As New York Media Play Up Bernie-Hillary Fights, Dems Need To Toughen Up

Election '16

Have Democrats become too genteel?

The latest New York media-fueled fracas between Bernie and Hillary over their respective qualifications (or lack of them) has unnerved party insiders, who fear the latest campaign trail dustups will undermine their prospects in the fall.

That’s the reaction in the New York Times, in one slice of its coverage before its home state holds its delegate-rich primary on April 19. But amid all the noise and bombast of the 2016 campaign, Democrats are forgetting how much nastier the contest between Clinton and Barack Obama was in 2008.

Clinton’s team that year, lead by abrasive strategist Mark Penn and pugnacious spokesman Howard Wolfson, tried to disenfranchise Obama voters in early states, bragged about winning big contests that didn’t count (like Florida which moved its primaries up), evaded campaign finance laws to raise big money, and threatened to use superdelegates to get the nomination.

So far, Clinton’s team has barely revived that playbook. That doesn’t mean this past week’s events haven’t signaled a tougher turn in the Democratic contest between Sanders and Clinton. The New York City media is doing what it does best, making itself the center of hyperbolic attention, while pretending to be hard-nosed for the public’s sake.

Let’s review. Bernie, in a sit-down with the Daily News editorial board, got burned in later coverage when it seems a posse of political reporters didn’t like his answers to how he would break up big banks, even though economists familiar with bank law said his approach was exactly right. That bad press created an opening that was quickly exploited by a Clinton spokeswoman, who attacked Sanders for cluelessness. At the same time, another Clinton ally, gun control groups, were hitting him. In a subsequent speech Thursday, Sanders replied that Clinton, and not he, was unqualified for high office because of her wealthy donors and hawkish foreign policy record. Clinton, in turn, personally replied, at a New York City subway station, where she scoffed at the spat and said Sanders was far better than Donald Trump or Ted Cruz.

This exchange has been hardening attitudes among Sanders and Clinton supporters, while making other Democrats nervous that the two camps will not come together as the party needs next fall. But if the Democrats believe this week was an ugly low point for their party’s nominating fight, they are forgetting what happened in 2008 between Clinton and Obama.   

This comes back to a central fact. There’s only going to be one Democratic nominee and the losing side is going to be pained. That means Democrats are going to have to toughen up on several fronts as their party’s two finalists (and their campaigns) are not wallflowers. Both candidates are determined to win, and both are marred by different flaws.

There’s nothing radical or surprising with Sanders saying Clinton’s war record is questionable. It’s not just the oft-touted Iraq war invasion vote. Before she was Secretary of State under Obama, she peddled the Bush administration’s pro-invasion propaganda. She threatened to “obliterate” Iran if it attacked Israel, and before that she pressured her then-president husband to bomb Yugoslavia. Meanwhile, a half-dozen of the neo-cons who had big national security roles in the Clinton and Obama administrations are on her campaign’s foreign policy team. Sanders’ critiques, which include her role in Libya under Obama, are legitimate. But maybe he did overreact to the attacks from Clinton surrogates, as it’s no secret he can be abrasive.                             

But Clinton is not yet running the scorched earth campaign she did in 2008, which hardly anyone seems to notice. Still, she is resurrecting a dubious tactic where her team hits opponents hard and she positions herself above the fray. That poses the question of who is the real Hillary: the campaign or the person? The answer is both, as a campaign reflects the candidate’s character and judgment. But compared to 2008, she’s showing much more restraint and control. She had much the same negatives in national polls then—with large percentages of Americans not trusting her and more of them backing her opponent in theoretical matchups with Republicans—as she has now with Sanders.

But 2016 is a very different year. The two Republican frontrunners are the most extreme presidential candidates in decades—maybe since Barry Goldwater in 1964. That dynamic has led some Republicans to tell pollsters they would vote for Clinton over Trump. Meanwhile, both Clinton and Sanders surely see the presidency as the fulfillment of lifelong dreams, just as their backers are drawn to them for many heartfelt reasons.

Since there’s no indication that they may yet join forces, the race is going to get rougher. Few states relish their tough-minded image like New York, whether it’s deserved or not. Democrats need to take the campaign’s twists in stride, as the race will only get more heated before New York and Pennsylvania vote on April 19. Those two states have the largest delegate troves until California votes in early June, so Sanders must continue winning or exceeding expectations to show his candidacy is viable, not symbolic.

If Democrats are worried the latest primary antics might discourage their base from voting next fall, they have a real problem. The Republican Party’s 2016 candidates have shown that no tactic is too dirty to embrace when it comes to winning. This week’s dustups between Sanders and Clinton pale in comparison.

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