DES MOINES, Iowa— Democratic presidential candidates spent the weekend grappling with how to address questions surrounding sexism and gender bias as they sought to balance support for women against concerns of a political blowback.
After his wife went public with her own experience of sexual assault at the hands of her doctor, businessman Andrew Yang said that “our country is deeply misogynist.” Other White House hopefuls, however, didn’t go so far. Billionaire Tom Steyer said that while systemic sexism exists, he “hopes” half of America is not misogynistic.
Meanwhile, the tensions between Sens. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Bernie Sanders of Vermont continued to unfold. Days after he and Warren engaged in a debate stage dispute over whether he once privately told her that a woman couldn’t be president, Sanders seemed to downplay the problem of sexism in politics on Sunday, suggesting the challenges women face are similar to those he faces running for president at the age of 78.
Asked by reporters for a response, Warren said only that “I have no further comment on this.”
Democrats have spent years blasting President Donald Trump as a sexist for the way he talks about and treats women. But as the first votes of the Democratic contest approach in nearly two weeks, the candidates’ comments showed that questions about gender and sexism are also tricky for those seeking to defeat Trump. And for some, there’s no easy way to talk about it.
For Warren, gender hasn’t been central to her candidacy, which has instead focused largely on massive proposals to reshape economics and politics. She confronted the question of whether women can be elected to high office during last week’s debate, noting that the two women on the stage — herself and Klobuchar — were the only candidates that hadn’t lost a single election they ran in over the past three decades.
But since then, she has generally avoided opportunities to keep the fight going — or escalate it.
Sanders, who was criticized in 2016 for not doing enough to condemn the sexist tactics of some of his supporters, stepped up his outreach to women over the weekend. He gave a brief speech on Saturday at the Seacoast Women’s March in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, telling the crowd that “we are in this together” and that men and women must work for equal pay and abortion rights.
But questions about his views could linger after he spoke on New Hampshire Public Radio. Asked if he thinks female candidates have a different experience as presidential candidates than him and whether gender is still an obstacle for female politicians, Sanders answered yes.
“I think everybody has their own sets of problems,” the Vermont senator said. “I’m 78 years of age. That’s a problem.”
He then went on to note that age concerns could also be a challenge for Pete Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, who turned 38 on Sunday.
“If you’re looking at Buttigieg, he’s a young guy,” Sanders said.
“And people will say, well, he’s too young to be president. You look at this one, she’s a woman,” he continued. “So everybody brings some negatives, if you’d 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.”
He avoided talking about the private meeting with Warren that reignited the gender debate in the first place.
“I really don’t want to get into what was a private conversation,” Sanders said on the public radio program. “But to answer your question, let me just say this: It is hard for me to imagine how anybody in the year 2020 could not believe that a woman could become president of the United States. And if you check my record, I’ve been saying that for 30 years.”
Still, the dispute between Warren and Sanders gave voice to long-simmering anxieties among Democrats that voters aren’t ready for a woman in the White House. Hillary Clinton and her campaign aides have said sexism played a major role in her loss to Trump in 2016, but they’ve also acknowledged how difficult it was to call out the issue during the campaign, out of concerns that Clinton would come across as weak or alienate certain voters.
In the 2020 campaign, Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota has repeatedly mentioned the struggles facing women in politics. During the November debate, she said that “women are held to a higher standard.” And she’s argued that if Buttigieg were a woman, he wouldn’t be as successful in the primary as he’s been.
Some voters in Iowa said that question is weighing on their minds as they prepare for the caucuses on Feb. 3.
“I think Elizabeth Warren has good reason to be concerned about the underlying attitude,” said Shel Stromquist, a 76-year-old professor emeritus at the University of Iowa, who said he’s debating between Warren and Sanders but is leaning toward Sanders. “She is a woman running for president, and we just know the underlying gender bias that our political system has.”
Woodall reported from Manchester, N.H. Associated Press writer Will Weissert in Des Moines, Iowa, and Meg Kinnard in Florence, S.C., contributed to this report