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What She Said

Think a woman can’t win the White House? Elizabeth Warren would be happy to discuss.

Senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders at the debate on Tuesday. ROBYN BECK/AFP via Getty Images

I see what you did there, Elizabeth Warren. It was crafty and beautifully executed, even if it felt a little dirty.

You vaulted over Bernie Sanders’ denial of your claim that he’d once said a woman can’t win the presidency. You stuck the landing with the point you came to make: Oh, yes she can.

You seized on the festering resentment about Hillary Clinton’s treatment in 2016 and you benefited from a #MeToo-inspired supposition that women should be believed.

You even refused to shake Sanders’ hand after the debate, creating uncomfortable and unusual optics for a female politician: You weren’t there to make nice. You were there to win.


All that amplified the message you clearly came to convey: Think a woman can’t be tough enough or mean enough to stand up to President Trump on a debate stage?

Think again.

Warren’s deft maneuvers on gender Tuesday night demonstrated how effective she could be in a showdown against Trump, said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, the director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania.

“Elizabeth Warren just established that she’s strategic,” said Jamieson. The question Warren had to beat back, Jamieson noted, is not theoretical — whether and when a woman can claim the Oval Office.

“The question is, ‘can this woman win against that Donald Trump,” she said. “What that exchange suggested is, she was demonstrating how she would do that.”

To recap: The tension began with Warren’s assertions Sunday that his volunteers were given scripts to “trash” Warren. (Trash is a relative verb, of course; Sanders’ campaign script reportedly noted that Warren voters are highly educated and affluent.) It continued Monday, when Warren issued a public statement asserting Sanders had told her in 2018 that a woman couldn’t win the presidency.

When a moderator broached the topic at the Iowa debate Tuesday night, Sanders strenuously denied the exchange, noting he had offered to defer his 2016 candidacy if she wanted to run then.

But the moderator’s follow-up question dismissed his denial and accepted Warren’s version of events.

“Senator Warren, what did you think when Senator Sanders told you that a woman could not win an election?” CNN political correspondent Abby Phillip asked.


”The predicate of the question is that Warren was telling the truth,” said Jamieson.

“The advantage all the way through is to Warren,” she said.

Betsy Fischer Martin, executive director of the Women & Politics Institute at American University, said it was not “the strongest journalistic moment.” But a generous framing of the question wasn’t necessary to set up Warren’s withering rebuttals, she suggested.

“I think that in Elizabeth Warren’s case she very clearly knew what she wanted to say on the topic,” said Martin. “It really didn’t quite matter what the question was.”

As other commentators have pointed out, though, there could very well have been a discrepancy between what Sanders said and what Warren heard. It’s plausible that Sanders expressed something that many of us said, thought, or wrote over the past three years: that the 2016 presidential election showed quite vividly how hostile much of America still may be to the notion of women’s leadership. That’s not an endorsement but a concern raised by voters who know exactly what to expect from the nation’s Caricaturist-in-Chief.

Warren’s campaign apparently wanted to address that, said Martin, whose institute is working with The Barbara Lee Family Foundation on an ongoing analysis of the election, called Gender on the Ballot.

While Warren no doubt alienated many Sanders loyalists, Jamieson saw no negatives from her performance. Not only did Warren point out the erroneousness of gender-based win-loss predictions — by noting that her male rivals had been repeat losers — but she also brought a female competitor onto her side by highlighting the similarly unheralded successes of US Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota.


“Look at the men on this stage. Collectively, they have lost ten elections,” Warren said during the debate. “The only people on this stage who have won every single election that they’ve been in are the women. Amy and me.”

With that move, Jamieson noted, Warren signaled “inclusivity” — a trait that’s expected of women — even as she demonstrated acts viewed by many voters as not-so-feminine, such as tooting her own horn and undercutting other competitors.

She even set Sanders up for another put-down by pointing out that she was the only one among them who had defeated a Republican incumbent in the past 30 years. After Sanders noted he had beaten an incumbent Republican in 1990, Warren slowly did the mental math.

“Wasn’t that 30 years ago?” she asked with faux-innocence.

As Martin pointed out, Warren clearly had the data prepared. But her delivery put emphasis on the duration of his tenure and his age. (At 78, Sanders is eight years older than she is.)

“What does it accomplish to make it look as if she’s calculating?” asked Jamieson. “It focuses your attention on the 30 years. And the accuracy of her statement. Hence she lands a potential age-based attack.”

Jamieson, the author of a book on female candidacies called “Beyond the Double Bind: Women and Leadership,” said that if she were to write it today, she’d include Warren’s Tuesday debate performance.


“This is a classic instance of how a woman can overcome gender-based stereotypes,” Jamieson said.

“What She Said” is an occasional column on gender issues. Stephanie Ebbert can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @StephanieEbbert.