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Bernie Sanders is no longer running for president, but he had an indelible impact on American politics.
Bernie Sanders dropped out of the presidential race on Wednesday, April 8th. The news broke at around 11AM ET, and Sanders addressed his supporters in a live-streamed press conference starting at 11:45.
Standing inside his home, flanked by framed photos of bucolic houses, the Brooklyn-born Vermont senator thanked his supporters—specifically mentioning his campaign staff, all the people who called and texted for him, and all the artists and writers who did their best to promote his unprecedented campaign for president.
"The greatest obstacle to social change is the corporate and political establishment," he told the audience as comments flickered down the side of the screen—a Trump 2020 troll, then a Biden supporter, then a disappointed fan calling for him to re-enter.
Sanders, broadcasting from Burlington, Vermont seemed calm, yet focused. He referenced the Nelson Mandela quote, "It always seems impossible until it's done." He reminded his followers that while Medicare for All was a fringe idea in 2016, now multiple democratic candidates supported it in the presidential race, and now progressive ideals have pervaded mainstream American consciousness.
What Bernie Sanders created was a clearing, an opening for ideas that had fallen out of fashion, and for expanding… https://t.co/jJii3DfYo5— Charles P. Pierce (@Charles P. Pierce)1586376367.0
"Few would deny...our movement has won the ideological struggle," he said. "A majority of the American people now understand that we must raise the minimum wage...that we must guarantee healthcare as a right...that we must transform our energy system away from fossil fuels...and that higher education must be available to all, regardless of income."
Bernie was always a policy candidate, fixated on the issues at hand, clearly tormented by the idea that people are still sleeping on the streets in the richest nation in the world. The rest of the image surrounding him—the toxic masculinity, the Internet trolls—may have been true in part, and perhaps that played a role in his campaign's demise, but the truth is that Bernie's campaign failed for the same reason it won the support of millions of young people and working class people across the country: It was always about supporting and uplifting the working class.
"A member of Congress for nearly 30 years, Mr. Sanders has been bitingly frank about the way that money strangles American democracy," wrote Elizabeth Bruenig in a rare pro-Bernie New York Times op-ed, published conveniently after Sanders dropped out. "Rich individuals with a vested interest in defanging egalitarian politics donate to campaigns, PACs, universities and think tanks in hopes of purchasing lawmakers' loyalties and rigging the legislative process in their favor. These oligarchs — the Koch brothers, the Mercers and Michael Bloomberg, among others — exert control over our politics that far exceeds the one vote accorded to each citizen."
In a nation that worships wealth above all else, and that's truly led by massive corporations, perhaps this was a doomed endeavor. Sanders certainly invoked ire across political parties; and sometimes, Bernie supporters did exhibit somewhat cult-like behavior—though from personal experience, this cult mostly consisted people who were deeply inspired and committed to healing American society.
For some, that Sanders dropped out in the midst of the coronavirus crisis only adds insult to injury. As Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor wrote in the brilliant New Yorker article "Reality Has Endorsed Bernie Sanders"—published a week before he dropped out—coronavirus is starkly illuminating the validity of points that Bernie has been making all along. "The class-driven hierarchy of our society will encourage the spread of this virus unless dramatic and previously unthinkable solutions are immediately put on the table," Taylor writes. "As Sanders has counseled, we must think in unprecedented ways… The Sanders campaign...has shown public appetite, even desire, for vast spending and new programs. These desires did not translate into votes because they seemed like a risky endeavor when the consequence was four more years of Trump. But the mushrooming crisis of COVID-19 is changing the calculus. As federal officials announce new trillion-dollar aid packages daily, we can never go back to banal discussions of 'How will we pay for it?' How can we not?"
Though Bernie's acquiescence to Joe Biden is a devastating loss for many of his supporters, particularly those who were never able to even cast a vote for him, in many ways Sanders' decision to drop out was a logical and even ethical choice. As Sanders himself stated in the broadcast, there was no clear path to his election—a crushing Biden victory on Super Tuesday made that clear—and in addition, holding primary elections during the coronavirus crisis poses its own unique health dangers and inevitably would distort the results.
Now, for all intents and purposes, Biden is the Democratic nominee. Though he fell short of actually endorsing Biden, Bernie called the former vice president a "very decent man" and promised to do his best to promote his progressive ideals in the forthcoming campaign.
The road ahead will be long and difficult, regardless of who wins this November. But our Vermont savior, who symbolized such a potent and promising new world, at the very least laid down some seeds. We may not see them this season, but maybe in future years, the ideas Bernie Sanders planted will be able to grow.
"Now is a moment to remake our society anew," Taylor writes. To say Bernie made an indelible impact on American politics is an understatement. In a critical and volatile moment, he inspired a new wave of young progressives to organize, and made millions of voters question the status quo. He prioritized morality in his campaign in an era that seems entirely devoid of it—not morality in terms of tolerance that disguises inaction, but morality defined by what we truly owe to each other.
These ideas will not die out after Sanders exits the primary. If anything, they'll become more local, more grassroots, more rooted in people power. After all, mainstream political parties in America have never been at the forefront of radical people-focused action. That kind of change will always have to come from the actions of everyday folks, organizing and fighting tirelessly for people they don't know.
Short answer: Everything.
In a small office inside an old theatre in New Hampshire, Bernie Sanders' supporters gathered to share their highlights and challenges after a day of knocking on doors.
"I'm feeling grateful," said one, before relaying a story about a surprisingly friendly interaction with a Trump supporter.
Others said they were feeling energized and inspired, despite a low response rate after hundreds of knocks and hours out in the February drear. "Just talking to one person who thanked me for being out in the field made it all worth it," said another.
The moment one person said they were feeling cold, organizers leapt into action, tossing hand-warmers to the shivering canvasser.
The New Hampshire primary was in one week. Some organizers had been in the small office for months, others had been working steadily since 2016, and still others were canvassing for the first time, but the energy in the room was palpable and warm and beautifully chaotic and fundamentally communal, much like a lot of Bernie Sanders' campaign. That has something to do with its success.
As Sanders has steadily risen in the polls, major media outlets have been forced to examine his campaign and the massive base of supporters—many young, social media-savvy, and passionately fired-up about their 79-year-old patron saint—that have propelled them to this place. Some portray his supporters as a battalion of belligerent young white males; others insist that Bernie's base is the most diverse of all; still others view them as lazy, entitled kids.
Doubters have been forced to interrogate that last opinion, because it's clear that Sanders' campaigners are anything but lazy. Sanders' campaign has garnered the highest number of individual donors of any candidate, amassing $1.3 million after discovering that a super PAC planned to air a negative ad about him. He raised nearly $100 million in 2019, topping Pete Buttigieg by some $25 million without the help of major corporations. His supporters are fervently keyed in, texting, tweeting, and—as it became clear in that New Hampshire room—getting out into the streets, taking the time to talk to people.
So what's behind Sanders' sweeping, grassroots appeal? And who are his supporters, really?
The easiest answer to this question is that there is no single answer. Bernie Sanders' supporters are working-class Americans, disaffected progressives, starry-eyed optimists, frustrated pessimists, devil's advocates, and God-fearing moralists. They are not a monolith. In that way, they might just represent the actuality of the American people—in all their contradictions, devotion, and passion—better than any other base.
"Not Me, Us" and the Fight Against American Hyper-Individualism
Miss Toni took a while to open the door. She was wearing a blue onesie covered in hearts, and her room was filled to the brim with records and posters from the 1980s. When she finally was able to open the door, a flock of birds fluttered away from her porch and took to the sky.
She told us she was already a Bernie supporter and began shakily filling out the sign-up sheet we gave her. She was registered to vote by her deadname (the male name she was given at birth), but she asked us to refer to her as Miss Tami. She had been an activist in the 1960s, she said. Bernie felt like the closest thing to bringing back the spirit of those days.
We also met a gun-owning Republican from Hawaii who, after hearing about Bernie's support for ending student debt and his dedication to ending the spirit of xenophobia in America, pledged to lend his support for Sanders on Tuesday.
Among the Trump supporters we met, their number one reason for supporting him was always the economy. "Me and my daughters are doing well."
"It would be nice if everyone could do as well as you and your family," we said. He shrugged. By the end of the conversation, he was genuinely smiling when he said, "I'm still voting for Trump. But I hope you guys keep going."
If Sanders does win the Democratic nomination, the economy will be paramount to the ensuing debates. While the currently strong American economy mostly exists thanks to Obama-era policies, and while many economists project that we are headed for a recession, it is true that Trump protects the Wall Street interests that continue to ensure cutthroat capitalism's success in America and around the world. These very successes are what have led America's income inequality levels to approach Depression-era extremities.
Sanders represents a synthesis of radicalism, anticapitalism, and a realistic understanding of the threats that America and the world are facing. To many, he also—contrary to the entire Bernie Bro narrative—represents human compassion. His campaign slogan, "Not Me, Us," is a refreshing antidote to the egotistical and self-absorbed nature of politics and neoliberalism in America. It's a reminder that—like the best stories, or the best policies—Sanders is just a vessel for something much greater, a catalyst for a dream.
Good luck to the planet to victims of American imperialism to people with giant student debt to those who want a li… https://t.co/EvaAD4D56p— 𝐓𝐚𝐧𝐢𝐚 𝐒𝐢𝐧𝐠𝐡 (@𝐓𝐚𝐧𝐢𝐚 𝐒𝐢𝐧𝐠𝐡)1580738520.0
Sanders' Internet Army and the Limits of Tolerance
It's unfortunate that Bernie's campaign has been plagued by cruelty and disunity—and that these aspects of his base have been so heavily emphasized by the media. It's also true that some of Bernie Sanders' supporters can be cruel, and many need to learn to listen. If Bernie's supporters are serious about his campaign, they need to understand that shutting down discourse and rejecting all contention isn't the way to go about winning support.
But it's also true that in this America, people are dying thanks to medical bills they cannot pay, and students graduate into a world where they pay exorbitant amounts of money each month for years at a time in order to combat their student debt.
In light of this, the rage that many of Sanders' supporters feel at so-called centrists is born out of a deep-rooted desire to see real change instead of more of the same. It's a realization that trusting in the system and tolerating hatred is essentially the same thing as allowing them to continue.
It's also true that we're embroiled in a climate crisis, and kids are being born into a world of increasingly rampant natural disasters and apocalyptic scenarios playing out in real time, all while watching their politicians and parents do nothing. Bernie's Green New Deal is the most ambitious plan to address climate change of any candidate's; it also promises to renew the American economy, refurbishing our crumbling infrastructure by providing millions of new jobs in green, clean manufacturing. The strength of his plan has caused Sanders to gain the support of major environmental organizations across the country.
In a world where families can easily be crushed by a medical bill or a college admissions fee, Sanders' policies read like gospel for the disaffected. The Green New Deal, Medicare for All, free college, immigration reform, and an end to endless wars are plans that promise actual change, packaged in a promise that can be paid for with the money that the United States spends on wars and allows to burn holes in Jeff Bezos's pockets.
The gospel-like, lyrical, and consistent nature of Sanders' policies are at the center of his movement. Like "Make America Great Again," Sanders' policies appeal to the idea that politics is theatre, that the best politicians present a show and offer a vision, a possibility, a roadmap for a movement that will get people out of their homes and into the field.
Lighting the Fire
There's a video of Bernie Sanders in Vermont, teaching his campaign manager, Faiz Shakir, how to use a wood-burning furnace. Sanders is wrapped in a coat, bent over a cast-iron stove. "You want the flames from the small guys—are you recording me?" he says, stopping and then clarifying, "You want the small wood to be able to catch onto the big logs."
A Vermonter tries to teach a Floridian (me) how to properly light a wood-burning furnace. Let the record show he… https://t.co/Y5nLkZlWyS— Faiz (@Faiz)1575426269.0
With his thick Brooklyn accent and his dedication to the task at hand, Sanders has intensely grandfatherly energy—but his statement also seems like it could suffice as his campaign slogan. He's a small flame, and when he began as a Vermont senator in 2016, he seemed to face impossible odds.
But every fire starts with a single spark. As the infamous poster that's a fixture in many dorm rooms reads, "Thousands of candles can be lit from a single candle, and the life of the candle will not be shortened. Happiness never decreases from being shared." It's a quote from the Buddha, but it could also apply to the ripple effect that Sanders' campaign has launched.
Change is catching and intoxicating. The spirit of hope and unity and fire that lights Sanders' campaign is a balm against apathy and hopelessness, against racism and xenophobia and economic inequality. It's about what human society can achieve—what we should achieve—what we are morally obligated to achieve.
Still, many of Sanders' supporters are realistic. We are well-aware that even if Sanders is elected, it will still only be the beginning of a long, hard fight against deep-rooted economic inequality, corporate greed, and dangerous capitalism-driven climate disaster in America and around the world. We know that visions and dreams mean nothing if the work isn't put into achieving them—the long, endless nights and the decades spent carving out policies.
But it's impossible to even begin the work if the dream isn't there in the first place, and if the people who believe in the dreams aren't allowed in the rooms where the work is done.
Regardless of what happens in Iowa and on the campaign trail, even the most fervent Bernie Sanders supporters believe that cruel attacks are not the answer. Even Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez—one of Sanders' biggest supporters—has stated that Democrats need to support whoever is elected in order to beat Donald Trump. If anything, we will need more unity and love and compassion for each other in the coming months than ever before.
We shouldn't have to compromise our values and allow people to die while others languish in the shade of the wealth and power they did nothing to earn, save being born in the right place.
Voting in Iowa closes at 7:00 PM CST in Iowa today, February 3rd. Find your caucus site here.
The opportunity to change your party affiliation in New York State closes February 14th.
Find out how to vote for Bernie in the primary in your state here.
We’re here at the Ottumwa satellite precinct, which is the first Iowa precinct to caucus today. They’ll kick off at… https://t.co/MFBXp2zHfn— Brianne Pfannenstiel (@Brianne Pfannenstiel)1580752095.0
Amy Klobuchar ate salad with her comb and then made her aide clean it.
Prior to their official half-endorsement of Amy Klobuchar as the "Democrats' Best Choice For President," The New York Times covered another side of the Minnesota senator. "Senator Amy Klobuchar was hungry, forkless and losing patience," wrote political reporters Matt Flefenheimer and Sydney Ember.
"An aide, joining her on a trip to South Carolina in 2008, had procured a salad for his boss while hauling their bags through an airport terminal. But once onboard, he delivered the grim news: He had fumbled the plastic eating utensils before reaching the gate, and the crew did not have any forks on such a short flight.
What happened next was typical: Ms. Klobuchar berated her aide instantly for the slip-up. What happened after that was not: She pulled a comb from her bag and began eating the salad with it, according to four people familiar with the episode.
Then she handed the comb to her staff member with a directive: Clean it."
Flefenheimer and Ember's deep dive into Klobuchar's campaign team reads more like a copypasta than an account of real events; but alas, Klobuchar herself even seemed to lowkey brag about her history of mistreating her staff. "Am I a tough boss sometimes? Yes," Klobuchar said during a CNN Town Hall in February 2019. "Have I pushed people too hard? Yes. But I have kept expectations for myself that are very high. I've asked my staff to meet those same expectations. The big point for me is that I want the country to meet high expectations."
The CNN Town Hall audience may have cheered for that line, but voters don't seem to be "eating the salad," proverbially speaking. Klobuchar has consistently polled near the very bottom of people's choices for Democratic primary candidate, with recent polls placing her just over 3%. In other words, The New York Times' endorsement of Amy Klobuchar is strange considering the fact that she's basically unelectable.
But while, statistically speaking, pretty much nobody actually likes Amy Klobuchar, her behavior has struck a chord with a specific demographic on Reddit.
For context, while the overall Reddit community leans white, male, and liberal, many political figures' most ardent supporters use Reddit as a gathering space for promoting their candidate of choice. From the quarantined r/The_Donald with its 785k members (Russian bots included) to r/SandersForPresident with 380k, almost anyone can find their favorite presidential pick on Reddit. Even r/Tulsi has over 17k people who want Tulsi Gabbard to be president for some reason.
And then we have r/AmyKlobuchar. With 147 total members, roughly seven of whom seem to be online at any given time, the truly incredible thing about Amy Klobuchar's subreddit isn't its minimal user base. It's the fact that pretty much everything posted there is ironic.
The most upvoted post on the entire sub is titled "Amy Klobberchar" and contains a meme recounting a fictional incident wherein Amy Klobuchar threw a stapler at a staffer. In fact, many of the posts in r/AmyKlobuchar hone in on Klobuchar's history of staffer abuse, depicting Klobuchar firing unpaid interns and stepping on people's necks.In another top post on the sub titled "Why I am voting for Amy," a user lists off reasons including, "She is abusive towards her staff. We need a fighter, not a wimp," and, "I like the taste of boot."
The same New York Times article that covered the salad incident included a leaked email that Klobuchar has sent to her staffers regarding the things people said about her on Twitter: "We are becoming a joke and it is making me a joke."
As it turns out, Klobuchar's prophecy was self-fulfilling. By continually treating her staff like garbage, Klobuchar invoked the attention of a small but vocal demographic of roughly 147 people who don't like seeing low-paid interns treated like garbage.
Perhaps much more importantly, though, to most of the American electorate, Amy Klobuchar still doesn't matter.
They need to put their differences aside if either of them hopes to win
In a recent interview with New York Magazine Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez commented that "in any other country, Joe Biden and I would not be in the same party, but in America we are."
With consistent cries for party unity since before presidential candidates even began announcing their campaigns, it would be tempting to attack Ocasio-Cortez as splitting the party, but she is absolutely right. There is only a unified party to split on paper. America's winner-take-all style of voting forces disparate political interests to share a title and to pool donors—unless they have the ability, like AOC, to source their own funding.
The GOP has used this to their advantage, emphasizing social wedge issues like abortion and immigration to pull working-class white voters away from their economic interests on the left—convincing them to cheer on tax cuts for the ultra-wealthy. For the Democrats, however, the powerful faction of the party that represents professional-class interests—the private-public partnership, means-testing, social-program-cutting wing—has represented a barrier to participation for truly progressive candidates and voters.
That's why it has been heartening, prior to this week, to see Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren avoiding the temptation to attack one another. While many of Bernie's supporters online have adopted toxic attitudes toward anyone other than their preferred candidate, and many Warren supporters have questioned Bernie's feminist bona fides (particularly in light of that toxicity from many "Bernie Bros"), the candidates and their campaigns seemed largely cordial and supportive of one another. It's important, as the marginalized left-wing of the party, to focus on commonalities and mutual aid if there is going to be any hope of overcoming the powerful centrist forces that have ruled the party and served moneyed interests with only moderately less zeal than the Republican party.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
That shared effort began to fall apart on Saturday night when Politico ran a story under the headline "Bernie Campaign Slams Warren as Candidate of the Elite." The story included excerpts from a document purported to be circulated within the Sanders campaign, with scripts instructing volunteers how to attack rivals in the Democratic primaries. While criticisms of Joe Biden and Pete Buttigieg are hardly surprising, the attacks on Warren—noting that her supporters are predominantly educated, affluent voters who "who are going to show up and vote Democratic no matter what"—came as a surprise in the context of the candidates' established alliance.
Skepticism in these cases is usually warranted, but the article contained little to suggest that the content was anything less than official and approved by Bernie Sanders himself. By the time Sanders came forward to repudiate the document and deny its official status, the damage was done. The rift was already beginning to widen.
@michelleinbklyn This campaign would NEVER attack supporters. The script, which was not directed by the campaign, p… https://t.co/smcZ6ssrU7— Briahna Joy Gray (@Briahna Joy Gray)1578977594.0
Warren responded that she was "disappointed to hear that Bernie is sending his volunteers out to trash me," and she sent out a fundraising email that asked both for donations and for supporters to share personal stories and perspectives to contradict the framing of her base as elitist. If that had been all, then it might have been easy to move on and return to a mutually supportive stance within a few days. But the real damage was done when people close to Warren, perhaps in an effort to retaliate, spoke to CNN about a private conversation the two had in 2018.
Back then, the thought of actual voters making actual choices seemed distant and abstract, and the candidates sat down to discuss strategies against Trump and to establish the general truce that has held until now. Everyone involved seems to agree on those points, but differing reports emerge when it comes to the topic of gender. As CNN reported, Warren laid out her strengths as a candidate: "She could make a robust argument about the economy and earn broad support from female voters." Bernie was not on the same page.
The Bernie cult has been attacking @ewarren for way too long. They’ve minimized her achievements, called her a copy… https://t.co/9zLobcSgBv— Joshua Manuel Bonet 🏳️🌈 (@Joshua Manuel Bonet 🏳️🌈)1578984471.0
According to anonymous members of Warren's team, Bernie didn't think a woman could win. Bernie shot back with his own version of events, saying, "It is ludicrous to believe that at the same meeting where Elizabeth Warren told me she was going to run for president, I would tell her that a woman couldn't win... What I did say that night was that Donald Trump is a sexist, a racist and a liar who would weaponize whatever he could. Do I believe a woman can win in 2020? Of course! After all, Hillary Clinton beat Donald Trump by 3 million votes in 2016." When Warren herself was finally convinced to weigh in directly, she urged people to move on, claiming that she was more interested in what she and Sanders agree on… But she also confirmed the more inflammatory version of events: "Among the topics that came up was what would happen if Democrats nominated a female candidate. I thought a woman could win; he disagreed."
While there is certainly a conversation to be had about to what extent America remains too sexist to support a female candidate, it seems like a stretch to accept the idea that, in 2018, Bernie would hold such a categorical view against the possibility of a woman being elected president. What makes it particularly questionable is the existence of footage from a C-SPAN appearance three decades earlier, in which Bernie says, "In my view, a woman could be elected president of the United States. The real issue is whose side are you on? Are you on the side of workers and poor people, or are you on the side of big money and the corporations?"
The suggestion that Bernie's views have become more regressive since 1988 seems far-fetched. The inclusive, forward-thinking persona he has consistently presented to the public for 40+ years doesn't line up with this supposed private view. Then again, the idea that Warren would simply lie about Sanders' comments seems equally unlikely. Who you believe seems to depend largely on who you prefer, and the two camps seem to be moving further from each other as the Iowa Caucuses close in. On one side, Bernie Sanders is a sexist; on the other, Elizabeth Warren is a liar.
Without a recording or a transcript of the conversation, it doesn't seem quite justified to land in either of those camps. Without third-party witnesses, the basic facts of who did and who said what can quickly dissolve. The message that was intended and the message that was received crystallize in each person's mind to the point that they become irreconcilable. Perhaps Bernie did think that a progressive man was better poised than a progressive woman to counter Donald Trump's brand of populism in the 2020 election. Maybe his way of saying so was so clumsy that Warren took it as a broad statement about the viability (or lack of viability) of female candidates, and she recounted it as such to people close to her. Short of calling either of them a liar or worse, that is the best I can muster—a version of events that I prefer to believe in order to maintain my respect for both of these candidates.
Supporters from both sides will no doubt find this middle-ground unsatisfactory. The rift feels real right now, and it's starting to seem like each side is trying to undermine the chances of the other. But while only one candidate can win the nomination in the end, their support draws too much from the same pool of voters to allow this rift to remain. Already Bernie supporters who also donated to Warren are turning against her with the hashtag #RefundWarren. But the sad truth is that neither can win in the general election without support from the other's ardent fans. And who really stands to benefit from continued fighting? The center and the far-right. It can only help Joe Biden and Donald Trump. And Donald Trump seems to know it...
Bernie Sander’s volunteers are trashing Elizabeth “Pocahontus” Warren. Everybody knows her campaign is dead and wan… https://t.co/XaRdJ6P3W8— Donald J. Trump (@Donald J. Trump)1578929126.0
If Sanders and Warren can't each count on the other's supporters to get behind them as the primaries shake out, then Biden will likely hold onto his narrow lead. And if one of them does manage to get the nomination with this acrimony still hanging in the air between them, no amount of campaigning for one another is going to muster the sort of passion that we can count on to overwhelm Donald Trump in the general. 2016 should have taught us that much.
This feud needs to end now. Warren and Sanders need each other, and our country needs them. They are the only candidates taking America's economic divide seriously, and the only candidates willing to tackle climate change with the resolve and transformative action it requires. If Donald Trump gets reelected, he will continue to make both of these problems far worse, destroying hope for economic justice and a sustainable future. If Joe Biden is our next president, then we will go back to enacting middling, inadequate reforms—one step forward for every two steps back.
Hillary supporters as 2016 election results came inGetty Images
Warren and Sanders, united, represent our only real hope. Of course, they each believe that they are best suited to the job. They wouldn't be running otherwise. But if either of them is going to win, they need to come together, reaffirm progressive unity with one voice—acknowledging the differing accounts of events and decrying sexist limitations. Either of them can win this election, but neither can do it alone.