It was upsetting to see Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren in a dispute that could only hurt the chances of one of them becoming their party’s presidential nominee. I mostly blame Warren, who is my preferred candidate. Whatever Bernie said to her in that private conversation, it didn’t need to flare up into a public controversy. Warren could and should have shut down the matter immediately by following up those initial press reports by saying, “This is a distraction from the real issues, and I’m not going to comment further.” That she chose not to fuels the reasonable suspicion that she contrived this spat, playing the gender card, in order to reverse the recent trend in the polls favoring Bernie over her. Not an admirable showing by Warren.
Anyway, there is nothing inherently sexist about the belief that a woman cannot be elected POTUS. Valid or not, it may simply reflect a pessimistic view of the American electorate. My own answer to the question “Can a woman be elected POTUS?” is “Yes, but…” The “but” being that she does face something of a handicap that a man does not. After all, if you believe that sexist attitudes are still significantly present in America, then you cannot believe that it makes no difference whatsoever whether a candidate for our highest office is a man or a woman. The question is, how great is the gender disadvantage?
Last year I cited a poll that provides an initial, very imperfect answer to that question. Asked whether they could support a candidate for president belonging to a variety of social categories, 94% of respondents said they could support a woman. That leaves 6% who presumably would not. Since people are known to lie to pollsters to hide their socially disapproved attitudes or behavior, it is likely that the percent of voters who would be ill-disposed to a female candidate would exceed 6%. So, we’re talking about a real handicap, but certainly not an insurmountable one. There’s a good chance that most of the 6%+ who would shun a woman candidate would in any case vote Republican.
The more critical question for Democrats and especially progressives is “Can a self-proclaimed socialist be elected POTUS?” It’s a question nobody is asking, probably because Democrats don’t want to be accused of red-baiting* Bernie Sanders. But in that same poll, only 47% of respondents said they would vote for a socialist. There are other polls, of course, that show Sanders beating Trump in the national popular vote, but do all of those potential Sanders voters know that he calls himself a socialist? How would they respond to the predictable GOP smear campaign based on Trump’s promise that the US would never be a socialist country? My own answers to these questions tell me that if we are to gamble on a progressive nominee for president, Warren is the better bet than Sanders.
* For younger readers not familiar with this term, it refers to the practice, during our decades-long Cold War obsession with communism, of smearing leftists of all stripes as somehow giving aid and comfort to the enemy.