Pundits wonder if Warren’s good night may have come too late

Elizabeth Warren in April 2019. Photo (cc) by Gage Skidmore.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

Elizabeth Warren rose above her dispute with Bernie Sanders over who said what and offered a powerful argument about gender and politics at Tuesday’s Democratic presidential debate. But it might be too late to matter.

That, at least, appears to be the consensus in my quick scan of political punditry following the final candidates’ forum before the Iowa caucuses on Feb. 3.

The debate probably didn’t shift many votes. As Nate Silver put it at FiveThirtyEight, “it wasn’t a game-changer,” saying that even though Warren won on substance, Joe Biden may have been the overall winner because his front-runner status wasn’t challenged. But for Warren fans who’ve been disheartened by her slide in the polls since last fall, Tuesday was a good moment.

The question of who was telling the truth regarding Warren’s claim that Sanders had told her a woman couldn’t be elected president was left unresolved, and in a particularly unsatisfying manner — which I’ll get to in a bit. First, though, here’s how Warren moved past the he-said/she-said issue.

“So can a woman beat Donald Trump?” asked Warren (transcript). “Look at the men on this stage. Collectively, they have lost 10 elections. The only people on this stage who have won every single election that they’ve been in are the women. The only person on this stage who has beaten an incumbent Republican anytime in the past 30 years is me, and here’s what I know. The real danger that we face as Democrats is picking a candidate who can’t pull our party together or someone who takes for granted big parts of the Democratic constituency.”

Amy Klobuchar chimed in effectively, saying that “every single person that I have beaten, my Republican opponents, have gotten out of politics for good” — although she did have a hold-your-breath moment when she couldn’t summon up the name of Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly.

Warren, by citing her gender as a political strength, Emma Green wrote at The Atlantic, “managed to move the conversation to a new level — past any disagreement with Sanders, past a referendum on what happened to Clinton in 2016, past a debate over how sexist America really is.”

Eugene Robinson of The Washington Post called it “the best line of the night.” Frank Bruni of The New York Times said that Warren and Klobuchar “turned the stubborn, sexist notion that their presence and presidential ambitions were exotic on its head, citing yardsticks by which they were demonstrably superior to their male rivals.” And James Pindell of The Boston Globe pulled up the significant fact that 57% of Iowa caucus-goers are expected to be women.

Now, about the actual exchange between Warren and Sanders, who are vying to emerge as the leading progressive in the race. There is a school of thought, especially among those who support one or the other, that the matter of whether Sanders said what Warren claims is of little account, and that we should move on.

Is it the most pressing issue in the race? Of course not. But Sanders and Warren are each accusing the other of lying, and that’s not nothing. Yet moderator Abby Phillip of CNN bizarrely cut short their exchange and endorsed the idea that it’s Sanders who’s lying and Warren who’s telling the truth.

“So Senator Sanders, I do want to be clear here,” Phillip said after Sanders’ initial denial. “You’re saying that you never told Senator Warren that a woman could not win the election?”

Sanders: “That is correct.”

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

What? I honestly couldn’t tell whether Phillip’s question to Warren was her snarky way of labeling Sanders as a liar or if she was just robotically reading the script. Either way, it was the low moment of the debate. “It was tantamount to calling Sanders a liar,” wrote Tom Jones of Poynter Online. As Jim Geraghty put it at National Review: “The right question in that situation was, ‘Senator Warren, did Senator Sanders just lie?’”

At The Bulwark, Jonathan V. Last saw Phillip’s performance as part of the media’s determination to give Warren a pass on what he argues is her lack of honesty about matters such as her claimed Native American heritage and whether she was fired from a teaching job because she was pregnant.

“CNN has two candidates calling each other plain liars about a factual matter on a story that CNN broke. Yet they didn’t follow up by pressing the candidates to get to the bottom of who was lying on their stage,” Last wrote, adding: “Are you sensing a pattern? It sure looks as if Warren has a habit of making up claims of victimhood to advance her interests. And no debate moderator has pushed her on it.”

Debate moderators have a tough job, of course, but I thought the Tuesday crew fell short in a number of ways. CNN’s Wolf Blitzer started off by essentially demanding to know whether the candidates were tough enough to be commander-in-chief given that the United States and Iran are “on the brink of war.” Blitzer offered no acknowledgment that the crisis was precipitated by President Trump’s reckless actions, backed up by apparently false claims. The question really should have been about judgment rather than toughness — which, in fact, is how the candidates answered it.

Moreover, we didn’t hear a peep from the moderators about the trillions of dollars that have been spent on the endless wars the U.S. has been fighting since 2001 (or 1992, if you prefer), or the cost of the tax cut for the wealthy ($2.3 trillion over 10 years, according to Politico) that still stands as Trump’s sole legislative accomplishment.

Yet when it came time to ask Sanders about the cost of his Medicare for All plan, Phillip didn’t hesitate to put it this way: “How would you keep your plans from bankrupting the country?”

The third moderator, 31-year-old Brianne Pfannenstiel of the Des Moines Register, did a respectable job. Maybe in the future all debate moderators should come from local news organizations.

Three weeks from now, some ballots are finally going to be cast. The contest feels thoroughly nationalized, and the debates are a large part of the reason. Will organizational strength matter? It might, especially in Iowa, where caucus-goers are required to sit for hours and where second and third choices sometimes matter. And then it’s on to New Hampshire.

This is no way to pick a president. For now, though, it’s all we’ve got.

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