On Sunday night, Bernie Sanders was in the middle of explaining his rationale for having reservations about the 2008 auto bailout — too much of the aid went to Wall Street — when former Hillary Clinton interrupted. Clinton got out a few words before Sanders, hand raised and moving in the (surprisingly tight) space between the two candidates and interjected.
“Excuse me, I’m talking,” he said.
Now, compared to the rather raucous and raunchy content of the last GOP debate, that was not exactly a shocking or indecorous moment. It was comparatively mild — maybe somewhere just beyond inadvisable but far short of disturbing. And it might have faded away, as the latest example of one of many candidate responses to another candidate’s response to a debate stage question this cycle.
But, alas, this was Bernie Sanders effectively shushing and brushing off the comments made by one Hillary Clinton. Clinton is the first woman with a serious shot at the Democratic presidential nomination, and therefore the first woman to spend this much time on debate stages with competition. And, this is the age of Twitter, where what feel like the independently formed opinions and reactions of ordinary voters are super easy to access. And indeed, there were many reporters who wrote about this moment by quoting and pulling in other reporters’ totally serious tweets.
It all seems a bit light on substance and heavy on reaction — and reactions to reactions. And no one can climb inside Sanders’s mind and say with utter clarity what was swirling inside it. We do know that Clinton was the more experienced presidential debater on that stage. She also, by now, knows about Sanders’s, shall we say, tendency to respond to Clinton with curmudgeonly chastisements and finger wags. He has said and done a few things in previous debates that people have described as chauvinistic. By that logic, Clinton may have interrupted Sanders on purpose in hopes that something like the “excuse me” moment would happen.
One could speculate a great deal about that. But then, there is this: Why, at this late date and this many debates into the 2016 presidential election cycle, has Sanders made demonstrably little to no effort to alter the way he interacts with the woman he at least strongly suspected he would be running against him from the day he declared his campaign? He has almost certainly had the same advice and information that every male candidate gets about the need to be constantly mindful about coming across like a chauvinist or a bully when on a debate stage facing a female competition.
The challenge is twofold. First, there’s the way it appears to other people — to voters — who often recoil at these sorts of displays. This is a well-documented fact. And voters have some ideas about how women should behave too. So don’t think Clinton is up on any debate stage and relaxed, while Sanders is the only one dealing with a minefield. Sanders has almost certainly been briefed on this research and had someone preparing him for debates try to identify the right way to manage Clinton’s interruptions. (Our suggestion: Try some version of “Excuse me” or “I would like to finish,” minus the hand gestures.)
But the second is the one that may really be worth our collective time. That is: Does Sanders have the capacity to recognize the way these moments look or think deeply about the degree to which sexism propels his debate-stage performances? Whether that chauvinism is real or imagined or even toyed with by his opponent for political gain, why can’t Sanders find a better way to manage these moments? And, is some combination of all of the above something that a 21st-century presidential candidate has simply got to consider and manage effectively?
Does the inability or unwillingness to examine his body language, tone and actions for hints or indicators of sexism — if not real but perceived by some women — tell us all what we really need to know?
Keep in mind that, if Sanders were to secure the Democratic nomination and then win the election, there are many female heads of state, foreign government representatives and others who are not men, with which Sanders will have to work effectively. It’s in many ways the very same reason to concern ourselves with Donald Trump’s debate stage and Twitter behavior and the methods and insults he’s adopted when attempting to confront women — journalists, political opponents and others.
No one is saying Sanders and Trump are on equal footing in the terrain of public offensiveness or displays of sexism. But when it comes to women, Sanders and some of his supporters’ public behavior seem to inhabit a nearby Zip code. And the time where that kind of behavior — even hints of possibly sexist thinking — will be ignored or go unnoticed is probably long dead.