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Current Affairs

A Magazine of Politics and Culture

The Credibility Gap

It’s difficult to believe Elizabeth Warren’s claim that Bernie Sanders thinks a woman can’t win.

Elizabeth Warren has said that Bernie Sanders told her early in the campaign that a woman could not win the 2020 election. Sanders has vehemently denied the allegation. Warren says the comment came during a closed-door meeting with only the two of them in attendance, so in assessing the claim we only have their respective words to go on. 

Up until a few days ago, the two candidates never said anything bad about one another in public. Then Warren accused Sanders of “sending volunteers out to trash me,” after an internal campaign document surfaced giving a mildly critical talking point to door-knockers. (If a voter asked why they should vote for Sanders over Warren—a question to which volunteers should presumably have at least some answer—they pointed out that Bernie has a unique capacity to energize working-class voters and people who don’t typically vote Democratic, while Warren’s voters tend to be more educated and affluent. This is a fact, and it isn’t very harsh. It also appears as if the document was fairly low-level rather than being authorized by Sanders.)

Warren’s new accusation of sexism is a “scorched earth” tactic, the equivalent of pressing the nuclear button to try to destroy the opposing campaign. It makes it unthinkable that Sanders would choose Warren as a vice presidential nominee, should he win the primary. It’s an extremely damaging allegation to lob in the leadup to the Iowa caucus. 

How do we assess its truth, though? Each of them insists the other is wrong. Who should we believe?

In fact, I think it’s fairly easy to conclude that Warren’s claim is highly dubious. This is because:

  1. Bernie Sanders has a long history of saying the opposite of what Warren is accusing him of saying, and thinking a woman can’t win is incompatible with his political worldview.
  2. Elizabeth Warren has a long history of saying untrue and distorted things for politically opportunistic reasons. 

First: Would Bernie say this? Well, here’s Bernie in 1987 lamenting that there aren’t more women in office and encouraging young girls to run. And here’s Bernie in 1988, saying: “In my view, a woman could be elected president of the United States. The real issue is ‘whose side are you on?’” In fact, Bernie encouraged Warren herself to run in 2016, and only entered the race because she declined to do it. This would be a strange thing to do if he thought a woman could not be president.

In fact, the idea that Bernie thought a woman couldn’t beat Trump does not ring true, because it completely contradicts his theory of politics. Bernie does not think Hillary Clinton lost because she was a woman, but because she had bad politics and a bad message. (And she still got more votes! How could anyone possibly believe a woman couldn’t win, since we know she can get the most votes?) Bernie believes, as he said in that 1988 clip, that the real question is which side you are on. In fact, Bernie was criticized by some Clinton supporters for not giving more weight to the impact of sexism. (And for what it’s worth, Tulsi Gabbard says she also met with Bernie before her run and he was nothing but encouraging.) 

Warren is actually very vague about what exactly Bernie said. Her quote is: “Among the topics that came up was what would happen if Democrats nominated a female candidate. I thought a woman could win; he disagreed.” There has been some suggestion that Bernie might have said one thing and Warren heard another: He said he thought rampant sexism would make a woman have a much more difficult time running for president (which Warren and her supporters would agree with), and she interpreted that as “a woman can’t win.” I doubt that he was that pessimistic, because Bernie tends to believe that bigotry can be overcome through building a coalition of working people—the entire point of that 1988 remark was to explain why he thought Jesse Jackson’s race did not make him unelectable. The Washington Post quotes a source with knowledge of the meeting saying Bernie was pointing out that Trump would use dirty sexist tactics, not claiming that a woman couldn’t win.

But Warren did not, in her statement, encourage people to contemplate the possibility of any misunderstanding. She knew her words would become the headline: “Bernie thought a woman couldn’t be president.” She deliberately gave a statement vague enough to allow for the worst possible impression, that Bernie sat there going: “You, run for president? A mere WOMAN? A woman cannot possibly win.” And she knew it would lead to pundits on CNN going: “it does seem like something Bernie Sanders would say, because he has gender issues.” Warren wants people to think Bernie is a sexist, that is the entire point of dropping this in the leadup to Iowa. 

from Business Insider

It is not just because Bernie has repeatedly said a woman could be president that I do not believe he told Warren that a woman could not be president. Nor is it just because Warren’s campaign is behind, and desperately in need of some kind of game-changer to improve her fortunes before Iowa—though that certainly gives ample motive to put the worst possible spin on his words. It is also because Elizabeth Warren has a long history of saying things that are deceptive or untrue. 

I think we have to be careful here, because women are accused of untrustworthiness and inauthenticity far more than men. If we are to question Elizabeth Warren’s truthfulness, it needs to not be because of some vague “vibe,” some sense of being “fake,” but because there is evidence. I have rejected petty criticisms of Warren that are based on her manner or her physical movements, and it’s very important to be on guard against double standards. 

But when I say there is reason not to trust that Warren always tells the truth, I mean this because she does not always tell the truth. I have documented these at length in a video and in previous articles for this website. Many of them are small, but they are also shameless and show a willingness to bend the truth for political convenience. They include:

I do not want to keep writing articles harping on Elizabeth Warren’s lack of credibility. I would like to turn my attention to the fight against Donald Trump, and advancing the democratic socialist vision of a better tomorrow. But Warren has launched a destructive attack on Bernie Sanders, branding him a sexist, and it is important to look at her record to see if we can trust her account. For a long time, in the interest of progressive unity, many Democrats have been disinclined to call Warren out on her pattern of misstatements. I think this has been a mistake, and that today’s incident shows why. For a long time, Elizabeth Warren has massaged the truth in ways that are politically convenient, and it is now time to be bluntly critical of her record and her actions. 

We cannot know what transpired between Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. What we do know is that Bernie Sanders encouraged Warren to run in 2016 and that he has never thought it impossible for a woman to be president. We also know that Warren does not always represent things accurately. I think it should be clear who is more credible here, and Warren’s candidacy should be discredited.

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