WASHINGTON – Hillary Clinton has had some bad luck lately with revelations about her secret email server and foreign contributors to the Clinton Foundation. But in one crucial area, the front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination has been blessed with abundant good fortune: her opponents.
Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont on Thursday became the first candidate formally to challenge Clinton. But after a 10-minute appearance outside the Capitol detailing his intentions, Sanders revealed a rather glaring weakness in his pursuit of the Democratic nomination: He isn’t planning to register as a Democrat.
He neglected to mention this during his speech and news conference, in which he vowed to take on “the billionaire class.” But Lynn Sweet of the Chicago Sun-Times called after the wild-haired socialist as he walked back to the Capitol.
“Are you a Democrat?”
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“No,” Sanders replied, “I’m an independent.”
Does Sanders, a longtime independent who caucuses with Democrats, really expect to win the Democratic presidential nomination if he won’t commit to being a Democrat? Surely he doesn’t – even if he claims, as he did Thursday, that he’s “in this race to win.”
This is why the Sanders candidacy, like the still-undeclared candidacy of former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, is only a token challenge to Clinton.
Sanders didn’t mention Clinton at all in his remarks, and even when asked directly by NBC’s Luke Russert what differentiates him from Clinton, Sanders answered that “it’s too early” for such things.
His approach, at least so far, indicates Sanders is not willing to take on Clinton directly and forcefully. Sanders sees himself engaging in a high-minded effort: “serious debates over serious issues, not political gossip, not making campaigns into soap operas. This is not the Red Sox versus the Yankees.”
But while Sanders no doubt will enjoy the visibility that comes with a presidential campaign, he’s not going to get that serious debate unless he makes the kind of frontal challenge to Clinton that forces her to pay attention.
O’Malley has much the same problem. On CBS’ “Face the Nation” a couple of weeks ago, he was asked about Clinton’s disinclination to take questions. “I’ll let others … second-guess her strategies and tactics,” O’Malley answered. “I have a tremendous amount of respect for Secretary Clinton.”
But O’Malley is exactly the one who should be second-guessing Clinton. Instead, his staff has been sending reporters “off the record” emails so that anti-Clinton allegations won’t have O’Malley fingerprints. “Please note it took HRC a week to engage on Freddie Gray – which is a pattern here,” said one such email, forwarded to me from another news organization. “It took her 19 days of ignoring Ferguson to weigh in.”
If O’Malley wants to be taken seriously, he’ll need to challenge Clinton directly and repeatedly – but that would antagonize the Democratic establishment and jeopardize O’Malley’s future in the party.
The O’Malley and Sanders reticence is doing Clinton no favors. Were they to take her on, they could force her from her defensive crouch into a more populist posture. That would excite the Democratic base, and sparring with O’Malley or Sanders would get her in shape for the general election.
Sanders’ message Thursday was good – and one Clinton would be smart to co-opt. “This country today, in my view, has more serious crises than at any time since the Great Depression,” he said. Real wages have shrunk, while “99 percent of all new income generated in this country is going to the top 1 percent.”
But the messenger acted as if he were put out to be attending his own campaign kickoff. “We don’t have an endless amount of time. I’ve got to get back,” he said at the start. Not 10 minutes later, he announced: “I’ve got to get going.” He pulled out a speech but never opened it. Instead, with the under-renovation Capitol Dome as his backdrop and with dozens of journalists paying attention to him for once, he delivered off-the-cuff remarks lamenting, among other things, negative ads.
CNN’s Jeff Zeleny asked Sanders whether his distaste for negative campaigning would keep him from bringing up the Clinton Foundation contributions. “I think what is more fair game,” he said, “is the role of money in politics.” He went on to complain about the Koch brothers, big Republican donors.
When NBC’s Russert asked for specific differences between him and Clinton, Sanders, after saying it was too soon, offered a couple of his own policies – opposing the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal and the Keystone XL pipeline – on which Clinton has yet to take a stand.
“We’ll see where Secretary Clinton comes out,” he said.
But we may not – unless Sanders, O’Malley or somebody else smokes her out.
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter @Milbank.