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The Warren-Sanders Squabble is Foolish

The real issues in this campaign have nothing to do with who said what in 2018.

The current kerfuffle between Warren and Sanders has almost nothing to do with the real issues at stake in this election and even this primary. (Photo: Joe Skipper/Getty Images)

The current kerfuffle between Warren and Sanders has almost nothing to do with the real issues at stake in this election and even this primary. (Photo: Joe Skipper/Getty Images)

I like Elizabeth Warren. I also like Bernie Sanders. On ideological grounds, they are my preferred candidates. Whether either can win remains to be seen. The primary contest is an important “barometer,” though there is no ultimate test beyond winning itself.

Warren’s electability argument might be right. Or it might not be right. Again, we will see how things unfold . . . .

At the same time, I think the latest brouhahas about Sanders and his “dissing” of Warren are kind of absurd.

First it was claimed that he was “going on the attack” because apparently some campaign offices were making scripted phone calls to potential voters that said that Warren was a more centrist candidate than Sanders, that her base of support was “educated people,” and that she did not mobilize new voters the way that Sanders does.

We can argue about whether these claims are right or wrong (they seem arguably true to me, especially the first two). But in any case, it is hard to see them as slanderous. or even “attacking.” They do assert a difference between the candidates–and there is a difference, indeed more than one! Isn’t that what campaigns do?

And isn’t that what Warren has done recently when she has muted her support for Medicare for All, and then claimed that she is the best candidate because she can “unify” disparate wings of the party?  

Then it was “revealed” – in a leak, presumably from somebody in Warren’s orbit – that in 2018 Sanders might have said to Warren in a private conversation that “a woman is not electable.”

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She said/he said. I don’t know what to make of this. I do know this: when I first read about this story, what was reported was that at that a private 2018 meeting, Warren told Sanders she was running, expressed her excitement, and indicated that she thought the vote of women could buoy her campaign, and Sanders expressed doubts about whether her being a woman was an asset or a liability. It is easy to imagine that Sanders said something like this.

It is true that Sanders is not an “identity politics” person. Neither is Warren for that matter. And it is also true that he can be tone deaf on these issues, and that some women who are former Clinton supporters in particular don’t like him for this reason, as is their right.

It is also a very reasonable thing to say, in private, especially in response to a claim like the one originally attributed to Warren. (If you tell a friend, privately, that you think women will flock to and thus strengthen your candidacy, it needs to be possible for the friend to share with you their doubts about whether your gender will really work that way or some other way).

It is true that Sanders is not an “identity politics” person. Neither is Warren for that matter. And it is also true that he can be tone deaf on these issues, and that some women who are former Clinton supporters in particular don’t like him for this reason, as is their right. It is also true that Sanders has a strong ego and surely always planned to run in 2020.

But it really is hard to believe that Sanders–who has learned from 2016, who has many female principals in his campaign, and who has made organizing women workers central to his campaign–simply volunteered the observation that “a woman can’t win” in Warren’s face. If nothing else, doing so would be stupid and insulting.

Now, in the wake of this kerfuffle and the way it played out in last night’s debate, Warren is apparently being more explicit about the argument that she is “electable” in part because she can mobilize women voters. All the power to her. At the same time, the context of the conversation between her and Sanders in 2018, and the actual claims originally reported, are a far cry from Sanders disparaging either her or women candidates.

The current kerfuffle between Warren and Sanders has almost nothing to do with the real issues at stake in this election and even this primary. There are some differences between these two, and it would be good for these differences to be seriously engaged—and for the candidates to work hard, with their staffs, to keep the focus on these issues. I fear that these acrimonious “he said/she said” disputes between them will only harm the progressive values that both share. And I urge friends and colleagues to do what they can to keep the focus on what really matters.

Jeffrey C. Isaac

Jeffrey C. Isaac

Jeffrey C. Isaac is James H. Rudy Professor of Political Science at Indiana University, Bloomington. His books include: Democracy in Dark Times (1998); The Poverty of Progressivism: The Future of American Democracy in a Time of Liberal Decline; and Arendt, Camus, and Modern Rebellion.

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