How an Anti-Sexist Candidate Got Smeared as Sexist

The recent scandal alleging that Bernie Sanders told Elizabeth Warren a woman couldn’t beat Trump captured attention for days. The manufactured narrative shows how the media repeats cynical, bad-faith attacks until they get seen as fact.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Sen. Bernie Sanders speak as Tom Steyer looks on after the Democratic presidential primary debate at Drake University on January 14, 2020 in Des Moines, Iowa. Scott Olson / Getty

If you’re paying attention to the Democratic presidential primary and you’re invested in a Bernie Sanders victory, you’ve had a rough few days.

The drama started over the weekend with the revelation of a Sanders campaign volunteer script that was critical of other candidates, and ended mid-week with the New York Times claiming that Sanders and Warren were involved in an ongoing “debate over the fraught subject of whether a woman could be elected president.”

Across the media, pundits can be heard saying Bernie Sanders’s campaign is “tainted by a whiff of sexism” and that a Sanders victory would mean “another misogynist as president.” These broad characterizations will be repeated ad nauseam until nobody even remembers where they came from. They will be “obviously true” because they’re things everybody knows, and everybody will know them because they’re obviously true.

If ugly, baseless accusations like these aren’t confronted with unequivocal pushback from the very outset, they have a tendency to snowball. This is exactly how the absurd and blatantly false claim that Jeremy Corbyn was the leader of an “antisemite army” in the Labour Party became a kind of common sense in the United Kingdom.

The last few years have shown us it’s a favorite tactic of the Center to stop left candidates and movements in their tracks. So, for posterity’s sake, it’s important to set the record straight on what exactly happened here.

The Script

On the evening of Saturday, January 11, Politico published a story with the inflammatory headline “Bernie campaign slams Warren as candidate of the elite.”

But the actual details of the story turned out to be entirely banal. Sanders’s campaign was using a volunteer script in early states promoting his own electability. One portion of the script contained pointers for how to persuade voters leaning toward other candidates. The section on Elizabeth Warren read, in its entirety:

I like Elizabeth Warren. [optional] In fact, she’s my second choice! But here’s my concern about her. The people who support her are highly educated, more affluent people who are going to show up and vote Democratic no matter what. She’s bringing no new bases into the Democratic Party. We need to turn out disaffected working-class voters if we’re going to defeat Trump.

That’s it. The script’s claims are verifiably true and raise legitimate political concerns that ought to be of interest to anyone who wants to beat Trump. They were couched in language that went out of its way to be friendly to Warren. Discussing opponents’ weaknesses in this way is totally standard — in fact, it’s difficult to imagine how else a candidate would run against other candidates in a primary. A campaign ought to be prepared to respond to such arguments — not flip out over them.

And yet Elizabeth Warren and her campaign reacted swiftly and strongly. On January 12, as the story was gaining traction online, Warren told reporters on camera at a campaign event that she was “disappointed to hear that Bernie is sending his volunteers out to trash me.” She added, “We all saw the impact of the factionalism in 2016, and we can’t have a repeat of that.”

It was an oddly disproportionate response. Compared to the heated primaries of the past, or even to the kinds of attacks Warren has leveled at other opponents, the Sanders script was hardly “trashing.” And it certainly didn’t warrant echoing tired, wrong centrist talking points designed to blame Bernie Sanders for Hillary Clinton’s loss to Donald Trump.

Later that night, her campaign cranked up the heat, sending a fundraising email to supporters titled “What Bernie’s campaign says about you.” Signed by Warren’s campaign manager, Roger Lau, it read, “Bernie Sanders’ campaign is instructing volunteers to dismiss our broad-based, inclusive campaign.” Lau added, “When talking about our movement, his campaign has it backwards. I hope he reconsiders what he’s encouraging.”

The excessive reaction suggests that either Warren and her staff are remarkably thin-skinned or, with the clock ticking in Iowa, that they were eager for an opportunity to go negative. The script was hardly offensive, but it was perceived as enough of a transgression to justify insinuating that Sanders is dangerously divisive and poses a threat to the anti-Trump effort — a perfect complement to Warren’s new image as the “unity candidate.”

Politico helped this along by giving its original story an exaggerated headline and concluding that it meant the “nonaggression pact between Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren is seriously fraying,” giving Warren the cover she needed to claim she was simply responding to Sanders’s provocations. No one should be surprised that a mainstream outlet felt the need to sensationalize a volunteer script this way. Warren’s response, on the other hand, was a bit startling.

The Conversation

If the dispute had stopped there, we could’ve just chalked the entire incident up to an overreaction. But it didn’t.

Less than thirty-six hours after the original Politico article, CNN published a report titled “Bernie Sanders told Elizabeth Warren in private 2018 meeting that a woman can’t win, sources say.”

In it, four anonymous sources — two of whom had spoken to Elizabeth Warren directly, two of whom were “familiar with the meeting” — told CNN that Warren said, after a private meeting with Sanders more than a year ago as the two considered presidential runs, that Sanders had told her a woman couldn’t win the presidency.

According to the sources, Warren said she felt she could win broad support from women voters, and “Sanders responded that he did not believe a woman could win,” the CNN article read.

The only two people in that meeting were Sanders and Warren. Sanders immediately and vociferously denied having made any such remark. Here’s his statement in full, which was published in the original CNN article:

“It is ludicrous to believe that at the same meeting where Elizabeth Warren told me she was going to run for president, I would tell her that a woman couldn’t win,” Sanders said. “It’s sad that, three weeks before the Iowa caucus and a year after that private conversation, staff who weren’t in the room are lying about what happened. What I did say that night was that Donald Trump is a sexist, a racist and a liar who would weaponize whatever he could. Do I believe a woman can win in 2020? Of course! After all, Hillary Clinton beat Donald Trump by 3 million votes in 2016.”

Other sources who spoke to the Washington Post characterized the conversation differently — in a way that was much closer to Sanders’s version of events. The way they understood it, Warren raised the topic of whether a woman could beat Trump, and Sanders “did not say a woman couldn’t win but rather that Trump would use nefarious tactics against the Democratic nominee.”

Even a Warren staffer privately speaking to a group of key campaign supporters worded their account of the conversation in a way that “hewed closer to Sanders’s description than Warren’s.”

Yet in her official statement, Warren made no room for such nuance. She addressed the substance of their conversation only by saying, “I thought a woman could win; he disagreed.” This could be interpreted both as a claim by Warren that Sanders told her flatly that a woman couldn’t beat Trump in 2020 and that Sanders told her a woman couldn’t win the presidency at all.

The idea that Sanders told Warren a woman can’t beat Trump strains credulity, given that Sanders has repeatedly emphasized that Hillary Clinton won the popular vote, and given his oft-stated belief that her loss in the electoral college can be chalked up not to her gender but to poor campaigning and an uninspiring political message.

Furthermore, a contemporaneous article published in the New York Times about the 2018 meeting reported that both candidates had said neither had discouraged the other from running. Such discouragement would presumably have been the effect, intended or otherwise, of Sanders telling Warren that he believed a woman couldn’t beat Trump.

But the latter implied accusation, that Sanders thinks a woman can’t win a presidential contest at all, is not just implausible. It’s absurd.

Two separate bits of archival footage from the late ’80s are now circulating showing Sanders going out of his way to say that a woman could win the presidency. Indeed, Sanders encouraged Warren herself to run for the presidency in 2015, only throwing his hat in the ring once she’d declined. He had floated her name for the presidency since 2013.

Warren is a former star lawyer, familiar with the fine art of intentionally ambiguous phrasing. Her unwillingness to provide any other context or clarification to her statement that “I thought a woman could win; he disagreed” seems to indicate that as far as she was concerned, people could make of the statement what they wanted. And she’s smart enough to know what they’d make of it.

The Debate

Given that no one has yet confirmed how the story was released, we are forced to speculate. I see two plausible options for how it came to be. The first one is that Warren’s campaign leaked it with Warren’s blessing, and the sources in it are her current staffers.

We have no solid evidence for this, and Warren has denied it. But in a Politico story specifically about the gender controversy, Marc Caputo wrote that a top Warren aide “accused the Sanders campaign of hypocritically dishing out campaign attacks and then whining when she hits back.” Using the phrase “hits back” clearly characterizes the story as part of a Warren campaign strategy targeting Sanders.

The second possibility is that people close to Warren, whether inside her campaign or not, decided to leak the story without Warren’s prior knowledge once they perceived that the truce was off. Presumably these would be people with a vested interest in seeing Sanders taken down. If this is the case, Warren nevertheless leaned into the story as hard as possible once it had leaked — letting the story go to print without comment, echoing its most damning implications in her statement, and then milking it during the debate the following evening.

That debate happened to be moderated by CNN, the outlet that first broke the story. The channel had been hyping the Warren-Sanders controversy all day. Naturally, the moderators asked the two candidates about it. Sanders reiterated that he had not told Warren that a woman couldn’t win in 2020 nor that a woman couldn’t win at all — and that he didn’t believe these things.

A moderator then turned to Warren and asked, as if Sanders had not denied the claim seconds earlier, “Senator Warren, what did you think when Senator Sanders told you a woman could not win the election?”

Affirming the premise of the question, Warren responded, “I disagreed.” She then said that 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.”

With these words, the terrain shifted. Now we weren’t talking about whether Sanders had raised concerns about Trump’s sexist attacks, or even whether he thought a woman could withstand those attacks in 2020. Warren instead pitched the conversation around the question of, in her words, “whether or not a woman can be president,” giving the distinct impression that Sanders fell on the opposite side of the debate, despite his long history of statements to the contrary — including remarks made on stage that evening.

A woman can win the presidency, Warren said, shadowboxing with Sanders. “Look at the men on this stage,” she said. “Collectively, they have lost ten elections,” while the women — Warren and Amy Klobuchar — were consistent victors. Never mind that Warren has only been involved in politics since 2012, while Bernie Sanders has been running for office since the early ’70s. It was a debate applause moment, the kind that breathes new life into campaigns. Except it was unclear who she was arguing with.

After the debate, Warren approached Sanders while they were still onstage, both wearing hot mics. Sanders extended his hand. Warren refused to shake it, and then said to him, “I think you called me a liar on national TV.”

“What?” Sanders responded.

“I think you called me a liar on national TV,” she repeated.

“Let’s not do this now,” Sanders said. “You want to have that discussion, we’ll have that discussion.”

“Anytime,” she responded.

You called me a liar,” Sanders said, pointing first at Warren and then at himself. “You told me — okay, let’s not do this right now.” He then walked away.

The next day, Politico, which had broken the original story about the supposed dissolution of the nonaggression pact, published an article featuring a photograph from the exchange. It depicted the split second that Sanders’s finger was pointed at Warren.

The Fallout

Of course, most voters didn’t watch the debate, so their impression of the contretemps would be entirely determined by the way the media subsequently covered it.

After the debate, a Reuters poll showed that Sanders’s “standing does not appear to have been hurt by his recent confrontation with Warren over Sanders’ views of women and politics.” Great news about the polling numbers, but what views about women and politics are we talking about?

Similarly, the New York Times published a story characterizing the controversy as “a debate over the fraught subject of whether a woman could be elected president.” After receiving pushback, the paper changed the word “debate” to “back-and-forth.”

The shift in meaning was imperceptible. Either way, the sentence gave the clear impression that the story was about a confirmed comment Sanders had made regarding women’s presidential electability in general, and that the controversy was about whether he was right or not — when in fact the controversy was about whether he had ever said such a thing in the first place.

This was no accident: it was the impression Warren cultivated herself onstage. And once those terms were set, the disgusted reactions to Sanders’s supposed misogyny began to roll in.

On The View, which nearly 3 million people watch every day, Meghan McCain said that the debate proved Warren can “go up against a bullying man candidate that’s been bullying her for her gender.” In the Los Angeles Times, Virginia Heffernan provided a bizarre interpretation of the exchange between the candidates after the debate, writing that Sanders, who is

notoriously irritable and suffers from cardiac issues, was riled by whatever Warren said, and by her refusal to be touched. He shook a finger at her. Then again. He seemed intent on freeing her right hand to grab it.

We all know this stock male move: Come on, baby, give me a hug; we’re still friends.

On CNN right after the debate, political analyst Jess McIntosh said that, “What Bernie forgot was that this isn’t a ‘he said, she said’ story. This is a reported-out story that CNN was part of breaking.” To his credit, Anderson Cooper corrected McIntosh, clarifying that in fact only two people were present for the exchange, so technically it was indeed a “he said, she said,” her word against his.

But McIntosh wasn’t a random onlooker. She was a communications director for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign, a spokeswoman for a onetime political rival to Sanders. And so it happened — after a period of quiet, when it seemed Sanders’s popularity among women and endorsements from young, left-wing female politicians had neutralized the line of attack — that many people with long-standing political objections to Sanders began casually and carelessly accusing him of sexism again.

The Pushback

This isn’t our first rodeo. We’ve seen tendentious and cynical allegations of personal misogyny leveled at Sanders before, notably during his previous presidential run against Hillary Clinton. When Sanders told Clinton that the gun control debate will not be resolved by people shouting at those they disagree with, she suggested that Sanders has a problem with women speaking out. When he wagged his finger as he asserted that single-payer is the only way to realize health care as a universal right, his finger-wagging was condemned as sexist.

Over time, people stopped being able to recall these specific incidents, if they ever caught wind of them at all. “Bernie’s sexist” was just a feeling many people had, and they didn’t know where it came from. This is how baseless rumors harden into consensus. It’s how we ended up with MSNBC analysts saying that “Bernie Sanders makes my skin crawl. I can’t even identify for you what exactly it is. But I see him as sort of a not pro-woman candidate.”

The only way to deal with such distortions is to push back with the truth.

In this case, the truth is this: whether or not it was originally her idea to do so, Warren consciously chose to weaponize unverifiable rumors about the content of a private conversation between her and Sanders in order to damage him in the eleventh hour, as he was rising in the polls and she was falling. She was intentionally ambiguous in a way that encouraged the worst possible interpretation of Sanders’s contribution to their conversation. She got a big applause at the debate by sparring with a fictitious version of Sanders who doesn’t believe women can win presidential elections.

And now we have media figures implicitly comparing whatever Sanders said to Warren to sexual assault, and suggesting that skepticism of her account is tantamount to disbelieving a rape survivor — cowing people into silence about what very plainly transpired before all our eyes.

Sanders’s campaign is on the rise. If we begin to see an uptick in chatter about his supposed misogyny, we shouldn’t be surprised. And we shouldn’t let it slide, either. If we hear someone say that Bernie Sanders doesn’t think a woman can be president, we should recount this story to them. We should help them understand that it’s all a game of telephone, and that there’s too much at stake to keep playing.