Can a woman win the presidency? Theoretically, yes — despite recent, discouraging history.
Can Senator Elizabeth Warren beat President Trump? That’s a very different question — and the only one that matters to Democrats in the 2020 presidential race.
On the debate stage in Iowa Tuesday night, Warren melded the two with the skill of a Harvard law professor. “The 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. “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 that they’ve been in are the women . . . and the only person on this stage who has beaten an incumbent Republican anytime in the past 30 years is me.”
With that answer, she won the moment. But winning debate points won’t defeat Trump. Just ask Hillary Clinton. And in no way does Warren’s 2012 victory over Scott Brown — the incumbent Republican to whom she was alluding — seal the electability deal. In Massachusetts, it’s really hard to lose a Senate race to a Republican; Brown’s special election victory after Ted Kennedy’s death was a fluke of timing and a weak opponent. Democrats, who couldn’t wait to oust him, rallied behind Warren, and so did many of the state’s unenrolled, or independent, voters.
Beating Trump is, to put it mildly, a wildly different matter. Of course, Democrats desperately want to oust him. But getting the party to rally behind the eventual nominee will take a million times more skill, finesse, and positive energy than it did in Massachusetts.
Which brings us to Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, whose alleged remark to Warren in 2018 that he did not believe a woman could win the presidency prompted the current debate over the issue. Whether he said it doesn’t really matter at this point. What matters is whether the fallout forever divides Warren and Sanders progressives into two bitter camps. During the debate, Sanders pledged unity: “Let me be very clear,” he said. “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 the history of this country.”
If it’s not Sanders, the eventual nominee has to hope that this time he lives up to that promise. Meanwhile, Warren’s refusal to shake his hand after the debate is not a good sign of things to come. It’s not about a woman having to “make nice” to a grumpy man who supposedly insulted her way back in 2018. It’s about grace — a gender-neutral quality — and an ability and willingness to knit together competing constituencies within the progressive wing of her own party. If she can’t do that now, how can she unite Democrats as the nominee and then go on to unite enough voters in key states to beat Trump?
Warren is smart, tough, and passionate about her “plans.” She is making the case for big, structural change in America. She still has to make the case for why she’s the one who can make it happen. Instead, she throws out data points. Two of her three brothers are Republicans. She was once a single mom, saved by an aunt who bailed her out by taking care of her children. She took on big corporations and was the inspiration behind a consumer protection bureau. On day one of her presidency, she will forgive student debt.
Sexism is real. A woman is judged more harshly on her voice, appearance, and attitude than any man will ever be. A female presidential candidate has to factor all that in, and deal with it.
But in the end, the question for voters is not whether “a woman” can win the presidency. It’s whether Warren can beat Trump. After the latest debate, that’s still debatable.
Joan Vennochi is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @joan_vennochi.