DES MOINES, Iowa — The nonaggression pact between Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts faced its most difficult test and held — at least for now.
The two progressive senators de-escalated a tense round of tit-for-tat exchanges between their presidential campaigns on the debate stage here Tuesday night over the charged issues of gender and electability.
Aides and supporters of both senators, who have more or less remained allies even while running against each for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, had accused each other of dirty tricks and lying in recent days after a series of leaks to the media, culminating in Warren saying in a statement that Sanders once told her he didn’t think a woman could win the presidency.
But when the topic came up during a debate hosted by CNN, both sought to set the issue aside and move on, even as Sanders once again denied telling Warren a woman couldn’t win during a one-on-one meeting in 2018.
“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,” he said. “Anybody knows me knows that it’s incomprehensible that I would think that a woman could be president of the United States.”
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He went on to say that he had been ready to defer to Warren and not run for president if she had decided to do so in 2016, and said he would work to elect any of the candidates on stage should he fail to win the nomination this year.
Warren seemed happy to move on from Sanders, but acknowledged that many Democrats have serious doubts about whether Americans would elect a woman after Hillary Clinton’s 2016 electoral college loss to President Donald Trump.
“I disagreed,” Warren said of her thoughts on their reported 2018 discussion. “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?”
The issue of electability — an unknowable factor — has chased Warren since her first trip to Iowa just over a year ago as she has worked to convince Democratic voters she can win against Trump. Many Democratic voters have said they believe that sexism does makes it harder for women candidates to win than men.
Warren’s campaign is well aware of this challenge and has tried to find moments to push back on it, so Warren seemed happy to turn the Sanders spat into a chance to make the pitch herself on the debate stage.
Warren noted that the men on stage had collectively lost 10 elections while the two women on stage — her and Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar — had won every election they contested.
“And the only person on this stage who has beaten an incumbent Republican anytime in the past 30 years is me,” Warren added, referring to her 2012 victory over Republican Scott Brown, who won a special election in Massachusetts to fill the late Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat.
Sanders pushed back on that claim, saying he wanted to “set the record straight” by noting he ousted an incumbent Republican to win a seat in Congress in 1990.
Warren smirked, before gently noting that she placed her timeline within 30 years. Sanders’ 1990 election is months short of being 30 years ago.
“Well, 30 years ago is 1990, as a matter of fact,” he conceded.
And Warren took one more chance to try to dispel electability concerns, pointing out that many Democrats worried Americans wouldn’t elect a Catholic when the party nominated John F. Kennedy in 1960 and a black man in 2008 when its voters picked Barack Obama. And she noted that women helped power Democrats’ House takeover in 2018.