CONCORD, New Hampshire — Bernie Sanders said at a forum in New Hampshire that women still face obstacles when they run for office, describing being a woman as a potential “problem” and noting that anyone who runs for office “brings some negatives” when it comes to appealing to the American electorate.
The language instantly reopened a conflict between supporters of Elizabeth Warren and Sanders over questions about electability, gender, and a private conversation between the two senators where they discussed whether a woman can win in 2020.
“Everybody has their own sets of problems,” Sanders said during a forum sponsored by New Hampshire NPR, when asked if he thinks gender is an “obstacle” for women running for office. “I’m 78 years of age — that’s a problem. There are a lot of people who say, ‘Well, I like Bernie. He’s a nice guy, but he’s 78 years of age.’ So we have to argue: Please look at the totality of who I am.
“If you’re looking at [Pete] Buttigieg, he’s a young guy and people have said, ‘Well, he’s too young to be president.’ And you look at this one and she’s a woman,” Sanders said while answering the question. “Everybody brings some negatives, if you like. I would just hope very much that the American people look at the totality of a candidate. Not at their gender, not at their sexuality, not at their age, but at everything. Nobody is perfect. There ain’t no perfect candidate out there.”
Sanders’ comments came after days of press questions about what he told Warren during a private meeting in December 2018. Warren said last week that Sanders told her in the meeting that he did not believe a woman could win the presidency in 2020, which Sanders has vehemently denied saying. After last week’s debate, in which Warren stood by her recollection and Sanders again denied it, microphones picked up Warren and Sanders each accusing the other of calling them a liar. The dispute has been a rare and sudden conflict between the two progressive candidates and has created a rift between their loyalists.
“I’ve always believed and believe today that a woman can be elected president of the United States,” Sanders said earlier during the forum here in New Hampshire.
During an earlier question on the private meeting he had with Warren, Sanders said the country has “come a long way” and pointed to other elected officials and candidates as examples.
“If you and I were here 25 years ago and somebody says, ‘Well, I don’t know if an African American could be elected president’, and that would’ve been the general, but then you have Barack Obama coming along and he wins the election and a sweeping reelection,” Sanders said. “You have a candidate today, Mayor Buttigieg, who is openly gay. Twenty-five years ago nearly anybody in America wouldn’t have said we could have a serious candidate for president of the United States who is openly gay and married. The world has changed.”
“If you think a woman can’t be elected you are dead wrong. If you think a gay American can’t be elected, you’re dead wrong. If you think an African American candidate can’t be elected, you’re dead wrong,” Sanders added.
Both the Sanders and Warren campaigns have been eager to move on from the conflict.
“Please don’t play media games with me,” Sanders told reporters in a gaggle at a New Hampshire town hall later Sunday, when asked about his comments at the forum.
“There’s a lot of bigotry, there’s a lot of sexism, there’s a lot of racism,” Sanders said. “There’s a lot of ageism, there’s anti-Semitism, there’s homophobia. Does anyone doubt that any candidate will not have to deal with those issues? Of course they don’t.”
News of the NPR forum broke as Warren addressed a crowd at a town hall in Des Moines. After the event, a reporter read her part of Sanders’s remarks aloud. "'Everybody has their own set of problems,'” the reporter said, reading from her iPhone.
“Is being a woman a problem?”
“I have no further comment on this,” Warren replied flatly.
“Sen. Warren,” the reporter tried.
“I have no further comment on this,” she said again. “I have been friends with Bernie for a long time. We work together on many, many issues, and I’ve said all I’m gonna say on this topic.”
As progressives on Twitter lit into the back-and-forth with new anger and energy, each side outraged by the other’s interpretation of the latest in a controversy that has been driving a wedge between left-leaning voters for almost a week, Warren urged Democrats to “draw the contrast” with Trump. “I think it is important that we all pull together,” she told reporters.
The Sanders campaign has already started pushing back on the characterization of Sanders’ comments from Warren supporters and others on Twitter. “Breaking: @BernieSanders observes that sexism, ageism and homophobia exist in america and will be weaponized by donald trump in the general election,” Mike Casca, Sanders’ communications director, tweeted.
Ryan Brooks reported from Concord, New Hampshire, and Ruby Cramer reported from Des Moines, Iowa.