And then came the handshake that wasn’t. At the end of the debate, the candidates moved about the stage, shaking each others’ hands. When Sanders offered his hand to Warren, she didn’t take it. A conversation — one that looked uncomfortable — ensued.
I’m going to come out and say it: All of this was a big mistake. And both Warren and Sanders own it.
The joke on Twitter, for the people capable of joking about the subject and not addressing one candidate or the other with utter vitriol, is that Mom and Dad are fighting. And no child likes to see Mom and Dad fight. They run into another room and slam the door. If they are voters, that could mean they turn their attention to someone else — and away from the progressive wing of the Democratic Party.
In other words, both Sanders and Warren lose.
Unless there is a still-secret recording of this December 2018 meeting, we’re never going to know what was said in their now-infamous private conversation. Some people think they’re saying one thing, but actually say another; others remember words and events in a faulty way. (This is why journalists like to record interviews. It’s also why the 1950 movie “Rashomon” is a classic.)
It’s easy to point to mistakes along the way. While, as a journalist, I hate to admit this, just because someone asks a question doesn’t mean you need to answer it. I suspect Warren’s best response would have been an immediate push back — at the reporters asking questions about the conversation between her and Sanders. She didn’t need to confirm or deny anything. Instead, she should have said: Stop trying to cause a fight. What does it matter? Don’t you know Donald Trump is president?
Sanders made a major unforced error here, too. At the debate, he should have done much more than pointing to his record on calling for a female president. He’s known for blunt talk. He could have used this for his defense while acknowledging that it’s possible his words came across in a way he did not intend, misogyny is real, female candidates have it harder and that’s not right.
After all, lots of people have speculated whether a woman can really beat President Trump. It happens after every poll showing both Biden and Sanders hypothetically beating Trump by a bigger margin than Warren, and it happens every time she gets criticized for doing something — like, say, dancing — that would be unremarkable for a male candidate. Last week, I noted one issue women running for president face is that “female politicians are more likely to get charged with inauthenticity, in part because they are attempting to fit into a world not designed for them.” Pretending women do not face any disadvantages in campaigning for president isn’t going to make the problem go away, and tarring anyone who raises it as a sexist is not helpful, to state the obvious.
The first female president will likely be a woman of extraordinary political talents, with more than her fair share of that mysterious ingredient called charisma. That’s usually true of people who achieve a presidential electoral first: Take Barack Obama, the first African American president; Ronald Reagan, the first divorced president (hard to believe now, but this actually influenced voters back when); and John F. Kennedy, the first Catholic president. It’s not fair, but it’s the way the world works.
But back to the immediate problem: Warren and Sanders need a public rapprochement, and they need it immediately. The only way either can prevail in the Democratic primary is by convincing the other’s supporters to back them. They’ve now made that task a lot harder. Compounding the situation: Both of them will now be all but off the campaign trail as of next week, thanks to the impeachment trial in the Senate. This is one of the last public impressions they will leave with voters before the primaries begin. It’s hard to see a winner here — except, maybe, every other candidate who managed to sidestep this nasty mess. And, of course, the man currently occupying the White House: Donald Trump.