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Barbershop: Warren Vs. Sanders


Now we'd like to take some time to dig into an exchange that took place immediately after Tuesday's presidential debate in Iowa. It's been making the rounds on the news and social media. Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts - longtime friends, we are told - met on the debate stage at the end of the debate. Except when Senator Sanders extended his hand for Senator Warren to shake, she kept her hands clasped, and the mics they were wearing picked up what she said.


ELIZABETH WARREN: I think you called me a liar on national TV.

BERNIE SANDERS: I beg your pardon?

WARREN: I think you called me a liar on national TV.

SANDERS: Let's not do it right now. We'll have that discussion - you called me - you told me - all right, let's not...

TOM STEYER: I don't want to get in the middle of it. I just want to say hi, Bernie.

SANDERS: Yeah, good.

MARTIN: And you can hear another candidate, Tom Steyer, trying not to get in the middle of it. This goes back to something that came up before the debate, and both were asked about it during the debate. Senator Warren said in a statement that when she and Senator Sanders met to talk strategy during 2018, quote, "among the topics that came up was what would happen if Democrats nominated a female candidate. I thought a woman could win. He disagreed" - unquote.

Now, Senator Sanders denies having said that or even believing that. Senator Warren clearly believes he did say that. And, of course, predictably, many hot takes have ensued about this. But this got us thinking, what is really going on here? Is this a disagreement about sexism in politics? Is this about electability? Is this something else?

We wanted to unpack this, so we've called three people who've been thinking about this and writing some about it. Connie Schultz is with us. She is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist, and she's the author of the book "...And His Lovely Wife: A Memoir From The Woman Beside The Man" about her experiences campaigning for her husband, Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio.

Connie Schultz, welcome back.

CONNIE SCHULTZ: Hi, Michel. Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: Melanye Price is a professor of political science at Prairie View A&M University in Texas. She's also a New York Times opinion contributor.

Professor Price, welcome to you as well.

MELANYE PRICE: Thank you so much for having me.

MARTIN: And Clare Malone is a senior political reporter for FiveThirtyEight.

Clare Malone, welcome to you as well.

CLARE MALONE: Great to be here.

MARTIN: So, Connie, I'm going to start with you because you're good at writing about both the text and the subtext...


MARTIN: And there's obviously more to this than just the exchange itself. What did this bring up for you? What do you think is going on here?

SCHULTZ: A couple of things. First of all, let's talk about electability. Feminists I've known for 20, 30 years have privately said to me they're afraid a woman can't win. They're not talking about their fear. They're talking about their fear of what the country is capable of doing right now. And that's a conversation so many Democrats are having. I don't hold it against Bernie Sanders necessarily if he actually said that.

Here's the difference. When you are the woman who's on the receiving end of that, and you're a woman who is going to be running against him for president, it's personal. It feels personal because it's personal.

And I - as you mentioned, I'm married to Sherrod. I know both Elizabeth and Bernie, and I like them both. This is fraught for reasons that have nothing to do with their relationship. It has to do with the larger conversation right now about, why do we keep having this conversation about whether a woman can be elected?

We've all been - you have been - I suspect every woman in this conversation has been a first or one of the first at something. At the very least, we've been told that a woman couldn't do what we wanted to do, either subtly or directly. And this is why it has inflamed so many people across the country, women in particular.

MARTIN: And, Melanye, you wrote a piece, a New York Times op-ed, titled "Elizabeth Warren's Smart Answer On Electability." And you say in your piece there's a real chance they could both be right - I mean, just on the whole question of he said, she said and what was actually said. How do you see this?

PRICE: So I listen to Bernie Sanders, and I hear him say, of course a woman can be president. I believe a woman could be president. And there's lots of videos saying he believes a woman can be president. But that's very different than saying I think a woman can win this election. And when I am the woman who has the best chance of winning this election, then obviously, when you say a woman can't win, you're talking about me, right?

And so I think the thing that people refuse to get is that difference, right? We used to say before Barack Obama all the time a black person could be president. None of us thought until he won that a black person could win the presidency. Those are two very different things.

And I think in their efforts to protect Bernie Sanders, his supporters look over the fact that he might have said that thing, and she might have taken it a different way, right? So he might not have meant you aren't qualified, but he might have meant, I don't think you can win, which who wouldn't take that personally if what the thing you're trying to do is win?

MARTIN: And, Clare, you have some thoughts about those two. What do you think this is about?

MALONE: Oh, so many things. But one of the things I think is so interesting is that this conflict has actually been bubbling for a while between Sanders and Warren, and some of it has to do with, who owns the burgeoning American left progressive movement? And what's interesting is identity and how a woman presents in American public life plays into this so much.

You know, some of the things that happened before the debate started was that the - there was a story that leaked out that the Sanders campaign had these talking points that said Elizabeth Warren is the candidate of the elite. She won't broaden the base of the Democratic Party like Sanders will.

And in some ways, those talking points are sort of factually correct. Bernie Sanders has a greater appeal with white, non-college-educated people who live in swing states that are really important. And I think some of that has to do with the fact that Bernie Sanders kind of has the white male identity politics, right? He kind of - he talks straight, right? That's something you hear on the campaign trail all the time.

And Elizabeth Warren, while she's from a working-class, you know, Midwestern plains background - people perceive women as more liberal. And the fact that she was - and there are studies that show this, right? - women politicians people perceive as more liberal. The fact that she was a Harvard professor kind of sticks harder to her.

And so there's become this interesting dichotomy - almost a class war within the broader progressive class war - that, you know, college-educated Clinton voters are choosing Warren, and maybe, you know, non-college-educated voters are - some of whom - who voted for Trump kind of like Bernie Sanders. So in addition to the layers of gender politics that's going on here, there's sort of an insider-outsider, elite-not elite class thing that's happening, which is really sticky and interesting.

MARTIN: So, you know, Connie, did the body language also strike you in any way, though? Because one of the things that you wrote about in one of your pieces - you wrote a piece for - an online essay about this - is that, you know, all the ways, the subtle ways that women are just dismissed. And the body - did the body language strike you at all. It's, like, oh, I don't want to talk about this now. I mean, I'm not trying to imitate her but I don't want to - how many...

SCHULTZ: I will say this...

MARTIN: ...Women have been told, I don't want to talk about this...

SCHULTZ: Exactly.

MARTIN: ...Right now? And...


MARTIN: Does that kind of - go ahead.

SCHULTZ: Don't point your finger at me. Let's start with that. Don't - just don't, to any woman. I also want to just build on what Clare said a little bit. I want to push back just a bit. Success clings to women more, period. I come from the working class, and I can't tell you how often I'm called an elitist because I'm married to a senator, and I won the Pulitzer, neither of which has anything to do with what I had to do on my own in my career. And I'm not making this about me at all. It's just there are so many women like me, including Elizabeth Warren.

PRICE: Exactly.

SCHULTZ: Yeah. And I'm so tired of it sticking to us in a certain way. We would never complain that another man went to Harvard. It's not even an issue. But because she was at Harvard - not as a student but as a professor - we're going to keep hearing about how that somehow makes her an elitist.

MARTIN: Well, I don't know. I mean, Obama went to Harvard, and he was the president of the law review, and I somehow remember hearing some of his, you know, competitors talk about him being in an elitist.

PRICE: Well, he got similar criticism about being too professorial. I think the whole problem in this election has been the word that you started with, which is electability. There is a way in which electability in this election - and in most elections - has come to mean white men. They can get elected - not black candidates, not women candidates. And so I think about Biden. I think about Bernie. I think about even Buttigieg, who's never got more than 10,000 votes in his life, and somehow, he's seen as more electable than Elizabeth Warren.

And so, as you think about that, I'm all for us redefining or at least talking about the ways that electability is not just a racial category. It's also a gendered care category, right?


PRICE: And that is, who can take on Trump? Because obviously, it has to be a man who can do that when I actually think watching Trump try to do the things that he does in public to a woman might actually win Elizabeth Warren more votes than actually Joe Biden or - I think he would come undone by not being able to crack her in a way that would win him - win the Democratic Party more votes than against Bernie or Biden. But...

MARTIN: Can I get clear on this? Because, you know, FiveThirtyEight is known for their polling, is there polling? Could you just amplify this? Is there polling on this? And do you think that there's a difference between what people are willing to say and what they really think? I mean, we sometimes see those gaps emerge...


MARTIN: ...On this question of whether...



MALONE: Well, what's so interesting is that in some ways, you could say that a woman candidate has the great advantage because the Democratic primary electorate is made up of majority women. I think women voters will become the swing vote in the general election. So they're - in some ways, there's some electability advantages to being a woman. And on lower levels - you know, in congressional races, things like that - women actually tend to win more than men do. They tend to be overqualified.

Now, I think the presidency is this interesting case because, A, we've never had a woman president, B, it was a very contentious election last time around, and C, I think there's something interesting about what I would call just the exposure therapy of having a woman running for president on TV all the time. If you think about it, you don't see your female congressional candidates all that much on TV or on Twitter or on your Instagram feed constantly.

And I think when the American public is exposed to women in certain positions who have a certain forceful way of talking, there's a little bit of a - you know, the ingrained sexism in so many of us women and men kind of chafes in some ways against these women who are doing a thing that is, you know, unprecedented in American life, which is running for president. And so I think the American public has to kind of - is coming face to face with the ingrained sexism that is really there in our society.

And while they might like candidates that they - female candidates that they don't really hear from all that much but, you know, say, oh, I heard she's going - doing a good job in Congress, when you're actually running for president, you're so exposed to the women running. And I think it forces people to confront some of the really, really ingrained stereotypes we have.

MARTIN: I only have about a minute left, so Senator - I mean, sorry. Senator Price - I just elected you.

PRICE: (Laughter).

MARTIN: Professor Price...


MARTIN: Other democracies have elected women leaders before....


MARTIN: ...You know, the Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in the U.K. and Theresa May...

PRICE: Angela Merkel.

MARTIN: ...And then Liberia - Angela Merkel, Liberia, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. Why do you think it's so hard in the U.S., as briefly as you can?

PRICE: I think one of the things is that women - I actually have to push back a little bit because I think women aren't always voting in their best interest. So I think about all the women, for instance, who voted for Trump after we know, like, the ways in which he has treated women after rape allegations, after multiple wives, after the things he says publicly about women. And so they don't always vote their interests in the ways that we would think because they're socialized in the same society as men.

And I think there's a way in which maybe we can engage women a little bit more - particularly white women in this case who Elizabeth Warren has to figure out how to get on her side.

MARTIN: That is Professor Melanye Price. We reached her in Houston via Skype. Reporter Clare Malone joined us from our bureau in New York. And author and columnist Connie Schultz joined us from WCPN in Cleveland.

Thank you all so much for talking to us.

PRICE: Thank you.

SCHULTZ: Thanks, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.