Over the weekend, Hillary Clinton rolled out a delayed-reaction attack line over a remark that Bernie Sanders made during the first Democratic debate, nearly two weeks ago. On a couple of different occasions this weekend, Hillary told crowds that she wasn’t about to be silenced on the issue of gun violence:
“I’ve been told to stop, and I quote, ‘shouting about gun violence.’ First of all, I’m not shouting. It is just when women talk, some people think we’re shouting.
“I’ve been told to stop shouting about ending gun violence. Well, I haven’t been shouting, but sometimes when a woman speaks out, some people think it’s shouting. But I won’t be silenced.”
The not-so-subtle implication is that someone was engaging in a little bit of sexism, and that someone is Bernie Sanders. The veiled charge has drawn predictable criticism from the usual suspects, typified by MSNBC He-Man Woman-Haters-Fraternity Morning Joe. The crew’s mascot Mika Brzezinski called the accusation “pathetic,” to hoots of approval from the bros. I’ll get to the substance of Hillary’s attack in a minute, but first, consider how well Bernie Sanders’ response fits in with the smirking Morning Joe crew’s:
SANDERS: What I was talking about, clearly, across this country you’ve got people shouting at each other.
TAPPER: Right. What she’s suggesting you’re saying —
SANDERS: Well, she is —
TAPPER: — that she’s shouting and that you, when you when you hear a woman talking, you think they’re shouting.
SANDERS: Well, what can I say? That’s just not the case. That’s wrong.
If there’s any resonance at all to the sexism charge, then Sanders’ snickering response plays right into it. That’s a mighty big “if,” you might say, so let’s take a look at substance of this claim.
Part of Sanders’ defense is that he was talking about people “shouting at each other” about guns, a construct that he has used before. Let’s have a second look at that debate moment, and see if Sanders was slamming “both sides” for shouting about gun violence, as he has in the past, or whether he was singling Hillary Clinton out:
CLINTON: He also did vote, as he said, for this immunity provision. I voted against it. I was in the Senate at the same time. It wasn’t that complicated to me. It was pretty straightforward to me that he was going to give immunity to the only industry in America. Everybody else has to be accountable, but not the gun manufacturers. And we need to stand up and say: Enough of that. We’re not going to let it continue.
COOPER: We’re going to bring you all in on this. But, Senator Sanders, you have to give a response.
SANDERS: As a senator from a rural state, what I can tell Secretary Clinton, that all the shouting in the world is not going to do what I would hope all of us want, and that is keep guns out of the hands of people who should not have those guns and end this horrible violence that we are seeing.
As you can see, there was no “both sides” about it, and his remark was clearly directed at Hillary, who had just finished an impassioned plea for accountability for gun manufacturers.
At the time, I was deeply offended by what Sanders said because it reduced all of the hard work that gun control advocates do, all the fighting against a stubbornly-entrenched lobby, to petulant emotionalism. Because I’m a dude, it never occurred to me that this is exactly the trope that’s used to marginalize women, and because Martin O’Malley swooped in and put a Mortal Kombat finishing move on Bernie, I didn’t give it another thought.
But by resurrecting that moment, Hillary has exposed Sanders’ condescension on an issue of deep importance to many Democrats, particularly women. At best, Democratic voters will conclude that Bernie is a sneering jerk about gun control, rather than a sexist sneering jerk. I don’t think Bernie intended the remark in a sexist way, especially given the fact that Bernie has defended Hillary from sexist attacks very recently, but it matters much more what people heard. In that moment, Bernie sure sounded like he was telling Hillary to calm down and stop being so shrill, and even a good guy can succumb to generations of male dominance conditioning.
You don’t have to be a woman to be appalled by that sort of demeaning attitude toward people who are sick of the never-ending parade of innocent souls being gunned down, though, and that’s the genius of Hillary’s move here. Bernie’s fallback position is, essentially, all of you are being too hormonal about this gun thing. It also has the potential to send Sanders on tilt, provoking more ill-advised attacks:
“We’d be very happy to have a straight-out debate on issues that matter to people and confine it to that,” Devine said. “But if they’re going to have a campaign that attacks Bernie on gun safety and implies he engages in sexism, that’s unacceptable. We’re not going to stand for that. We’re not going to sit here and let her attack him. We’re going to have to talk about other things if they do that. If they’re going to engage in this kind of attack, they need to understand we’re not going to stand there and take it.”
The Sanders campaign needs to step lightly when it comes to mining the Hillary Clinton attack catalog, especially with Democratic voters, but that “issues that matter to people” crack wasn’t a good start. These issues do matter to a great many Democratic voters.
This is an opinion piece. The views expressed in this article are those of just the author.