In late January, Bernie Sanders held a press conference in Iowa at which reporters tried to get the Vermont senator to take a few rhetorical shots at Hillary Clinton. He wouldn’t bite.
“I would argue that the reason that we’re doing well is that people understand that we are trying to run a different kind of campaign – not one of personal attacks,” Sanders said. He added moments later, “I’m not going to be engaged in personal attacks on Secretary Clinton or anybody else.”
At the time, the senator’s boast about running “a different kind of campaign” was quite credible: Sanders and his operation really were qualitatively different from what we generally expect from presidential politics. At campaign events, the Democratic candidate wouldn’t even tolerate his fans booing his primary rival.
doesn’t even believe the former senator and Secretary of State is “qualified” to be president.That was before; this is now. Sanders, who took pride in never running a negative campaign in a career spanning four decades, is now overseeing a campaign that’s blasting Clinton as too “ambitious,” that’s urging her to apologize to Iraq war victims, that’s hinting at allegations of corruption, and as of last night in Philadelphia, that
“Now the other day, I think, Secretary Clinton appeared to be getting a little bit nervous,” began Sanders in front of thousands at Philadelphia’s Temple University Wednesday night. “And she has been saying lately that she thinks that I am, quote unquote not qualified to be president,” he said as the raucous crowd booed.“Well let me just say in response, to Secretary Clinton, I don’t believe that she is qualified if she is … through her Super PAC, taking tens of millions of dollars in special interest funds,” Sanders declared.
The senator added this morning, “This is not the type of politics that I want to get in, I know it’s what the media loves.” But it’s not the media’s fault Sanders questioned Clinton’s White House qualifications, just as it’s not the media’s fault the senator’s campaign issued a statement last night listing the reasons Sanders doesn’t believe Clinton is “qualified” to be president.
With passions running high, sometimes relevant details can get lost in the shuffle, but it’s worth noting that when Sanders said Clinton argued that he’s “quote unquote not qualified to be president,” that never actually happened in reality. Clinton appeared on MSNBC yesterday morning, and despite repeated opportunities to question his qualifications, she would only say, in reference to his New York Daily News interview, “I think he hadn’t done his homework, and he’d been talking for more than a year about doing things that he obviously hadn’t really studied or understood.”
In other words, Sanders believes he was responding in kind to an attack that didn’t actually happen.
But even putting that aside, it’s difficult to understand who’s supposed to benefit from taking the Democratic race in this direction.
Even the timing is odd: if Sanders decided to go on the offensive in, say, early February, in advance of several key primaries and caucuses, that would at least make tactical sense. But the senator and his campaign team waited until Clinton built up a seemingly insurmountable lead and then decided to take off the gloves.
I don’t know what good will come of such an approach. Clinton arguably has the most impressive resume of any candidate in generations, so the “unqualified” criticism probably isn’t going to work. Democratic superdelegates probably won’t be particularly impressed with these kinds of tactics. Voters who gravitated to the senator’s positive style may soon start wondering what happened to the old Bernie.
And since Sanders has already given his word that he’ll support the eventual Democratic nominee, there’s no reason to box himself in this way.
Given how easy it’ll be for Republicans to turn Sanders’ speech last night into attack ads in the fall, something Paul Krugman wrote last week comes to mind: “[T]he Sanders campaign needs to stop feeding the right-wing disinformation machine. Engaging in innuendo suggesting, without evidence, that Clinton is corrupt is, at this point, basically campaigning on behalf of the RNC. If Sanders really believes, as he says, that it’s all-important to keep the White House out of Republican hands, he should stop all that – and tell his staff to stop it too…. Sanders doesn’t need to drop out, but he needs to start acting responsibly.”
After Sanders questioned Clinton’s qualifications for the office they’re seeking, it’s easy to imagine quite a few similar pieces popping up in the coming days.
I suppose at its most basic level, the question for the senator is, what kind of political role does he want to play once the nominating race is over? Sanders has exceeded everyone’s expectations, including his own, building an incredible base of progressive support. By some measures, it’s not at all unreasonable to think the Vermonter can lead a meaningful movement in the years ahead.
Taking an honest look at the delegate math, Sanders path to the White House probably won’t work out the way he and his supporters hope, but that doesn’t mean his “revolution” has to end. This campaign, even if it comes up short, as now appears likely, can be the start of something special.
But the decisions the senator makes now will influence the direction and efficacy of this movement in the future. All things considered, last night’s rhetoric was probably a step in the wrong direction.