Of course a woman can be elected president. If she’s the right person for the moment. If she’s more appealing than the prospect of four more years of President Donald Trump.
The same ifs are true for a man.
At Tuesday night’s Democratic presidential debate at Drake University, Sens. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., found themselves still tangled in a distracting squabble over whether Sanders discouraged his Massachusetts colleague from running by telling her that a female candidate for president couldn’t win.
Sanders repeated his denial that he had ever said any such thing. “How could anybody in a million years not believe that a woman could become president of the United States?” he demanded.
Warren stood by her recollection that he had. “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,” she added.
All of this disagreement stems from a single data point: Hillary Clinton. In 2016, the Democrats nominated a woman — a woman who had also been a senator and secretary of state — only to see her go down to defeat under a barrage of attacks from an impulsive, unrestrained New York real estate developer and reality television star.
But it is important not to lose sight of something else. Before Donald Trump beat Clinton, he vanquished 15 other men. The field of Republican contenders for the 2016 nomination was, collectively, one of the most impressive the party had put forward in modern memory. Some had been successful governors. Others served in the Senate. The lone woman in the Republican race had run a major corporation.
Trump wiped the floor with all of them.
The fact is, Trump is going to lob everything that he can think of at whoever the Democrats nominate. He will lie. He will respect no boundaries. He will play on racial fears and spread conspiracy theories. Is there any reason to believe that if Democrats pick a white male, he will be shielded from the onslaught by gender or race or anything else?
Warren suggested that the opposite may be true. She noted that the half-dozen candidates on the debate stage Tuesday night had, among them, lost a total 10 elections. The only two whose records were unblemished by defeat, Warren added, were herself and Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota.
But I’m not sure that is any more relevant when the opponent they will be facing is Trump.
It was Sanders who addressed what may be the more crucial factor.
“Let me be very clear,” he said. “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 this country.”
In 2016, Clinton’s team believed that Sanders did not show that same team spirit after he lost to her in a long and bitter fight for the Democratic nomination. But this time around, Democrats know something they didn’t four years ago.
This time, everyone knows what’s coming.