sexism, is pushing back against the unacceptable. The second is, or would be, giving in to it. Supposedly sophisticated voters murmured that an African American couldn’t be the nominee, an African American couldn’t be elected president — until he was. Same with a woman. Gender is a purported negative, until it isn’t.
Of course, Trump will use whatever ammunition at his disposal against his eventual opponent. He will, as always, exploit the worst in Americans, whether it is sexism or homophobia or whatever. Understanding that ugly reality cannot justify accommodating it.