The exchange we had all been expecting came late in Tuesday’s Democratic primary debate:

ABBY PHILLIP: Let’s now turn to — let’s now turn to an issue that’s come up in the last 48 hours. Sen. Sanders, CNN reported yesterday that — and Sen. Sanders, Sen. Warren confirmed in a statement, that in 2018 you told her that you did not believe that a woman could win the election. Why did you say that?
SEN. BERNIE SANDERS: 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 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. There was a movement to draft Sen. Warren to run for president. And you know what, I said — stayed back. Sen. Warren decided not to run, and I then — I did run afterwards.
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? . . . .
PHILLIP: So Sen. Sanders — Sen. Sanders, I do want to be clear here, you're saying that you never told Sen. Warren that a woman could not win the election?
SANDERS: That is correct.
PHILLIP: Sen. Warren, what did you think when Sen. Sanders told you a woman could not win the election?
(LAUGHTER)
SEN. ELIZABETH WARREN: I disagreed. 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.
(LAUGHTER)
The only people on this stage who have won every single election that they’ve been in are the women . . .
(APPLAUSE)
. . . Amy and me.
SEN. AMY KLOBUCHAR: So true.
(APPLAUSE)
So true.

The moderators inexcusably failed to ask the definitive question: Sen. Warren, is Sen. Sanders lying? Given that multiple individuals say Warren contemporaneously told them about Sanders’s comment, the moderators also should have asked: Are all of these people lying, Sen. Sanders?

After the debate, speculation ran rampant about Warren’s refusal to shake Sanders’s hand and what seemed like tense words between the two. The Post reports:

“She came to raise a concern, and he said let’s talk about that later,” said Sanders campaign manager Faiz Shakir in a brief interview with The Washington Post. Shakir declined to provide further details about the conversation, the video of which has been widely shared on social media.

Does anyone think the “concern” didn’t have to do with Sanders’s alleged slight of female candidates? Several aspects of this deserve further discussion.

First, contrary to the feigned shock, mostly from male reporters, that Sanders could have ever said such a thing, the electability of a woman has been under discussion since the race began. The press questioned Warren’s electability, comparing her to Hilary Clinton, as if all women are equally suspect. Pollsters asked voters if electing a woman would be a problem. And honestly, anyone who has been talking to female voters, donors, operatives and consultants knows there is a clear concern out there that a woman would be “too risky.” Surely, you remember all those pundits talking about the need to win back white working-class men, postulating that former vice president Joe Biden would be a “safer” choice. They were saying women and people of color would be more likely to lose.

Let’s get real: A distinct segment of voters and Democratic insiders have gotten the notion that because Clinton lost, voters still have a hard time electing a woman. This is too important to screw up. I would vote for a woman, but I know lots of people who would not.

It is no stretch to imagine that Sanders, desperate to keep his progressive rival out of the race and sharing that widespread concern (however illogical and baseless) that Clinton’s gender determined the outcome in 2016, could have said he didn’t think a woman could beat Trump or that a woman would be disadvantaged running against Trump.

Second, Sanders chose to deny saying anything to that effect. He either forgot the remark — because it was such a commonplace sentiment at the time — or now is lying about the exchange. He needs to be pressed on the issue, asked why Warren would make something up and why others would raise the exact same accusation with CNN reporters. Sanders, whether it is never facing up to the ludicrous cost of his programs or never being forced to account for the result of his scheme to evacuate all troops from the Middle East or nix all trade deals, has the knack of escaping the level of scrutiny that other candidates face. He should not be allowed to skate by, implicitly calling Warren a liar.

Third, Warren needs to stop treating Sanders like a friend who needs to be sheltered from criticism. She needs to show she can take on a male opponent with the ruthlessness required to beat Trump. Her effort to sidestep conflict — “I am not here to try to fight with Bernie” — shows a naivete and lack of killer instinct that should concern voters. If Warren is never going to take it to Sanders, how does she expect to win this thing? She might ask President Ted Cruz, who wouldn’t take on Trump in the 2016 primaries, for fear of offending Trump supporters, until it was too late. Warren needs to show the same talent that Klobuchar does in taking on Sanders on his fantasy of Medicare-for-all.

In sum, no one comes off looking well here. The CNN moderators ducked their responsibility. Sanders thinks he can get away with calling Warren a liar. Warren needs to show some killer instinct. The only winners on this issue are Biden, Klobuchar and former South Bend, Ind., mayor Pete Buttigieg.

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