The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The women asked for forgiveness. The men tried to sell their books: How a Democratic debate moment put a spotlight on gender.

In the smallest 2020 primary debate yet, Elizabeth Warren, Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders and four other Democratic presidential candidates competed on Dec. 19. (Video: The Washington Post)
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The question was an oddball for a presidential debate, offered to the candidates as a choice in the spirit of the holiday season: Either name a gift each would give to a rival onstage or ask forgiveness from a fellow candidate.

In a Democratic field with a historic number of top female contenders, the responses were revealing. Only the women chose to be contrite.

“I will ask for forgiveness,” said Sen. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.). “I know that sometimes I get really worked up. And sometimes I get a little hot. I don’t really mean to.”

Sen. Amy Klobuchar (Minn.) was similarly reflective: “Well, I’d ask for forgiveness, any time any of you get mad at me. I can be blunt, but I am doing this because I think it is so important to pick the right candidates here.”

2020 Democratic presidential candidates weighed in on climate change, wealth and impeachment following the Dec. 19 debate in Los Angeles. (Video: The Washington Post)

The five men onstage, in contrast, offered the gift of their ideas. Several suggested giving others books they had written. Others focused on policy proposals they hatched.

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In a campaign that has emphasized policy differences, generational divides and geographical values, this single question illustrated another dimension — what many see as a double standard in the ways men and women are expected to behave.

“It’s an ingrained gender stereotype that men don’t have to apologize for being labeled angry,” said Amanda Hunter, a spokeswoman for the Barbara Lee Family Foundation, the Cambridge, Mass.-based nonprofit organization that focuses on electing more women to top jobs and promoting women in contemporary art. “Many of the women watching the debate could relate to feeling that pressure.”

She added: “Women feel like they have to apologize if they appear angry or forceful, and men get the benefit of the doubt.”

None of the men who answered the question asked for forgiveness.

“I don’t think I have much to ask forgiveness for. You all can correct me on this,” said businessman Andrew Yang, who was the first to answer.

After pondering the question, he noted that Warren is now reading his book. If she likes it, he mused, others on the stage probably would too.

“I would love to give each of you a copy of my book,” he said, and then broadened the answer into a mini commercial for the tome.

“If you like data, this book is for you,” Yang said. “This goes to the people at home, too. If you like data. And books.”

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Sen. Bernie Sanders (Vt.) mimicked the answer. “Well, I can give out any one of four books that I wrote,” he quipped, before insisting the best gift would be the agenda he’s running on.

South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg, too, offered his writings. “Come to think of it, I should probably send my book around more, too,” he said.

But he settled on a broader gift, saying that defeating President Trump would suffice. And turned the question into a bit of a warning: “Let’s make sure there’s not too much to ask for forgiveness for,” Buttigieg said.

Joe Biden didn’t try to sell a book. Instead, he appeared to get annoyed with Warren, who had won applause for explaining how deeply she’s affected by the stories of suffering she hears from voters who stand in line to take photos with her.

“You’re not the only one who’s done selfies, Senator,” the former vice president said. “I’ve done thousands of them. Thousands of them.”

The exchange spilled out into the post-debate commentary, with some candidates seeking to explain the gender differences.

“Maybe we are humble,” Klobuchar said of the female candidates, speaking on CNN. She added that it could be an attribute when taking on a bombastic president: “Maybe we need a little humbleness instead of the loudest voice.”

Buttigieg, who has criticized Warren for being “absorbed in the fighting” over politics, said that women should not have to ask for forgiveness.

“No woman should ever have to apologize for being fired up, for being angry,” Buttigieg told CNN. “One of the many effects we still have of sexism in our politics is quite likely a different set of expectations for female candidates and leaders”

The apologizing onstage wasn’t limited to the candidates.

The quirky question was asked by moderator Judy Woodruff, the anchor and managing editor of PBS NewsHour, and one of the country’s top journalists.

She had to cut off debate on a different question to transition to this final one — and this is what she said:

“We are coming to the end of our time,” Woodruff said. There are “a lot of hands up. We apologize for that.”

Then she began her question.