I don’t normally do this.
My serious political writing may not appear in national publications, but I still follow the rules of journalistic ethics as best I can. Verification is two independent sources; direct quotes are desired; hard evidence is necessary before I go to press. As a result, I’ve achieved a curious distinction, somewhat unique in this age: I’m not often mistaken, and when I’m biased I tell you.
In this case, I’ve got no exclusive. There’s no information here you don’t already know. All I’ve done is use reason, logic, and certain assumptions about character to project a likely scenario.
Let us examine the claim made by Elizabeth Warren after the story broke: “Among the topics that came up was what would happen if Democrats nominated a female candidate. I thought a woman could win; he disagreed.” She has not varied from that wording.
Note that the initial reports of this came from CNN correspondent MJ Lee. Four sources had gone on record with a reporter. At least two were Warren staff members privy to the 2018 meeting. It’s worthy of note that only one highly-placed staffer has departed her campaign since then; as such it’s reasonable to conclude this confirmation came from current highly-placed campaign staff, which as a class rarely leaks accidentally. Add to this the timing — a 2018 story breaking moments before the enforced lull that is impeachment and scant days before early primary voting begins — and a new and not entirely creditable picture begins to resolve.
It seems apparent that someone in Warren’s campaign, whether the candidate herself, director Roger Lau, or one of a very few in her inner circle, deliberately arranged for this story to break in this way at this time. The goal of doing so was to encourage the media spotlight to focus on identity politics: that Warren is one of two women on the debate stage, that the other three leaders are old white men, and that the Democratic Party is ostensibly one of diversity and inclusion.
The ethics of such a move are less questionable than one might think. If it came from Lau rather than the candidate, it’s actually his job to use any reasonable and truthful means to raise these points. Any high-level staffer with flexible ethics and a moral imperative to elect a woman would find it a simple matter to justify this leak.
If it came from someone lower down, it would explain why she wasn’t perfectly prepared when the time came, and why the hot-mike blunder after the debates was allowed to happen. This last also tells us this wasn’t coordinated with the Sanders campaign. No skilled operator should have permitted that; ergo, the CNN release was not the candidate’s initiative and probably not Lau’s. Neither is that clumsy. If I were forced to guess, I’d say Kristen Orthman, her communications director, who has been with her since 2017 (see her handling of the “Fauxcahontas” issue soon after her hiring).
Now let us look at the characters of both Warren and Sanders. Both are known for being direct and forthright; Bernie in particular has never been accused of concealing his motives or intent behind clever words. Warren has been accused — twice — but what’s notable is how well it stuck. She’s neither naturally slimy nor slick and polished; she’s accustomed to telling the truth as she sees it, and she’s profoundly unskilled at the concealment and deflection techniques that become second nature to the average member of Congress. She is blunt, and it’s a matter of personal pride that she be truthful. Her words to Bernie on stage included “You just called me a liar on national T.V.” If they were scripted, it was by an idiot, and she doesn’t employ any of those — not even Orthman, who is flawed but brilliant.
So let us examine Bernie’s words on the subject: Posed the direct question, Did you say a woman could not win, he responded “No I did not.” His public statements since the original CNN story have included much of what he did say in the meeting; from this it is evident that it was a discussion between equals rather than a supplicant coming for advice. Warren never posed the question; Bernie never answered it — not in so many words.
What would have been in character for him to say — and something he’s said in other similar meetings — is “I think I’m going to win. I wouldn’t run if I didn’t think I’d win.” If asked about Clinton’s campaign, he might well have observed that quite obviously she didn’t win but that he might have; if they discussed identity politics, he would have echoed sentiments he’d expressed earlier: “It’s not good enough for someone to say, ‘I’m a woman! Vote for me!’” No, that’s not good enough. What we need is a woman who has the guts to stand up to Wall Street, to the insurance companies, to the drug companies, to the fossil fuel industry,” — which, by the way, in no wise attacks Warren.
The entire appeal of Bernie Sanders is that he hasn’t changed his political positions in forty years. He’s on record against identity politics — not once, but dozens of times. It is all but certain that in any 2018 meeting with potential rival Warren he would have railed against the practice yet again, and in finer detail than he might in public. And any such statement, particularly coupled with an assertion that he himself would win, could certainly be interpreted by an adherent of identitarianism as a direct contradiction of their dogma.
Remember: Conversation is at best an imperfect collaboration between two people. We use the closest words we can to the idea we want to get across, and those words we hear we interpret back into ideas again. In any such exchange, perfect understanding is something to aspire to, but it should never be expected.
“Among the topics that came up was what would happen if Democrats nominated a female candidate. I thought a woman could win; he disagreed.”
Note the ambiguity: Did she think a woman could win the nomination? or was it the presidency? If that’s unclear now, what’s the odds that it wasn’t expressly stated then? Presume he understood it was the nomination; presume his answer was, “I think I’m going to win — but of course you’re welcome to run.” Perfectly in character for Bernie; somewhat patronizing, however — and easily heard by a dogmatic identitarian as an assertion that a woman would not win.
It’s plausible that this particular conversation took place just as I suggest. What’s not at all likely that either principal is being untruthful; not only would it be out of character, a schism between these two is against their interests. Due to age, Biden could not easily select either as a running mate, but a Sanders-Warren ticket might well sweep the convention.
And it’s also reasonable to presume that this minor tempest was orchestrated by well-meaning Warren staffers and by CNN reporters and producers — an organization with a long and proven track record of alternately smearing and ignoring Bernie Sanders during his campaigns.
Of course, I might be wrong; I don’t have inside information, and I have my own biases. You decide.