2020 Election

Warren and Sanders Spar on Gender Issues at Iowa Debate

4 minute read

Everybody knew this was coming. After reports surfaced that Sanders had questioned whether a woman could win the presidency during a 2018 meeting with Warren, it was inevitable that the candidates would be asked about it during the debate.

Sanders had called the allegation “ludicrous” and went so far to say she was lying. “What I did say that night was that Donald Trump is a sexist, a racist and a liar who would weaponize whatever he could,” he said. Warren remembered it differently: “I thought a woman could win; he disagreed,” she said in a statement.

When CNN moderators asked Sanders why he questioned whether a woman could win, he denied it altogether. “Well, as a matter of fact, I didn’t say it.” Warren turned her head sharply to look at him. “Anybody knows me knows that it’s incomprehensible that I would think that a woman could not be President of the United States,” he said.

Sanders didn’t mention whether he thought a woman ever should be President. He cited Hillary Clinton’s popular vote margin to establish that he knew it was possible. “If any of the women on this stage or any of the men on this stage win the nomination — I hope that’s not the case, I hope it’s me — but if they do, I will do everything in my power to make sure that they are elected in order to defeat the most dangerous president in our country.”

Warren was then asked what she thought when Sanders told her a woman couldn’t win the election. “I disagreed,” she said. “Bernie is my friend, and I am not here to try to fight with Bernie.”

But Warren turned the moment into a chance to prove her own electability. “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,” she said. “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? Look at the men on this stage. Collectively they have lost 10 elections. The only people on this stage who have won every single election they’ve been in are the women, Amy and me. And the only person on this stage who has beaten an incumbent Republican anytime in the past 30 years is me.”

Senator Amy Klobuchar jumped in to echo Warren’s point, adding that two of the Democrats who ousted Republicans from crucial statewide governorships were women, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan and Gov. Laura Kelly of Kansas. “I have won every race, every place, every time,” Sen. Klobuchar said.

When Sanders was called on again, he turned to Warren in an exchange that could illuminate the crossed wires between the two old friends. “Just to set the record straight, I defeated an incumbent Republican running for Congress.”

“When?” Warren said.

“1990,” Bernie said. Warren could be seen visibly counting. “That’s how I won. I beat a Republican congressman.”

“Thirty years go,” Warren said. “Wasn’t that thirty years ago?”

“I beat an incumbent Republican Congressman,” Sanders said.

“And I said: I was the only one who’s beaten an incumbent Republican in thirty years,” Warren said.

It was a miscommunication between the longtime allies that could offer a glimpse at what really happened in that private 2018 meeting, when only the two Senators were present. Maybe they’re both telling the truth, and Sanders heard it one way while Warren heard it another.

Either way, the yearlong non-aggression pact between the two old friends now seems seriously frayed. After the debate, Warren approached Bernie seeming as if she had something to say. Bernie appeared to listen, then waved his hands and turned away.

“The Senator reached out his hand to shake her hand and she didn’t do it.” Ohio state Sen. Nina Turner, a national co-chair for Sanders’ campaign told reporters after the debate. “You can read their body language. Obviously the conversation was not pleasant.”

It was yet another conversation where only the two of them know what was said.

– with reporting from Lissandra Villa, Des Moines Iowa

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Write to Charlotte Alter at charlotte.alter@time.com