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Sanders and Warren Openly Spar as Some Progressives Fear Fighting Could Help Centrist Democrats

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At Tuesday night’s Democratic presidential debate in Des Moines, Iowa, Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren openly sparred for the first time when asked about Warren’s claim that Sanders told her in a private 2018 meeting that a woman could not win the presidential election. Sanders again denied the accusation when asked about it by CNN’s Abby Phillip. Warren maintained her claim. At the end of the night, Warren also apparently refused to shake Sanders’s hand. We speak with journalist Julian Brave NoiseCat, activist and Truthout contributor Alexis Goldstein and Larry Hamm of People’s Organization for Progress.

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González, as we bring you a roundtable on the last Democratic primary debate before the first caucus, Iowa, in less than three weeks. Larry Hamm is with us, chair of the New Jersey for Bernie 2020 committee. He’s chairman of the People’s Organization for Progress and has just recently announced he is running against Senator Cory Booker for his New Jersey Senate seat.

Welcome to Democracy Now!, Larry Hamm.

LARRY HAMM: It’s good to be here.

AMY GOODMAN: Overall, the picture of last night’s debate, there were fewer people, and the complexion was much lighter.

LARRY HAMM: Well, yes. It’s stating the obvious. There were no people of color there. But that doesn’t mean there wasn’t diversity. There was ideological diversity. And I think it’s very clear at this point that Bernie Sanders is still pushing the hardest for a program and agenda that addresses people’s needs, over and over again. He hit the issue of Medicare for All. He hit the issue of a Green New Deal. He hit the issue of ending these wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, not going to war with Iran, and using that money for people’s needs here at home — housing, education, jobs. Those are the things, I think, that people are talking about.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go to another clip of the debate. This is moderator Abby Phillip of CNN asking Senators Sanders and Warren about the controversy around whether a woman can be president.

ABBY PHILLIP: Senator Sanders, CNN reported yesterday that — and Senator Sanders — Senator 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?

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS: Well, as a matter of fact, I didn’t say it. 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 knows me, knows that it’s incomprehensible that I would think that a woman could not be president of the United States. Go to YouTube today. There’s a video of me 30 years ago talking about how a woman could become president of the United States. In 2015, I deferred, in fact, to Senator Warren. There was a movement to draft Senator Warren to run for president. And you know what? I stayed back. Senator Warren decided not to run, and I did. I did run afterwards. Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by 3 million votes. How could anybody in a million years not believe that a woman could become president of the United States?

And let me be very clear: If any of the women on this stage or any of the men on this stage win the nomination — I hope that’s not the case, I hope it’s me — but if they do, I will do everything in my power to make sure that they are elected, in order to defeat the most dangerous president in the history of our country.

ABBY PHILLIP: So, Senator Sanders, Senator Sanders, I do want to be clear here. You’re saying that you never told Senator Warren that a woman could not win the election?

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS: That is correct.

ABBY PHILLIP: Senator Warren, what did you think when Senator Sanders told you a woman could not win the election?

SEN. ELIZABETH WARREN: I disagreed. 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. And I think the best way to talk about who can win is by looking at people’s winning record. So, can a woman beat Donald Trump? 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: Amy and me.


AMY GOODMAN: So, that was Senators Warren and Sanders. In addition to Larry Hamm, we’re joined by Alexis Goldstein, activist and contributor to She worked for seven years on Wall Street at Morgan Stanley, Merrill Lynch and Deutsche Bank. She has signed onto an open letter by prominent LGBTQ women and non-binary people supporting Elizabeth Warren.

If you can comment on this latest controversy and what happened after the debate, but the significance of what was said there, quite stunning when CNN’s Abby Phillip, after Sanders said what he had to say, refuted what he said, and said her, “What do you say about him saying that a woman can’t win?”

ALEXIS GOLDSTEIN: Well, I think this is much ado about nothing. I do think the media has latched onto this in a way that I don’t think either Sanders or Warren is interested in perpetuating. I mean, Warren herself said, “I’m not here to fight with Bernie.” And that’s largely my reaction to this, in my opinion, very outsize controversy.

AMY GOODMAN: And Larry Hamm?

LARRY HAMM: Yes, I think Senator Sanders explained himself well. I believe what Senator Sanders said. And I think — I agree that I think the media wants to make a bigger issue out of this than it is. I think they would like to see the progressive camp divided. And I don’t think we’re going to let that happen. I think if we stick to the issues — Medicare for All, Green New Deal, doubling the minimum wage, defeating Trump — I think that’s the path forward.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, let’s go back to Bernie Sanders in 1988. He referenced this YouTube video. This is Bernie Sanders in 1988.

MAYOR BERNIE SANDERS: The real issue is not whether you’re black or white, whether you’re a woman or a man. In my view, a woman could be elected president of the United States. The real issue is: Whose side are you on? Are you on the side of workers and poor people, or are you on the side of big money and the corporations?

AMY GOODMAN: So that was Bernie Sanders back in 1988. Larry Hamm?

LARRY HAMM: Well, Bernie is consistent. I mean, his positions have been consistent over the last 40 years, maybe even half-century, on some of the issues. And that’s why I think he’s the strongest candidate. He’s leading in Iowa right now. And quite frankly, I don’t think the debate is going to move the needle that much. I think Bernie Sanders is leading going in, and I think he’s going to get stronger as we get closer to the Iowa caucus.

AMY GOODMAN: Julian Brave NoiseCat, you’re a journalist who belongs to the Secwepemc Nation. Actually, you should say it for me, so that it isn’t mispronounced. Vice president of policy and strategy at the think tank Data for Progress. What nations are you a member of?

JULIAN BRAVE NOISECAT: The Secwepemc and St’at’imc. Thank you so much for having me, Amy. You’ve actually had the late Art Manuel, who was also a Secwepemc, on your show before.

AMY GOODMAN: So, you wrote a whole piece on this, but you come up with the same recommendation. Talk about the debate between them, but also what you want to see moving forward.

JULIAN BRAVE NOISECAT: Look, I feel like we were watching the end of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and, you know, Frodo and Samwise are approaching Mount Doom, and instead of like finishing the darn mission, they’re fighting each other, when, you know, at the end of the day, we need to defeat Sauron. You know, Sauron is right here in Washington, D.C., controlling the White House.

So, I would tend to agree that the infighting in the progressive movement is not helpful right now. It leaves out the bigger picture in the primary of we still have a weak front-runner in Biden, yet when the progressives are taking swipes at each other and not at him, they’re only sort of cementing his position at the front of the pack.

And, you know, there are some real considerations, I think, moving forward, once we start getting ballots about how sort of the left flank of the Democratic Party should be positioning itself. If you are a voter and you are not in one of the first three states, you know, I think that there’s still an open question as to whether you will be casting your vote for Senator Sanders or Senator Warren.

And there’s also talk on the fringes of a potential contested convention. We, of course, choose our Democratic nominee not actually literally through our votes, but through delegates. And there is potential, a very outside potential, that progressives, if we pool our delegates or if we stick in the race longer, could use our leverage to either contest a convention or to use that sort of threat of disunity at a convention, which of course party leadership wants to avoid at all costs, to influence the ultimate ticket and party platform on issues that we care about, which, of course, are Medicare for All, a Green New Deal, free college, doubling the minimum wage, all of these things.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I wanted to ask Larry Hamm, in terms of the progressive vote. Much has been made of the fact that Joe Biden still, according to all of the polls, has the far greater support in the African-American community than any of the other candidates, and even than Kamala Harris and Cory Booker when they were in the race. This whole issue of whether the, quote, “progressive community” is going in a different direction from the mass of African-American voters, I’m wondering your take on that and how that you see that shifting in the coming months.

LARRY HAMM: I think it is going to shift. First of all, I think Bernie Sanders has support in the African-American community, and he has more support than people would give him credit for. Polls show that he has support particularly among African Americans 35 years old and younger. I think, as we actually move into the primary season, as the field narrows, that more and more African Americans are going to see that Bernie Sanders is the candidate that best represents their interests.

AMY GOODMAN: You decided to run against Senator Booker. Booker has just pulled out of the race. I don’t know if it has anything to do with you announcing, right before he pulled out, that you’re going to be challenging him.

LARRY HAMM: I was surprised that Senator Booker pulled out before, actually, the Iowa caucus. He had been saying that his strategy was similar to that of Barack Obama and that Obama was in a similar position vis-à-vis the polls in 2008 as he was, but that after Iowa the Obama campaign took off. So, when Senator Booker announced the other day that he was pulling out, I was quite surprised. I thought he was going to go through to Iowa. But the fact is, he withdrew because his campaign was not getting traction. He just could not break through 4%, 3, 4%, and even some places lower than that.

I’m running for U.S. Senate because I think we’re going to need more senators in the Senate that support our progressive political agenda. When Bernie Sanders wins the Democratic primary, when he wins the nomination and when he gets to the White House, he’s going to need people in the Senate that are going to fight as hard for his agenda as he is. And I want to be one of those senators.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, let’s turn to healthcare. This is Pete Buttigieg defending his healthcare plan at last nights’s debate.

PETE BUTTIGIEG: When it comes to healthcare, you can do it in two moves. Of course, my plan costs $1.5 trillion over a decade — no small sum, but not the 20, 30, 40 that we’re hearing about from the others. All you’ve got to do is two things, both of them are commonsense: allow Medicare to negotiate prescription drug prices, and roll back the Trump corporate tax cuts that went to corporations and the wealthy that didn’t even need it.

ABBY PHILLIP: Senator Warren?

SEN. ELIZABETH WARREN: So, I started this by talking about 36 million Americans, including Americans with insurance who just can’t even afford to have a prescription filled. We all talk about plans, healthcare plans that we have, and these plans are paid for. The problem is that plans like the mayor’s and like the vice president’s is that they are an improvement, they are an improvement over where we are right now, but they’re a small improvement. And that’s why it is that they cost so much less, because, by themselves, they’re not going to be enough to cover prescriptions for 36 million people who can’t afford to get them filled.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, I’d also like to bring into our roundtable discussion Julio Ricardo Varela, the co-host of the In the Thick political podcast and founder of Latino Rebels. Welcome to the show, Julio. Could you talk first about this healthcare exchange that we just played and also your take on what you thought were either the highlights or what was missing in last night’s debate?

JULIO RICARDO VARELA: Yeah, absolutely. First of all, the biggest takeaway from this healthcare debate, even though it’s been repeated so many times, is the fact that during the war talk no one was talking about costs. Like, how are you going to pay for this war, and how are you going to pay for anything that’s going to happen in Iran? But when we got to healthcare, the questions were framed about like, “Well, what are we going to do? How are we going to pay for all this?” And I think that is just such a disservice to the American people and the American electorate, because, in the end, let’s be real. I mean, if there’s anything that has a lot of universality or commonality about what is happening in the United States, it’s the cost of healthcare. I mean, I have a daughter who has a pre-existing condition, and it’s our biggest expense in my family. And I come from a privileged background in Massachusetts.

So I think the framing of the healthcare debate, we get it, right? It’s been repeated. CNN, let’s stop asking these questions, because we understand what’s happening. You have Sanders and Warren, on the progressive side, saying, “We’ve got to go Medicare for All. We have to look at this a little bit more holistically. Healthcare is a human right for Americans.” And then you have sort of the defenders of private health insurance, who are trying — you know, the Bidens, the Klobuchars and the Buttigieges of the world, who are trying to kind of give you a little hybrid. I still don’t know what Joe Biden’s healthcare policy is. At least I will give Buttigieg credit that he’s trying, playing off the Medicare for those who need it or those who want it. So I think that’s a big problem. And, you know, talking to people in the healthcare debate, we’ve already had this. This was like a repeat debate. And I just think CNN failed on this part, especially when it came to the contrast between the war talk, that literally dominated the first half-hour of the debate, and the healthcare talk. Now, in things that were —

AMY GOODMAN: And just one point, Julio, on that issue of cost of war, though they didn’t talk about it, the Cost of War Project just estimated that the cost of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq has been — I think the number was something like $6.4 trillion.

JULIO RICARDO VARELA: Wow. Wow. And I think that’s the problem. I think this whole notion — you know, I tweeted it out last night. It’s like no one’s talking about paying for war. No one’s talking — I mean, I will say this. Sanders did say this costs us trillions and trillions of dollars. I sit back as an American journalist saying, if this money was diverted to the American people — and, you know, we have wars based on lies, and we’re looking at another lie right now. The president of the United States is lying about the justification of war with Iran. I mean, anyone who has looked at this story for the last two weeks would know that. Can you just imagine what this American society would be if healthcare was a human right, if healthcare was something that we believed in and said this is what matters?

And it gets lost, because it’s become sort of this topic that you see progressives and moderates like fighting against each other, when we all know, in fact, when any Democratic candidate fights against Donald Trump on this issue, the Democrats are going to win this issue. And if they’re going to win this election, they should be saying that point every day, about, you know, Trump is going to attack Obamacare, Republicans are going after your healthcare, and that matters. And it matters because it’s a pocketbook issue for the American citizens. And not only is it a pocketbook issue, but it’s also, you know, people want — you know, it’s healthcare. It’s a human right.

But the other takeaway, I would say, in general, and I do believe — I agree with all our panelists that the issue of the Sanders-Warren debate about a woman president is a nonissue. I find it very convenient that CNN, the day before, reported this story, a private meeting that reportedly was just Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, and all of a sudden this was the story on Monday. And guess what. What question did we hear on Tuesday, and what is everyone talking about in this debate now? I think both the candidates gave very good answers. I agree that, you know, this seems to be like progressives going after each other. And let’s be real. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders are still front-runners in this race, and moderate Democrats still don’t know what to do with it.

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