Can a woman win the presidency?
In 2020, that maddening, dispiriting question isn’t just about gender. It’s also about how broken we are as a country.
Turned over with extra-strength hand-wringing since Donald Trump was elected, the big question burst into the center of the Democratic primary during Tuesday night’s debate, as Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders were asked about a conversation they had over a year ago, in which Sanders may or may not have told his friend and ideological fellow-traveler Warren that he didn’t think a woman could beat Trump. Sanders denied it, saying he absolutely believes a woman can win, despite his expectation that the sexist incumbent will “weaponize whatever he could.”
The disagreement has been hard to watch, especially since it’s likely to hurt both progressive candidates. But what if Sanders really did say a woman can’t beat Trump? Answering the big question in the negative doesn’t necessarily make you sexist.
But what it does reflect is a profound lack of faith in the American electorate, and in our democracy in general. And it’s a view shared by many voters, including plenty of feminists.
In my darker moments — plentiful, given the daily miseries Trump visits upon us — I share it, too.
The numbers tell the story. Polls show that large majorities of voters (though sadly not 100 percent) would be happy to cast ballots for a woman Democratic nominee, but that they’re afraid other Americans will balk. In other words, they’re not sexist themselves, but they worry that their fellow citizens — say, the holy-grail diner-denizens in swing states — are. So they recalibrate their choices to account for the most narrow-minded among us. Voila: self-fulfilling prophecy.
And so a moderate, 77-year-old white man leads in most match-ups against Trump. Former vice president Joe Biden is seen as more electable than a woman, even though he is the object of a massive, Russia-backed, impeachment-inducing, disinformation campaign sure to dwarf the one that helped defeat Hillary Clinton in 2016.
“I think there’s a lot of sexism in the way they went after Hillary,” Biden said in Iowa recently. “Well, that’s not gonna happen with me.”
True, sexism is highly unlikely to happen to a man. Which Biden was clearly arguing makes him a stronger candidate. Which is a truly depressing capitulation.
Millions of Americans seem to agree, despite the fact that voters, even in purple states, swept an army of women into office in the blue wave of 2018. And despite the fact that four of the women who have sought the nomination — including, as Warren pointed out on Tuesday night, two who are still in the race — have never lost an election.
On the other hand: Trump.
He won in 2016 despite demonstrating breathtaking ignorance on every issue, and having boasted of sexually assaulting women. He continues to attract at least 40 percent in polls even though he has racked up 15,000 lies and distortions, according to Washington Post trackers; broken promises; profited off his presidency; paid off a porn star with whom he cheated on his wife; caged children; demeaned half the country; cozied up to Russia, which interfered in our last election; and been impeached for trying to coerce Ukraine into tipping the next election.
On Tuesday night, while the Democrats were having a substantive debate, the president was in Wisconsin sounding unhinged, railing against water-saving dishwashers and showers: “You’re going to have full shower flow,” he vowed. Which has to go down as one of the more bizarre campaign promises in history.
It is hard to look upon the continued success of such a man and avoid despairing over the judgment of millions of voters. Add the Republicans’ structural advantages — the Electoral College and purges of likely Democratic voters, for example — and you can understand skittish citizens desperate to turn the page on Trump believing that only a massive win by a Democrat (not the measly 3 million vote margin won by Hillary Clinton) will remove him from office.
If we lived in sane times, a turnip would trounce Trump in 2020.
So, of course, would a woman. Though we can probably agree that the woman would be even more viable than the root vegetable.
Globe columnist Yvonne Abraham can be reached at email@example.com.Follow her on Twitter @GlobeAbraham.