The Warren-Sanders Tiff (and What It Shows)

Spirited Reasoners were surprised (and then one was saddened) to witness last Wednesday’s post-debate confrontation between Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Sen Bernie Sanders. After refusing to accept Sanders’ outstretched hand, Warren accused him of calling her a liar on national television. Sanders then accused her of doing the same, while also suggesting that they continue the conversation out of the reach of television microphones and cameras.

According to Warren, in a claim voiced by the debate moderator a few minutes earlier, Sanders had told her, back in 2018, that a woman would be unable to defeat President Trump in the 2020 general election. According to Sanders, responding somewhat evasively to the moderator’s question, Hilary Clinton had obviously won more popular votes than Trump in 2016. But he blushed when he heard the question and seemed flustered by his own response. What he didn’t say—and what might have seemed more believable—was, “That’s a ridiculous claim. I never made that statement.”

So, we were left with what appear to be two rather serious mistakes, one on the part of each candidate.

If Sen. Warren felt aggrieved about Sen. Sanders’ statements on national television, she had a perfect opportunity to voice her opinion during the debate proper; i. e., also on national television. Her refusal to shake hands with Sen. Sanders after the debate seemed tactless and rude. Hardly the manifestation of presidential stature we are all hoping for—the kind that rises above President Trump’s penchant for bullying and name calling. (It brought to mind the immature posturing of a losing coach, storming off the field and refusing to shake the hand of the winning coach after a big game. You don’t need to act this way if you’re the winner. And you should be mature enough to swallow your gripes if you’re the loser.)

Now let’s turn to her opponent. If Sen. Sanders didn’t make such a comment, why all the bristle and bluster on his part? What we were left with, after both his response during the debate and his remarks to Sen. Warren afterward, is the impression that if he never made those remarks back in 2018, he must have said something very much like them.

Right-wing disciples of President Trump have already dredged up an essay written in 1972 by Sen. Sanders. The essay contains a sentence that seems to imply that some women want to be raped. Their hope, of course, is that progressive voters will begin to abandon his cause.

My own interpretation of the essay is that Sanders was wondering out loud why so many women seem to be attracted to romance novels that glorify rough, domineering sex on the part of their male lovers. It’s an interesting question. One worthy of discussion, especially now, after the blockbuster success of the novel, Fifty Shades of Grey, by E. L. James.

For purposes of the 2020 election, my interpretation won’t matter. What would matter is that some of his followers—triggered by his confrontation with Sen. Warren—might begin to wonder whether he harbors misogynistic tendencies.

So, who are the main beneficiaries of all this? In the short run, former Vice President Joe Biden, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, and Sen. Amy Klobuchar could each gain a point or two in the polls as a result of the tiff, something neither Warren nor Sanders can afford as the Iowa caucuses loom.

In the long run, it is President Trump who stands to gain. Given the stakes, Democrats cannot afford to come across as lacking either the ability or inclination to unify behind their own nominee, let alone bring our fractured nation back together again.