WASHINGTON – The Democratic nominee for president will be running against a political novice who is widely despised, or a senator so unpopular that only two of his colleagues support him, or a governor far too moderate for his party’s hard-line base, or someone else chosen at a bitterly contested convention. For Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders, what could possibly go wrong?
Plenty. Begin with the fact that the Clinton-Sanders race has devolved into gratuitous and self-destructive nastiness.
The rhetorical hissing and spitting escalated Wednesday when Sanders charged that Clinton – a former senator, secretary of state and first lady – is not “qualified” to be president. It was a ridiculous thing to say. One thing it’s impossible to claim about Clinton is that she lacks an adequate resume.
When challenged on the statement, Sanders resorted to the she-hit-me-first defense: “She has been saying lately that she thinks that I am, quote-unquote, not qualified to be president.” The problem is that Clinton never said such a thing. In fact, when pressed repeatedly by “Morning Joe” host Joe Scarborough on the question, Clinton touted herself as the better choice but refused to say that Sanders is unqualified. (I should note that I often appear on Scarborough’s show.)
Clinton did, in that interview, echo her standard critique of Sanders, which is that his proposals are pie in the sky. She drew attention to his recent meeting with the editorial board of the New York Daily News in which he was asked for details of his plan to break up the big banks. His less-than-complete answers, Clinton said, show that “what he has been saying about the core issue in his whole campaign doesn’t seem to be rooted in an understanding of either the law or the practical ways you get something done.”
Ouch. Sanders wasn’t that bad at the Daily News. And frankly, his questioners seemed more confused about some aspects of financial regulation than Sanders did.
On Thursday, Sanders was still hopping mad. At an appearance in Philadelphia, he told reporters that “if Secretary Clinton thinks that I just come from the small state of Vermont, that we’re not used to this, well, we’ll get used to it fast. I’m not going to get beaten up. I’m not going to get lied about. We will fight back.”
Clinton clearly wanted to be seen as taking the high road. “I don’t know why he’s saying that, but I will take Bernie Sanders over Ted Cruz or Donald Trump any time,” she said.
Does that ring a bell? Does anyone else recall those early debates in which both candidates pledged to forswear personal attacks and stick to the issues? We’re now at the point that it takes days of bitter squabbling before the campaigns can even agree on a time and place for their next debate. It will be in Brooklyn – Sanders’ birthplace and the site of Clinton’s campaign headquarters – on April 14. One assumes the gloves will be off.
It is no mystery why this once-polite contest has become so testy: What may be the day of reckoning is nigh.
Clinton’s lead in delegates is now big enough that Sanders practically has to run the table in the remaining states. He needs decisive wins, starting with the April 19 primary in New York. Conversely, Clinton can effectively put the nomination out of Sanders’ reach with a big victory in the state that elected her to the U.S. Senate.
The Clinton campaign’s view is that Sanders is already so far behind that he’ll never catch up; they should know, because that’s the position Clinton was in versus Barack Obama in 2008. It is time, the Clintonistas believe, for Sanders to think about dropping out in the interest of party unity.
I have argued that Sanders has every right to stay in and that his many supporters in states yet to vote should have the chance to express their preference. But if it’s not time for Sanders to pull out, it’s also not time for him to scorch the earth in a way that damages Clinton’s prospects in November should she win the nomination.
Democrats begin general election campaigns with a big structural Electoral College advantage. But they forfeit this edge if progressive voters elect to stay home. The party cannot afford to have Sanders supporters – if their candidate loses – licking their wounds and nursing their grievances.
It ought to be hard for the eventual Democratic nominee to lose. More Clinton-Sanders nastiness just might do the trick.
Eugene Robinson’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.