Sanders-Warren spat ignites debate on lessons of #MeToo

At Tuesday’s Democratic presidential debate, Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Sen. Bernie Sanders engaged in a “he said, she said” battle regarding a conversation the two progressive candidates had in 2018, when both were about to embark on their campaigns. Warren says Sanders told her a woman couldn’t win the presidency; Sanders has denied saying that.

CNN co-moderator Abby Phillip brought up the alleged discussion between the two senators.

“Sen. Sanders, CNN reported yesterday, and Sen. Warren confirmed in a statement, that in 2018 you told her that you did not believe that a woman could win the election. Why did you say that?” Phillip asked Sanders.

“Well, as a matter of fact, I didn’t say it,” Sanders responded. “And I don’t want to waste a whole lot of time on this, because this is what Donald Trump and maybe some of the media want. Anybody who knows me knows that it’s incomprehensible that I would think that a woman cannot be president of the United States.”

Phillip then pressed Sanders.

“I do want to be clear here. You’re saying that you never told Sen. Warren that a woman could not win the election?” she asked.

“That is correct,” Sanders said.

Turning to Warren, Phillip asked a question whose premise was that she didn’t believe Sanders — a rare implied rebuke of a major presidential candidate by a debate moderator.

“Sen. Warren, what did you think when Sen. Sanders told you a woman could not win the election?” Phillip asked.

“I disagreed,” she said. “Bernie is my friend, and I am not here to try to fight with Bernie. But, look, this question about whether or not a woman can be president has been raised, and it’s time for us to attack it head on.”

After the debate, Warren approached Sanders onstage, refused to shake his hand and confronted him over his depiction of their conversation.

"I think you called me a liar on national TV," Warren told Sanders according to a recording released by CNN.

"What?" The Vermont Senator responded.

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

"You know, let's not do it right now. If you want to have that discussion, we'll have that discussion," Sanders said.

"Anytime." Warren shot back.

"You called me a liar,” Sanders then countered. “You told me — all right, let's not do it now."

The diverging accounts of what was said behind closed doors at Warren’s Washington apartment between the two standard-bearers of the left wing of the Democratic Party rippled across social media. Some Sanders supporters took to Twitter to blast both CNN and Warren, who they accused of leaking what they claimed was a made-up story as a political hit job.

Many Warren supporters, meanwhile, recoiled at what some saw as an ugly return of the so-called “Bernie Bro” mentality that marked the 2016 Democratic contest and, by withholding support from Hillary Clinton, helped elect Donald Trump. Singer John Legend called out the “nastiness” that erupted on Twitter following the debate.

Another uncomfortable comparison arose from those who heard echoes of the #MeToo movement in the conflicting accounts Warren and Sanders offered of their 2018 conversation. GQ writer Julia Ioffe saw a parallel between Sanders fans who summarily dismissed Warren’s retelling and those who discounted claims of sexual harassment brought by women.

That comparison roiled former Fox News host Megyn Kelly.

Many conservatives seemed to relish the sight of two progressive candidates battling over such a hot-button issue. Dinesh D’Souza compared the episode to what he deemed the mistreatment of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh.

With dueling hashtags like “#BelieveWomen” and “#NeverWarren” keeping debate going on social media, some Democrats theorized that Russian bots were at work once more, attempting to sow chaos and diminish the prospects for the ultimate Democratic nominee.

For others, the real villain behind the controversy was the media outlet that had hosted the debate and first published the story about what Sanders is alleged to have told Warren about the viability of a female presidential candidate.

Cover thumbnail photos: Photos: Robyn Beck/AFP via Getty Images

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