As I noted in an earlier column, the decision by Sen Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) to deny the remark Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) says he made during a private dinner — namely, that a woman couldn’t win the presidency — should have been challenged in real time by the moderators at Tuesday’s Democratic debate. They failed to follow up with Sanders to confront him with multiple witnesses’ accounts reportedly confirming Warren’s account, an act of journalistic malpractice that did not escape Warren’s notice.

On Wednesday night, CNN reported on the audio of the testy exchange between Warren and Sanders:

"I think you called me a liar on national TV," Warren can be heard saying.
"What?" Sanders responded.
"I think you called me a liar on national TV," she repeated.
"You know, let's not do it right now. If you want to have that discussion, we'll have that discussion," Sanders said, to which Warren replied, "Anytime."
“You called me a liar,” Sanders continued. “You told me — all right, let’s not do it now.”

If a woman responded as Sanders did, she would be accused of being huffy or argumentative. Questions would be raised about Sanders’s “likability,” especially with female voters who are critical to Democrats’ chances.

Since the moderators did not do it at the debate, the rest of the media need to follow up to get to the bottom of this. Warren should be asked, “Does she think Sanders is lying? If so, how does that reflect on his fitness for the presidency?” Sanders needs to face some questions as well. “How do you explain the contemporaneous witnesses to whom Warren told about the remark? Do you really think Warren is lying?”

Nearly as bad as the debate and post-debate snarling, Sanders’s supporters, known for their particular ferocity in social media, went after Warren with hammer and tongs. CNN reported:

As of Wednesday morning, the hashtag “#neverWarren” was trending as Bernie allies took to Twitter to attack the Massachusetts senator as a lying snake. (Not kidding; snake emojis were everywhere in the anti-Warren tweets.) “Lie or mischaracterize your ‘friend’s’ comments, double down, refuse to shake his hand,” tweeted Kyle Kulinski, a prominent liberal and YouTube host. “Are you watching America?” tweeted liberal activist and Sanders supporter Shaun King: “When @BernieSanders beat a Republican to win his congressional seat 29 years ago, Elizabeth Warren was still a Republican. One reason she never lost to a Republican is that she was a Republican for the first 47 years of her life.”

This, of course, makes the accusation of sexism even more problematic for Sanders. While he certainly cannot be held responsible for every fan, his campaign’s own hires are known for the uber-aggressiveness. The candidate inevitably gets accused of setting a certain tone and then tarred with his supporters’ antics.

Sanders with some “help” from his fervent supporters may do real damage to his standing with female voters. Meanwhile, the risk for Warren is that the attack on Sanders may well freeze any defections from his camp that she might have been hoping to obtain. In the context of the Iowa caucuses, this has real-world effects. If any candidate does not get 15 percent, his or her supporters are free to reshuffle and choose another candidate. Should Warren, for example, draw 14.99 percent, her released delegates might not be so eager to join with Sanders.

In the lull before the impeachment trial, this story may well linger, driving up both candidates’ disapproval numbers and multiplying concerns about both candidates’ electability. Ironically, Sanders’s comments to Warren in private and the fight that has ensued may have the effect of damaging a male candidate who is perceived as doubting the viability of a female candidate. This would be the ultimate rebuttal to the “women aren’t electable” argument.

The big winners here are former vice president Joe Biden, who came across quite as presidential during Tuesday’s debate, former South Bend, Ind., mayor Pete Buttigieg (who got the better of his own scuffle with Warren in the previous debate), and Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), who is stressing a unity theme. To make matters even more tricky for Warren and Sanders, they’ll be locked up in the Senate (along with Klobuchar) while Biden and Buttigieg are free to zoom around Iowa and New Hampshire, meeting voters, stirring up supporters and hob-knobbing with local press. Buttigieg, in particular, could not have hoped for a better argument for his enough-with-dysfunctional-baby boomers! message.

Read more: