Sanders Said ‘A Woman Can’t Win’ Against Trump: Who Benefits From Bad Faith Stories Like This?

Senator Bernie Sanders speaks to rally attendees in Council Bluffs, Iowa in November 2019 (Photo: Matt A.J.)

With the Iowa Caucuses less than a month away, Senator Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign focused their attention on former Vice President Joe Biden. They distributed clips of Biden’s appearances on television, as well as statements he made as a senator, to force the campaign to confront his record on the Iraq War and cuts to Social Security and Medicare.

The tactic achieved a swift impact. POLITICO published an article headlined, “Bernie emerges as growing threat to Biden.” It suggested the “former veep [was] more concerned about Sanders than he lets on.”

But then came an article from CNN political correspondent M.J. Lee on January 14, “Bernie Sanders told Elizabeth Warren in private 2018 meeting that a woman can’t win, sources say.” It followed a separate flap, where Warren accused Sanders of “sending his volunteers out to trash” her campaign.

Hours later, BuzzFeed and the New York Times “corroborated” Lee’s report. The establishment media was no longer interested in talking about the Sanders campaign’s work to expose Biden’s record.

Media outlets were now more interested in an anonymously-sourced attempt to impugn the character and integrity of a presidential candidate. They were eager to see what the Sanders and Warren campaigns and their supporters would do to antagonize the other next.

Who Benefits From Peddling This Low-Grade Mush?

CNN benefited. They were scheduled to host a debate in Des Moines, Iowa, a day later and succeeded in manufacturing conflict between two campaigns, which largely avoided creating any friction throughout 2019 (despite the efforts of media outlets like CNN to bait them into attacking each other).

Ratings for debates in the 2020 cycle remain considerably higher than ratings during the 2016 campaign, but they still have dwindled.

The day of the Iowa debate, the story dominated CNN’s evening news programs, as well as their morning shows. It helped the cable news network gin up interest among viewers, including those who despised CNN for running the story.

The Biden campaign benefited. A week and half before the debate, CNN accused Biden of being dishonest about his Iraq War record.

On Sunday, January 12, Sanders campaign speechwriter David Sirota shared a video, where Biden criticized anti-war Democrats and praised President George W. Bush for his leadership on the Iraq War. He called Bush a “bold leader” and added, “I, and many others, will support him.”

Biden prepared a response to this increased scrutiny. The campaign booked former Secretary of State John Kerry, a surrogate, on CBS’s “Face The Nation.” Kerry contended Sanders “distorted” Biden’s record on the Iraq War. Yet, with this making headlines, the Biden campaign was given a break.

Sanders and his campaign set a record by raising $34.5 million in the fourth quarter. Two polls released in early January from CBS News/YouGov and the Des Moines Register/CNN had him tied or ahead in Iowa. It was the first time he led in the state during the primary.

Centrist or “moderate” Democrats watched Sanders’ surge in December and January benefited. They recently had “sounded the alarm” on both Sanders and Warren so this benefited them.

“A slate of endangered House Democrats is coalescing behind Joe Biden for president as the Iowa caucuses approach,” POLITICO reported. This coalition was “triggered by fears that Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren at the top of the ticket would cost them their seats.”

POLITICO added, “An increasing number of centrists are quietly engaging with campaigns, particularly Biden, through conference calls and staff-to-staff contact, in the run-up to Iowa’s caucuses.”

It may carry a modest short-term benefit for Warren, which is what she needs after her campaign dropped in the polls in December and early January. But it carries a high risk of alienating progressive voters, who view this as similar to smears the Clinton campaign spitefully promoted in 2016.

The December 2018 Meeting

Sanders met Warren at her apartment in Washington, D.C. The longtime friends reportedly agreed to “remain civil and avoid attacking one another so as not to hurt the progressive movement,” according to CNN. The two discussed how President Donald Trump would weaponize Warren’s identity against her. That is when Sanders apparently uttered something involving a woman losing to Trump.

Initially, the “Sanders said a woman couldn’t win in 2020” story was sourced to four individuals, who were not present at the meeting in December 2018. It came from “two people Warren spoke with directly soon after the encounter,” and “two people familiar with the meeting.”

Warren told at least two people about her conversation with Sanders “soon after,” and the other two people heard about the meeting from additional people Warren spoke with later or from the two people who spoke with her directly. That made them “people familiar with the meeting,” even though all the two sources had were their recollection of someone else’s recollection of Warren’s recollection.

The public has no quotes from this private meeting. All that was published were generic if not vague descriptions of a year-old conversation.

This was a game of telephone, with anyone who had heard any rumors about the meeting encouraged to talk to reporters, until the Warren campaign decided to own the story.

Senator Elizabeth Warren speaks to attendees at the 2019 National Forum on Wages and Working People in April 2019 (Photo: Gage Skidmore)

“Among the topics that came up [at our meeting] was what would happen if Democrats nominated a female candidate,” Warren stated. “I thought a woman could win; he disagreed. I have no interest in discussing this private meeting any further because Bernie and I have more in common than our differences on punditry.”

Less than 24 hours later, the Washington Post referred to one person “with knowledge of the conversation.” Sanders never said a woman could not win. Rather, according to this source, he said “Trump would use nefarious tactics against the Democratic nominee.” In fact, it was apparently Warren who raised the issue of whether a woman could beat Trump.

The hashtag #RefundWarren trended on Twitter, as several Sanders supporters and Warren supporters demanded Act Blue refund their donations to Warren. BuzzFeed reported the Warren campaign was urging staff and their volunteers to “de-escalate.”

“Our dialer has been off the hook, and I think it’s because our supporters — people who care deeply about healthcare for all, their student loan debt, and avoiding war — are livid that the person who has consistently fought for them their whole lives is being smeared,” Briahna Joy Gray, the press secretary for the Sanders campaign, shared.

That statement came as a clip circulated of a CNN reporter, who said, “It does seem like something Bernie Sanders would say, because he has gender issues.”

On ABC’s “The View,” the panel tore into Sanders. Meghan McCain uttered some of the most resentful comments.

“[It’s a] big story because he hurt Hillary Clinton so much in the last election,” McCain said. “His supporters have a really bad reputation, meaning the Bernie Bros. It’s actually one of the few things that really connects liberal pundits and conservative female pundits together.”

“He has a problem with women, and he has for a long time. And I think if Elizabeth Warren has this in her back pocket, all’s fair in politics. All’s fair in love and war. And I think—look, I don’t want another misogynist as president. I think all women in this country are sick of it, and I have always thought he had a problem with women,” McCain added.

During the last three months of the 2016 general election, Sanders held 39 rallies in 13 states to help the Clinton campaign beat Trump. Clinton wrote him a personal letter that said, “Thank you so much for campaigning on my behalf in Ohio, New Hampshire, Minnesota, Iowa, Wisconsin, Michigan, Maine, Pennsylvania, and Colorado—what a tour!”

Recalling How Sanders Was Attacked Ahead Of The New York Primary

What unfolded with the Warren campaign bears some similarity to the attack the Clinton campaign launched against Sanders in 2016, right before the New York primary. She could not afford to lose because Sanders won eight of the nine primaries in late March/early April.

CNN’s Jeff Zeleny reported, “Hillary Clinton’s campaign is taking new steps to try and disqualify Bernie Sanders in the eyes of Democratic voters, hoping to extinguish the argument that he is an electable alternative for the party’s presidential nomination.” Clinton went on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” to question whether Sanders was presidential enough, and the Washington Post published a report on her appearance that was headlined, “Clinton Questions Whether Sanders Is Qualified To Be President.”

At a campaign event at Temple University, Sanders responded to this narrative. “We have won seven out of eight of the recent primaries and caucuses. And she has been saying lately that she thinks that I am ‘not qualified’ to be president.”

“Let me just say in response to Secretary Clinton: I don’t believe that she is qualified if she is, if she is, through her super PAC, taking tens of millions of dollars in special interest funds,” Sanders declared. “I don’t think you are qualified if you get $15 million from Wall Street through your super PAC.”

The Clinton campaign achieved a decisive blow. As campaign manager Jeff Weaver recounted in his 2018 book, How Bernie Won, the Clinton campaign emphasized that they never used the words “not qualified.” The Washington Post’s Glenn Kessler went after Sanders for a “false attack” on Clinton.

Clinton’s identity was successfully weaponized against Sanders by making it seem his statements about her qualifications — or disqualifications — were “sexist.”

“Our internal polling showed the impact of the one-two punch we got from the Clinton campaign and the media,” Weaver recalled. “We had whittled Clinton’s lead down to 10 points, according to our April 6–7 tracking poll right after Wisconsin. Over the next few days, her lead quickly grew to 12 points, to 14 points, and finally, in our April 9–11 tracking poll, to a whopping 22 points. That was more than double the deficit of only a few days before. We were in free fall!”

Undoubtedly, those who whispered their recollections of their conversations with Warren or colleagues of Warren after her meeting with Sanders hoped they would achieve such a decisive blow.

The establishment media yearned for such a result too. It would be a huge story line if the Sanders campaign tanked because he said something “sexist” to Warren. (It would also bolster a popular caricaturization of him as the left’s version of Trump.)

Bernie Sanders in 1988 (Source: C-SPAN)

In 1988, Sanders said, “The real issue is not whether you’re black or white, whether you’re a woman or a man. In my view, a woman could be elected President of the United States. The real issue is whose side are you on? Are you on the side of workers and poor people? Or are you on the side of big money and the corporations?”

Sanders told a classroom of third graders in 1987, “One of the very important things that I hope all the girls in this class understand [is] that you just as much as the boys have a right to be president.” He added, “I hope that the girls will think that they have the right to be involved in politics quite as much as the boys do. It’s beginning to change, but it’s not changing fast enough.”

Why then was this smear deployed? Whether they leaked or did not leak it, why did the Warren campaign own it?

Is it because Warren wants to be part of the establishment’s effort to unify against Trump, if centrist Democrats succeed at defeating Sanders? Is this how she proves her loyalty to the Democratic Party?

None of this happened because Sanders is sexist. This serving of slop dominated a news cycle right before a major presidential debate on CNN because Sanders was on the offensive against Biden. He was effectively distinguishing himself on issues of war and peace and matters crucial to working class voters, who Biden needs to win the nomination.

Warren owns this story, and that will sow more discord that benefits the corporate wing of the Democratic Party.

Back in 2016, conservative and center-left Democrats panicked after Sanders gave a speech on “democratic socialism.” They were afraid to be asked about socialism and urged Democrats to “express pride in being a Democrat but also belief in capitalism and small businesses, ‘the engine of our economy,’” as the New York Times reported.

Democrats were not amused in 2016. They are even less amused in January 2020, as the campaign continues to successfully shift the politics of the possible away from the neoliberal politics the establishment has favored for decades.

Journalist. Writes about politics. Managing editor of Twitter: @kgosztola

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