2020 Primary Politics: 05 Warren ‘She Saids’ Bernie




Sanders and Warren in better times, which all previous times were

In December of 2018, Bernie Sanders met privately with Elizabeth Warren, A partial account of that conversation somehow leaked to CNN — we can presume not from Sanders or his camp, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that Warren herself did so or directed others to do so (at least intentionally.)  During this conversation, Warren asserts that he told her that a woman could not beat Trump in 2020.  Sanders emphatically denies it — and notes that, given how close Hillary came to beating him (and, he might have added, what a horrible President Trump has been), it would have been insane to him to believe or say that.

We don’t know what was said in that conversation.  He said something; so did she.  He denies saying what she says he said.  Asked by CNN’s moderator what she said in response to what he said — presuming, in other words, that it did happen — she said simply that she had disagreed.

This situation shares a lot of characteristics with a lot of far, far more serious “he said/she saids,” a fact of which neither Warren or Sanders can be unaware.  While the charge leveled against Sanders is at worst one of holding a sexist opinion about Trump’s success in provoking and deploying misogyny in Presidential politics, the form of the complaint puts him in a position similar to those of rapists and molesters and those engaged in sexual assault.

This makes it really unpalatable to raise reasonable questions in this case that would not be as obviously reasonable in a more serious case:

  • Ambiguity: one big issue is exactly what Sanders said.  This could range from “absolutely nothing” (which seems unlikely) to exactly what Warren says he said: that Donald Trump could defeat any woman in 2020.  All one has to believe for this to be true is that American men (and women) are powerfully affected by misogynistic attacks, of which Trump is a kind of evil master.  Warren would probably win all of the states that Hillary won, but from there it gets more difficult.  If only 33% of the population of those red swing states are so devoted to Trump that they will simply ignore all negative information about him, that means that Warren would need to 75% of the 2/3 of several states who are not so mesmerized.  If 40% are mesmerized by Trump in states like Ohio, North Carolina, then Warren would have to win 83% of the remaining 60% to win one or more of those states.  (And that presumes that the 60% are as likely to vote as the 40% — which is only an assumption here — who support him like religious zealots.If Bernie was expressing concerns based upon those facts — and of course Warren could have thrown that back in Sanders’s face for being a socialist, or even just being Jewish — then he wouldn’t be saying that a woman was 100% sure to lose to Trump, but only that it would be an especially difficult fight.Now, would he be doing this to try to dissuade her from running against him?  Sure — and that can be criticized as special pleading.  But it’s still not nuts in the way that a flat statement would be nuts.  And, it barely need be said, it is simply wrong for Warren to say that an ambiguously objectionable statement is the same as a clearly sexist one.

    We don’t know that she’s doing that, in part because ambiguity works both ways.  Sanders may have said something poorly worded, unclear, insensitive, etc., without being in the same league as what Warren reports.  But — and this is critical — Warren may have perceived his statement as being more sexist than it was.  (Obviously, she may also have accurately perceived a clearly sexist statement.  We just don’t know.

    This is, of course, the same sort of problem as existed in the most notorious recent political/sexual he-said/she-said situation: the Brett Kavanaugh confirmation hearing.  But the difference between what someone Warren has allied with and praised as her close friend saying something demeaning (at worst), and Kavanaugh’s attempting to rape her while choking her into quiet submission, is obviously huge.  Some delicateness of sensibility on the part of complainants like Dr. Christine Blasey Ford should clearly be honored — but Warren can justifiably lay claim to the same level of shielding from difficult questions, like one’s about exactly what she alleges that Sanders said.

  • Why Didn’t She Try Talking to Sanders about This?Some people literally challenged Blasey Ford on the grounds that she sprang this on Kavanaugh without warning when he may legitimately have had no recollection of it.  (Possibly it never happened; more likely he was blind drunk and didn’t remember it; and perhaps it was also one of many such incidents that simply didn’t stand out.  Putting that onus on Blasey Ford was sexist and disgusting; there was NO reason why she should ever have had to voluntarily have personal contact with, or give a head’s up to, the man who as a teenager had tried to rape her and endangered her life in the process.  Some people think that she was lying or mistaken; that doesn’t matter.  The rule is that she needn’t put herself in a painful and terrifying situation just in order to be considered potentially credibly.Warren’s situation is completely different.  Her interaction, if it went the say she says it did, may have been upsetting and demeaning, but that is nothing compared to what Dr. Blasey Ford says she experienced.  This is an accusation of rank sexism against a friend and ally, as well as a rival.  Simple decency would have required that she get his version of events before letting this story explode like this.  Maybe it was a misunderstanding.  Maybe it was a mistake on one or both of their parts.  Leveling this charge — which after Sanders suffered through so many attacks from supporters of Hillary Clinton, would obviously be explosive — without conferring with him was nasty politics.  Even if, as I’d like to believe, she had nothing to do with the story’s release, she certainly should have sought him out for a discussion before confirming it, as she did.  “I’ll need to talk to Bernie before I talk to you” would have been an appropriate response — and it speaks poorly of her that, even if her supporters leaked this to help her, she let herself be controlled by their agenda.

    I think that it’s worth imagining the shoe being on the other foot.  To my recollection, Bernie has defended her on the charged of cultural appropriation of Native American identity — let alone supposedly profiting from it in her career — or at a minimum I can’t recall him criticizing her over it.  Now imagine that that story had not come up before now, but that someone leaked it to the Sanders campaign, telling them that it would also be leaked to the media after a few days.  Can you imagine Bernie moving in for the kill against his friend without even getting her side of the story?  I can’t — and that is a difference between decency and, if I’m to use a harsh word, treachery.

    Is it fair to call this treacherous?  Let’s go to another comparison with the Kavanaugh case.

  • Why Did She Wait Until the Worst Possible Time?

One reason why a politician might wait for the worst possible time — and just before the last debate and 20-ish days before the Iowa Caucus is pretty close to the worst possible time — to make this allegation?  Don’t tell me that he hand was forced by the leak: the only thing she was forced to do, given a sense of propriety, would have been to talk to Bernie about what had happened — in front of witnesses, if need be.  Waiting until this late is what could justify her being called treacherous.

Some people may like that in a politician.  I and other Berniecrats — who she needs in the rest of her campaign if Bernie fails — do not.  And I really don’t like what Donald Trump is likely to do with this information.

The problem that her waiting until now — of course she had the information back in December 2018, when the conversation took place — is that in some ways it puts her in a worse situation than Sanders.  He doesn’t think — or claims not to think — that he did anything wrong, so there was no reason to bring this up.  But she either thinks that is IS a serious reason not to support Sanders … or that it isn’t.  If it is — if the world needs to be protected from this sexist — that why keep it silent all this time?  If it isn’t, then why capitalize on it like this?  She could have said something like “he’s less optimistic about a woman being able to beat Trump than I am” — probably true, but less damning.  Instead, she has put him in a position where he can’t really fight back — asking the sorts of questions I’m asking here — without suffering greatly among women voters.  This brings back all of the bad fights of 2016 — ones that, let’s not forget, she sat out — and contributes to fissuring the party.  I can see why it makes sense for her in January, but she’s likely to regret it by October when Sanders can’t convince his legion supporters to raise a finger for her.

Her best bet was to play fair with Sanders and — if she won the nomination anyway (which she well might have) been able to benefit from the enthusiastic and generous support of his partisans.  Now, that just doesn’t seem very likely.  Some may deny that her accusation was any big thing, but they’re wrong: male sexism is a huge problem in our society, and she has just hung it around Sanders’s neck, which could be crippling if he wins the primary.  (Again, Trump will have a field day.  It doesn’t have to make sense, or be consistent, for his credulous audience.)

I’m beginning to think that while Warren is clearly a smart woman, she is not a particularly smart politician.  Emphasizing her gender now, when she’s the only women among the four leading candidates, was a smart move and entirely fair game.  Playing nice to Klobuchar and Yang, even if the former makes me queasy, is also smart politics.  She didn’t need to go after Sanders in this kind of dirty ambush way — and I expect that she will come to regret being viewed as a backstabber.  And she can’t even back away from it properly without looking like an amateurish klutz.

By the way: everything in that Sanders campaign memo — about her being a favorite of elite voters who were already going to oppose Trump, so she doesn’t really bring new people into the electorate the way that Sanders does — is flat out true.  I wasn’t going to focus on it — quite seriously, I was not — in the run-up to Iowa, but if cooperation is not on the menu then let the chips fall where they may.

P.S.  Forgot to add: if Warren had simply shaken Sanders’s hand at the end, she could have defused a lot of the worst of the problem.  Instead, she intensified it.  Again: not a deft politician.  Is her reason that he was “calling her a liar”?  Having differing recollections of an interaction doesn’t mean two people are calling each other liars.  What sort of person doesn’t understand that?

In part two of this essay, probably tomorrow, we’l look at the rules of the Iowa Caucuses.  They will show that Warren’s decision was a really, really, bad idea, one that helps Biden and Buttigieg — and maybe Bloomberg.  Smooth move there, Senator.

About Greg Diamond

Somewhat verbose attorney, semi-retired due to disability, residing in northwest Brea. Occasionally runs for office against bad people who would otherwise go unopposed. Got 45% of the vote against Bob Huff for State Senate in 2012; Josh Newman then won the seat in 2016. In 2014 became the first attorney to challenge OCDA Tony Rackauckas since 2002; Todd Spitzer then won that seat in 2018. Every time he's run against some rotten incumbent, the *next* person to challenge them wins! He's OK with that. Corrupt party hacks hate him. He's OK with that too. He does advise some local campaigns informally and (so far) without compensation. (If that last bit changes, he will declare the interest.)