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For all of the anticipation leading up to last night’s debate—especially around Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, who was viewed by many as the candidate to beat—the stage took on some of the same frustrating dynamics of the modern American workplace. There were more women at last night’s event than there have ever been on a presidential-primary-debate stage, and three more are appearing tonight. And yet to watch them was to be reminded that these are not just presidential candidates—these are professional working women who, like many others, have probably often struggled to be seen or heard over their male colleagues.
Warren, Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, and Representative Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii didn’t lack for something to say. Nor did the moderators ignore them—the first two questions of the night were directed specifically at Warren and Klobuchar. In one moment that attracted applause from the audience, Klobuchar forcefully asserted her bona fides on women’s health. Washington Governor Jay Inslee had suggested that he was the only candidate who had “actually advanced the ball” to protect women’s reproductive health, referring to state-level legislation he’s signed into law. To that, Klobuchar responded, “I just want to say, there’s three women up here that have fought pretty hard for a woman’s right to choose.”
Toward the end of the program, Gabbard engaged in a quick spar with Representative Tim Ryan of Ohio over foreign policy, one of her biggest moments of the night. “The reality is, if the United States isn’t engaged, the Taliban will grow and they will have bigger, bolder terrorist acts,” Ryan said. Gabbard, a veteran of the Army National Guard, stepped on the end of his statement to say, “The Taliban was there long before we came in. They’ll be there long before we leave.” Ryan, apparently taken aback, argued that when the United States wasn’t engaged, the Taliban “started flying planes into our buildings.”
With the only real-time fact-check of the night, Gabbard quickly shot back: “The Taliban didn’t attack us on 9/11. Al-Qaeda did.”
Overall, however, the women were much more likely to speak only when directly called on by the moderators than to cut short or aggressively rebut male candidates’ answers. The result: Warren, though she accounted for the third-longest speaking time, behind Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey and O’Rourke, fell out of view for whole chunks of the evening. Klobuchar and Gabbard fell somewhere in the middle on speaking time, and used many of their answers to look beyond their fellow candidates and directly name-check President Donald Trump.
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Even in the circumstances when the female candidates tried to interrupt, they seemed intimately aware of the risk of pushing it as far as their male counterparts. De Blasio, Ryan, and former Representative John Delaney of Maryland routinely hollered from the margins to force themselves into the flow of responses. Warren, Klobuchar, and Gabbard seemed much more reluctant to push through or push back when being cut off, perhaps because they know how often women are penalized for doing just that.