democratic debates

Unpacking the Tense Moment Between Warren and Sanders

Not a moment of comity. Photo: ROBYN BECK/AFP via Getty Images

It was the non-handshake that reverberated around the world — or at least around Twitter. I spoke with national correspondent Gabriel Debenedetti, who attended the seventh Democratic debate in Iowa, to unpack the notably discordant post-debate moment between Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. The moment of apparent hostility capped more than a day of growing tension over differing accounts of whether Sanders had told Warren in a private conversation that he didn’t think a woman candidate could beat Trump — a matter that debate moderators asked about explicitly during the event.

Ben: The most interesting moment at this debate by far happened just after everyone stopped talking, when Elizabeth Warren approached Bernie Sanders at the podium. Sanders extended his hand but Warren didn’t take it, and the two had what looked to be a very tense exchange — semi-interrupted by Tom Steyer, who says he didn’t hear what they said to each other. You’re on the scene at the event in Iowa — what are you hearing about what went down?

Gabriel: We here in the press-filing center saw exactly what you did, but I can tell you that as soon as the spin room opened, reporters mobbed both Warren and Sanders surrogates to figure out what was said. No answers yet, obviously, or Twitter would be all over it. Warren’s been represented in the spin room by Julián Castro, and Sanders by advisers like Jeff Weaver and Nina Turner.

Ben: Have they called in the lip-readers yet?

Gabriel: Ha, no, but CNN has been replaying the tape for a while now trying to figure out what was said. Talking to reporters here, Weaver reiterated that the two are friends but that obviously this hasn’t been the high point of their friendship.

Ben: This came after a moderately awkward exchange during the debate, though the two were mostly conciliatory about the story that blew up this week, in which Warren claimed that Sanders told her at a meeting that a woman couldn’t win the presidency. It seemed that the storm had largely passed, until this post-debate moment. Regardless of what was said, is it bad news for either or both of their candidacies that this story will now be reignited as we approach the home stretch in Iowa?

Gabriel: Of course neither of them want the story to be about their fight! We’ll see the extent to which this dominates local coverage tomorrow, but both sides did seem pretty happy to have this episode behind them … and then this.

I’m not minimizing this drama — it was pretty dramatic! — but I do think we’re in the middle of a Twitter storm that may not translate in mainstream coverage.

Ben: That is often a good bet. Do you expect both sides to now try to tamp this down again, even though those efforts may prove futile?

Gabriel: Well definitely, since neither side has yet said a word about what was said, right? Both presumably could have, by now! CNN, though, might find a mic that caught the audio, and maybe some audience member heard? I mean, the speculation isn’t going anywhere. But I’ve been in a whole lotta post-debate spin rooms and I have to say I don’t think I’ve ever seen them so immediately dominated by something that happened onstage after the debate.

Ben: Do you have any theories about what Warren might have been trying to communicate to Bernie?

Gabriel: I don’t want to guess, but it does seem clear that they are still not seeing eye-to-eye on what was actually said in their private meeting, so it’s not a stretch to think it could be about that. Without Warren being asked directly onstage about what was said, there’s still this supremely uncomfortable disagreement hanging in the air. If we assume this disagreement was about something that happened onstage (fair assumption, probably?) it’s almost certainly about that, no? Not, like, the trade deal on which they have different philosophies.

Ben: Ha, yes, somehow I doubt it. As you said, this all could be more of an internet tempest than one that real-life voters care about. But does any hint of division between Warren and Sanders count as good news for Joe Biden?

Gabriel: Yeah, it’s been very very clear that Team Biden has been happy with the Bernie–Warren fighting (Buttigieg, too, btw) … and with voters in Iowa so focused on beating Trump and questions of electability, a news cycle about “wHaT WaS sAiD?!?” doesn’t really help either of them, especially while they’re still trying to win over each other’s voters.

Unpacking the Tense Moment Between Warren and Sanders