Commentary: What did Bernie say? And what’s it mean for 2020?

None of the candidates may benefit if a rift over gender dominates the debate among Democrats.

By Allyson Chiu and Katie Shepherd / The Washington Post

Ever since Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., began his quest for the Democratic presidential nomination against Hillary Clinton in 2016, there have been conflicting views about his attitude toward women in politics.

His backers have held him up as a standard-bearer for liberal ideals, including gender equality and an end to the political glass ceiling, going so far as to crown him “the most feminist 2020 candidate.”

Others have eyed him warily, accusing him and some of his backers, “Bernie Bros,” of having a “sexism problem.”

Some continue to blame him in part for Clinton’s loss of the presidential contest to then-candidate Donald Trump, inflicting a wound that may never heal among some Democratic women.

On Monday, Sanders’ presidential ambitions and the aspirations for that elusive “first female president” clashed yet again.

A CNN report detailed a private conversation Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., had with Sanders in 2018, in which they allegedly disagreed about a woman’s chances to win the White House in the coming election.

Sanders disputed the report, slamming it as “ludicrous.” His campaign called the account, initially attributed to four anonymous individuals, “a lie.”

But then Warren confirmed it, albeit not in so many words, suggesting Sanders was untruthful or at best remembered the conversation very differently.

Whatever was or wasn’t said, the fallout was swift. Politicians, journalists and politicos heralded the news as an “explosive account” and “a helluva leak.” On social media, progressive debated progressive, ultimately perhaps to the benefit of the candidates’ more moderate opponents, particularly former vice president Joe Biden.

One powerful fact, in particular, gave the argument its legs: Women, especially younger women, are not flocking to Warren as her supporters had hoped. Indeed, in the most recent polls, Sanders is doing better than Warren among women.

Sanders was polling ahead of Warren with women in both Iowa and New Hampshire, according to a Jan. 3 CBS-YouGov poll. In Iowa, 23 percent of women said they would vote for Sanders if the caucus were held today, compared with 19 percent who said they’d support Warren. In New Hampshire, the gulf was wider, with 26 percent saying they’d support Sanders in the primary and 19 percent backing Warren. The margin of error in the New Hampshire poll was plus or minus 5.3 percent; in Iowa, 3.8 percent.

Early reactions to the controversy varied starkly.

“If Bernie Sanders said anything remotely close to ‘a woman can’t beat Donald Trump in 2020’ in a conversation with Elizabeth Warren, he’s the dumbest person on the face of the earth,” tweeted Christopher Hale, a former Obama staffer. “I just struggle to believe that’s the case.”

People backing Warren, on the other hand, said their candidate had nothing to gain from complaining about sexism and found it hard not to believe her.

“The idea that Warren trotted this out to damage Sanders seems very unlikely,” tweeted feminist writer Jessica Valenti. “She knows that women who complain about sexism are seen as whiners, not winners.”

A third camp dismissed the controversy as a media-generated distraction. Those critics accused CNN of stirring up drama on the eve of a Democratic debate the network happens to be co-hosting Tuesday night, less than three weeks away from the Iowa caucuses.

“It’s almost a certainty CNN will open the debate tomorrow by asking Sanders about the Warren/Sanders meeting,” tweeted political consultant Jordan Uhl. “The story has no real impact on voters’ lives but there are few things CNN loves more than drumming up their own yellow journalism.”

But there was a larger history at play.

Sanders’ first attempt to run for president was marred by his aggressive supporters, dubbed the Bernie Bros, who harassed his political opponents and journalists online. Their actions spurred allegations of sexism that have never abated and deepened resentment about Sanders’ challenge to Clinton, the former first lady and secretary of state whom supporters described as the most qualified candidate in history.

It was also later alleged that his 2016 campaign fostered a hostile work environment for women, with several coming forward to allege that they were paid less than their male counterparts and subjected to sexual harassment and poor treatment, the New York Times reported last year. Sanders apologized to the women, promising to “do better.” But when asked whether he knew about the complaints, he responded, “I was a little bit busy running around the country.”

The senator again faced backlash in 2016, shortly after Clinton lost, when he offered advice to a woman who asked him for tips on running a political campaign.

“It is not good enough for someone to say: ‘I’m a woman! Vote for me!’” Sanders said. “No, that’s not good enough. What we need is a woman who has the guts to stand up to Wall Street, to the insurance companies, to the drug companies.”

Many critics would argue Warren is that kind of woman. The two political rivals have been longtime allies and friends, who started their campaigns for the 2020 Democratic nomination with a pact to remain civil. That truce began to fray this weekend, when Politico revealed Sanders’ campaign had given volunteer canvassers a script portraying Warren as appealing only to “highly-educated, more affluent people who are going to show up and vote Democratic no matter what.”

The tensions between Sanders and Warren only intensified Monday when CNN aired its report.

Although many did not see what Warren’s campaign had to gain by leaking details of the conversation to the news media, polling numbers suggest she could benefit from pulling female voters away from Sanders.

Another criticism Monday’s spat drew was from people who would support either Sanders or Warren over their more moderate opponents. They argued that a feud between the two candidates could split voters on the left flank of the party, boosting the chances that either former vice president Joe Biden or Pete Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, could gain momentum and end up facing off against President Trump in November.

“Whether you support Sanders or Warren or anyone else in this race, I can’t imagine that a fight between supporters of these candidates is helping anyone,” tweeted Charlotte Clymer, a spokesperson for the Human Rights Campaign. “There’s way too much at stake for this toxicity.”

Katie Shepherd is a reporter on The Washington Post’s Morning Mix team. Before joining The Post, she was a staff writer at Willamette Week in Portland, Ore. Allyson Chiu is a reporter with The Washington Post’s Morning Mix team. She has previously contributed to the South China Morning Post and the Pacific Daily News.

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