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Some Democratic women were bothered by Joe Biden-Elizabeth Warren debate exchange

Democratic hopefuls take aim at Elizabeth Warren in Ohio debate
Sen. Elizabeth Warren repeatedly came under attack during Tuesday’s Democratic presidential debate. (The Boston Globe)

A tense debate exchange with Senator Elizabeth Warren over who gets credit for the creation of a consumer watchdog prompted a fresh round of criticism of former vice president Joe Biden and his ability to navigate a gender landscape that’s shifted profoundly in recent years.

Seeking to showcase her track record of getting things done, Warren on Tuesday night laid out how she conceived of and fought to create a new consumer agency to protect regular folks from greedy banks — overcoming Wall Street lobbyists who hated it and Washington insiders who said it was impossible.

Biden jumped in during the forum on CNN.


“I went on the floor and got you votes. I got votes for that bill,” Biden said, heatedly, stabbing his hand in Warren’s direction as she looked straight ahead. “I convinced people to vote for it. So let’s get those things straight, too.”

“I am deeply grateful to President Obama, who fought so hard to make sure that agency was passed into law,” Warren replied, speaking slowly. The audience laughed, as did Biden. Warren didn’t smile.

In one sense, it was another attack-and-parry in a night marked by attacks on Warren by her many rivals, now that she’s moved to the front of the pack.

But for many Democratic women watching, the exchange was something else: familiar.

“Wow, a man taking credit for a woman’s work, how original,” tweeted Amanda Litman, cofounder of Run for Something, a progressive group that recruits and supports young, diverse Democrats in running for office.

“It was cringe-worthy,” said Kelly Dittmar, assistant professor of political science at Rutgers University Camden and a scholar at the Center for American Women and Politics.

Anger is the emotion it prompted for Stephanie Taylor, cofounder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, a grass-roots group backing Warren. In an e-mail to the group’s 1 million followers sent out Wednesday, Taylor said, “Every woman can recognize herself in that moment — watching a man take public credit for her professional accomplishments.”


She asked members to share their own similar experiences as well as thoughts about Biden’s remarks.

There’s no question that the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, as the consumer watchdog is known, was Warren’s brainchild, and that she was a key player in fighting publicly and behind the scenes to ensure it was included in the landmark 2010 financial overhaul law known as Dodd-Frank.

Whether Biden’s role is as significant as he suggested is less clear. It certainly wasn’t highly visible. Some advocates involved in pushing for the CFPB — along with reporters who closely covered the legislation — say they have no memory of him being involved, but negotiations on the bill often happened behind closed doors.

Former senator Chris Dodd, one of the chief architects of the financial law, said in an interview “we wouldn’t have been able to get the bill done” without the involvement of the Obama administration, including Biden.

Warren “was critical in the debate, obviously cared a lot about it,” the Connecticut Democrat said. “Joe was helpful and the administration was helpful.”

Referring to the debate about who deserves credit for the law, he added: “This is mole hill stuff we’re talking about here.”

Several Obama administration officials involved in the legislative process back then said that Biden was deeply committed to the consumer agency.


Jared Bernstein, an economist who served as a top adviser to Biden when he was vice president, tweeted about the dust-up.

“I was there: Biden fought hard to get votes for Dodd/Frank & to make sure Sen Warren’s idea for a CFPB came to fruition,” he wrote.

Biden also advocated for the Wall Street overhaul bill in speeches, pitching it in populist terms.

“As Vice President, Joe Biden worked side-by-side with President Obama to save our economy from the Great Recession and win support for new safeguards against Wall Street’s recklessness to prevent another crash, including the CFPB,” Biden campaign spokeswoman Kate Bedingfield said. “Vice President Biden has an unparalleled record of delivering progressive change — not just talking about it.”

Asked on MSNBC after the debate about Biden’s claim, Warren said, “If that’s what Vice President Biden says, I take him at his word on that.”

Regardless of Biden’s contribution, several analysts said that the exchange with Warren added another incident to a list of gender-related stumbles he’s made in the race. Together, the episodes could hurt him among female voters, a vital component of the Democratic base, these analysts said.

Other examples of Biden’s behavior with women and girls that have sparked controversy include telling the brothers of a 13-year-old girl that their job is to “keep the guys away from your sister,” and making repeated jokes — after he had vowed to be “more mindful” of others’ personal space — about the fact several women had publicly said he had touched them in ways that made them feel uncomfortable.


The moment with Warren “highlights an issue Biden has had consistently throughout this campaign — engaging in behaviors that wouldn’t have raised an eyebrow 20 years ago that really make women uncomfortable right now,” said Jess McIntosh, a Democratic strategist and expert on gender politics, who is not affiliated with any of the 2020 candidates. “We’re in a different place than we were previously, and I think Biden has been struggling to catch up in that lane.”

Victoria McGrane can be reached at victoria.mcgrane@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @vgmac.