DES MOINES — Three years after Donald Trump dashed Democratic hopes of electing the country's first female president, a fierce debate has erupted in the party's presidential race about whether a woman can defeat him in November.
Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) acknowledged for the first time this week that they discussed the fraught topic privately more than a year ago. They presented conflicting accounts of their conversation at a debate Tuesday night, with Warren saying Sanders disagreed with her view that a woman could win. Sanders contends that he merely outlined what he said would be Trump's efforts to defeat another female candidate, and in the debate, he said, "Of course a woman can win."
Warren took a different approach. Making her most direct appeal yet on the basis of gender, she urged voters not to overlook the added hurdle that female candidates face. But it's one she can clear and make history, she argued, drawing parallels to barriers that Presidents John F. Kennedy and Barack Obama broke.
"Look, don't deny that the question is there," Warren said. "Back in the 1960s, people asked, 'Could a Catholic win?' Back in 2008, people asked if an African American could win. In both times, the Democratic Party stepped up and said yes."
The clash between Sanders and Warren, both personal and public, has abruptly amplified a difficult conversation that has been underway at Democratic gatherings across the country ever since Trump's election. And it cast a spotlight on shifting attitudes in the party toward women running for office in the Trump era.
Hillary Clinton's 2016 loss shocked Democrats and prompted many to wonder whether the country was ready for a female president. But it also pushed women to become more politically involved, leading to a record number of Democratic women in Congress; the return of the first female House speaker, Nancy Pelosi; and a new generation of women joining the presidential contest.
But now, less than three weeks before the Iowa caucuses, two men — Sanders and former vice president Joe Biden — have ascended to the top of the polls, joined in some of them by former South Bend, Ind., mayor Pete Buttigieg. Warren has faded since the fall. And once-promising campaigns by women such as Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) have ended.
"We keep getting stuck in the 'Yeah, but, can a woman beat Trump?' " said Stephanie Schriock, the president of Emily's List, a group focused on electing Democratic women who support abortion rights. "We've been, for 12 months, looking at electability in a really narrow way, and it's caused a huge amount of problems in this primary."
But for many voters, supporting a woman for president is not an easy decision. With Democrats so eager to defeat a president they see as a racist, sexist bully, many say they wonder whether the safest bet to defeat him is a man.
"Because I'm a woman, I suppose I should be wanting [Warren], but I'm not voting for her because she's a woman," said Marilyn Kean, 78, a Sanders supporter from Wilton, Iowa. "Too many men that don't want women in there."
Biden elliptically referred to that calculation earlier this month, when he noted that Clinton faced "unfair" sexism during her campaign.
“That’s not going to happen with me,” Biden said.
Reports about the conversation between Sanders and Warren caught Trump’s attention. “I don’t believe that Bernie said that,” the president said Tuesday night at a rally in Milwaukee.
The row between Sanders and Warren brought the debate over gender rushing to the surface in a race that, until recently, had been more cordial than many past campaigns.
It started Monday when CNN first reported on the 2018 one-on-one meeting, in which Sanders allegedly told Warren that a woman couldn’t beat Trump. The Sanders campaign vehemently denied the report, with a top aide calling it a “lie” — but, in a sign that the issue was not likely to subside, Warren then confirmed it.
The dispute continued at Tuesday night’s debate, hosted by CNN and the Des Moines Register, where Warren and Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) joined four men on the stage.
“Well, as a matter of fact, I didn’t say it,” Sanders said. He said he didn’t want to spend much time on the topic, arguing that it would play into Trump’s hands, but he added that anyone who knows him would agree that it is “incomprehensible that I would think a woman cannot be president.”
Sanders said Clinton besting Trump in the popular vote in 2016 was clear evidence that a woman can win. He also said he held back in deciding to run that year before Warren made up her mind about the race.
Warren did not back down from her claim that Sanders told her a woman couldn’t defeat Trump. Asked what she thought of his comment, she replied, “I disagreed.” And she said it was time to attack the subject “head on.”
“Can a woman beat Donald Trump? Look at the men on this stage — collectively they have lost 10 elections,” she said, prompting gasps and cheers from the crowd. “The only people on this stage who have won every single election that they’ve been in are the women.” She said she was the only one who had defeated an incumbent Republican in the past 30 years.
Sanders took issue with her comment, saying he defeated a Republican incumbent running for Congress in 1990. Warren responded by pausing to make an exaggerated show of doing the math in her head, before shooting back, “Wasn’t that 30 years ago?” Sanders eventually backed down, saying it was not the major issue of the day.
Klobuchar joined the fray, saying the power of female candidates was evident in recent wins by women in gubernatorial races in Michigan and Kansas. “You have to be competent to win, and you have to know what you’re doing,” she said.
Tensions appeared to remain high immediately after the conclusion of the debate, when Warren and Sanders were caught on video holding a brief yet animated discussion after Warren declined to shake Sanders’s hand.
The clash played on the still-raw wounds of the 2016 campaign and continued consternation by some sympathetic to Clinton who saw Sanders and his backers as insufficiently supportive of her in that contest.
The revelations could draw new scrutiny to Sanders, who faced criticism in 2016 for a campaign that many saw as too white and too male. He has taken steps to address that perception, hiring a more diverse staff and securing the support of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and other women of color.
The sharp break in recollections by Sanders and Warren was particularly unnerving for the liberal wing of the party, fearful that divisions between the two most leftward candidates would usher in a moderate nominee.
“Too much is at stake right now for mutual destruction,” said Rebecca Katz, a liberal strategist who plans to vote for Warren but also likes Sanders. “Our eyes need to be on the prize.”
A statement from an influential union said as much.
“We can’t afford distractions. The only way any candidate can beat either Sanders or Warren is by dividing them. This looks like a desperate attempt to fracture a coalition of the candidates that represent the most popular ideas among working people,” said Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants.
The Progressive Change Campaign Committee, which backs Warren, said in its own statement that “a back-and-forth about this private meeting is counter-productive for progressives. In this pivotal moment of the campaign, progressives must work together to defeat Donald Trump and prevent a less-electable establishment candidate like Joe Biden from getting the nomination.”
Others underscored the personal impact of the disputed words.
“Yes, many people have told me a woman can’t win in 2020,” tweeted author and columnist Connie Schultz, who is married to Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), who considered a presidential run. “This is fear speaking, & it has sparked meaningful conversations. But a woman hears this differently when she is the one who is running. It feels personal because it is. Can we please not lose sight of this difference?”
The Gillibrand campaign, which ran on gender issues and gained little traction, conducted research on sexism she faced and found that voters frequently would say that gender didn’t matter. But there was a hitch, according to a person familiar with the campaign.
“Voters said they would have no issues with a woman, but they worried that other people might have issues,” said the person, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive campaign material. “That’s classic research which shows deflection and actually is more of what that individual thinks.”
In September, a Washington Post-ABC News poll found that 23 percent of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents said a man would be more likely to defeat Trump than a woman; 7 percent said a woman would be more likely to win, while a 69 percent majority said the gender of a candidate didn’t matter.
Warren has been putting more emphasis on her gender, seeking to re-energize the anti-Trump passion that gave rise to women’s marches and a high turnout of female voters in 2018.
Inside the Sanders campaign, there has been a push for the senator to sharpen his contrast with Biden, not Warren.
Dan Pfeiffer, a former aide to Obama, compared the current situation with what Obama faced as a black candidate in 2008.
“I would say the challenge now is even more difficult,” he said, adding that in the 2008 campaign, Democrats widely believed that they would defeat the Republican nominee after eight years of George W. Bush. “The questions of electability were more in the background than they are today.”
He added, “All of the what I believe to be incorrect racial and gender stereotypes around electability are so much more damaging now.”
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