Frank Bruni: Warren and Klobuchar teach the boys a lesson

(Patrick Semansky | AP) Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt.,, center, speaks as fellow candidates businessman Tom Steyer, from left, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., former Vice President Joe Biden, former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn. listen, Tuesday, Jan. 14, 2020, during a Democratic presidential primary debate hosted by CNN and the Des Moines Register in Des Moines, Iowa.

Would a female Democratic nominee have a harder time beating Donald Trump than a male one?

I can’t tell you, because I don’t have a crystal ball and because it’s a stupid question, its answer dependent on which female candidate you’re talking about, on how she runs her campaign, on the twists and turns of the national conversation between now and November.

But I can tell you this: Either of the two women among the six candidates on the stage in Des Moines on Tuesday night would give Trump a serious run for his money. Both have earned the right to take him on. Both would be formidable presidents.

And both made clear, with commanding performances, how absurd it is that this country hasn’t yet shattered the highest glass ceiling of all.

I’m focusing on Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar because during the most electric stretch of this seventh debate of the Democratic primary, the focus was indeed on them — or, rather, on the idea that their party couldn’t risk nominating one of them at a juncture when getting rid of a Republican incumbent has seldom, if ever, been so important.

You know the back story. According to media reports over recent days, Warren and Bernie Sanders met 13 months ago to discuss their nascent presidential campaigns and he told her he didn’t believe a woman could win the 2020 election. Sanders denies saying that.

He denied it again on Tuesday night, and Warren declined to get into a back-and-forth about that conversation. What she did instead was more effective — and certainly more stirring: She drew a contrast between the two women and the four men who had made the cut for this debate, which was the final one before the Iowa caucuses and had the fewest candidates so far.

That contrast was perfect, and got better still when Klobuchar chimed in, because what the two women said brilliantly cast them not as trailblazers who had something extra to prove, not as outsiders who had finagled a way in, not as underdogs urging voters to take some extraordinary leap of faith, not as high-minded gambles. They turned the stubborn, sexist notion that their presence and presidential ambitions were exotic on its head, citing yardsticks by which they were demonstrably superior to their male rivals.

“I think the best way to talk about who can win is by looking at people’s winning record,” Warren, a second-term senator from Massachusetts, said. “Look at the men on this stage. Collectively, they have lost 10 elections.” She didn’t name the men or the elections, but Joe Biden is the veteran of two previous, miserably unsuccessful campaigns for the presidency. Pete Buttigieg lost bids to become the treasurer of Indiana and the chairman of the Democratic National Committee. In contrast, Warren noted, “The only people on this stage who have won every single election that they’ve been in are the women — Amy and me. And the only person who has beaten an incumbent Republican any time in the past 30 years is me.”

Klobuchar, a third-term senator from Minnesota, said you don’t need to be male to win just as you don’t need other qualities pronounced necessary or optimal by some unnamed, amorphous committee of pronouncers. “You don’t have to be the skinniest person in the room,” she said. “You don’t have to be the loudest person. You have to be competent.”

“And when you look at what I have done,” she added, “I have won every race, every place, every time. I have won in the reddest of districts. I have won in the suburban areas, in the rural areas.” That, she added, was why she had “the most endorsements of current Iowa legislators and former Iowa legislators in this race.”

I don’t mean to romanticize Warren and Klobuchar. Warren’s boast about vanquishing a Republican incumbent? That incumbent was Scott Brown, whose victory in a special election in deep blue Massachusetts was considered something of a freak occurrence to begin with.

And when Klobuchar began to tick off the names of women recently elected to high posts, she suddenly froze, unable to remember who the governor of Kansas was, though she’d just said, “I’m very proud to know her.” (Her name is Laura Kelly.)

I’m also not saying that Warren or Klobuchar would be the party’s best bet. I don’t know who would be. I’m just saying that on a night when the viability of women aiming for the White House went from subtext to text, these two women found words — not just in addressing that issue but also in talking about prescription-drug prices, climate change, nuclear weapons and more — that exposed the bigotry and shamefulness of doubts about female candidates.

Otherwise the seventh debate was sleepily like many of the first six: Biden seemed to be campaigning for a third Barack Obama term, and his sentences were less straight lines than knots. They didn’t build toward a conclusion so much as sag until they finally gave out. Warren said “corruption” every chance she got. Sanders called for revolution and correctly emphasized that many trade and foreign-policy positions that other Democrats came around to he embraced from the start.

Buttigieg pivoted from the question at hand to a practiced soliloquy that almost always had something to do with turning the page and a new generation. Tom Steyer insisted that no one cared about the environment as much as he did. And Klobuchar talked about so many different pieces of legislation with her name on them that you had this image of her racing around the Capitol with an outstretched pen, stopping all aides who passed by and scrawling her signature on any paper they were carrying.

One new wrinkle was Warren’s clear and proud positioning of herself to Sanders’ right on trade and on health care. She was making the case for herself as a progressive who would favor incremental fixes if those were the only available improvements and who could be a unifier; she suggested that Sanders lacked that potential. Buttigieg, meanwhile, was more determined than ever to mention and reach out to voters of color, from whom he enjoys little support.

But what most distinguished the debate was the way in which gender came to the fore.

There was a memorable moment when Sanders sought to correct Warren on her 30-year claim, noting that he’d defeated a Republican in 1990, and she did some quick, out-loud arithmetic to determine that 1990 was, well, 30 years ago! Mansplaining met mathematics.

Warren also said this: “Since Donald Trump was elected, women candidates have outperformed men candidates in competitive races. And in 2018, we took back the House; we took back statehouses, because of women candidates and women voters.”

“Back in the 1960s,” she added, “people asked, ‘Could a Catholic win?’ Back in 2008, people asked if an African-American could win. In both times the Democratic Party stepped up and said yes, got behind their candidate and we changed America. That’s who we are.”

It was a self-serving edit of history, sure, and it put the most positive gloss possible on the nation’s character. But that didn’t make it any less important. Or any less inspiring.

Frank Bruni

Frank Bruni is an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times.