Hillary Clinton needs someone to tell her what a bad idea looks like.
One of the former Democratic presidential candidate’s most renowned weaknesses has always been her tendency to reward loyalty over competence, with the effect of saddling her with ineffectual staffers like the disastrous Mark Penn or the data-worshipping Robby Mook. And as Shattered, the behind-the-scenes tell-all about Clinton’s 2016 campaign, argued, her campaign staff was too afraid of missing out on cushy White House jobs to criticize her.
All of which brings us to the present moment, where Clinton has made the baffling decision to not just attack Bernie Sanders in her new book, but to double down on her attacks in subsequent interviews.
Were there someone in Clinton’s orbit who could safely tell her she was acting on a bad idea, they might have informed her that: attacking the most well-liked politician in the country at the same time that her public approval rating is at a historic low is unwise; that the attacks and her book would appear to the public as nothing more than sour grapes and excuses for what is widely viewed as a flawed campaign; and that video clips of her recounting how her loss affected her personally, and the “frenzy of closet-cleaning,” “yoga,” and “alternate nostril breathing” she embarked on to deal with her disappointment, might appear out of touch given that she is far from the chief victim of her election loss. (They might also have warned her against making the tickets for her book tour so exorbitantly priced.)
But instead, Clinton has recycled her dismissal of Sanders’s supposedly crazy and unrealistic promises (at the same time, ironically, that one of those crazy promises is ever closer to becoming reality) to explain her loss, as well as accusing him of creating “lasting damage” with his primary-era attacks, making it “harder to unify progressives in the general election” and laying the foundations for Donald Trump’s “Crooked Hillary” charge.
In a recent interview with CBS, she went further.
“Why did you go there, reopening a barely healed wound in your own party, frankly, one that’s stepped on your own headlines?” asked the network’s Jane Pauley.
“When I lost to Barack Obama, I immediately turned around, I endorsed him, I worked for him, I convinced my supporters to vote for him,” answered Clinton. “I didn’t get the same respect from my primary opponent.”
Let’s be generous to Clinton and assume she is simply working from an extremely selective memory of the 2008 campaign. Clinton’s conduct in that campaign was inarguably far worse than anything Sanders did in 2016.
The ’08 primary was uniquely nasty and vitriolic on both sides, with both campaigns repeatedly trading fairly substance-less, personal insults, whether in debates or on the campaign trail, as when Obama mocked Clinton as “Annie Oakley,” and her spokesperson fired back that Obama had “spent six days posing for clichéd camera shots that included bowling gutter balls, walking around a sports bar, feeding a baby cow, and buying a ham at the Philly market (albeit one that cost $99.99 a pound).”
Still, Clinton’s attacks were on another level. Clinton complained to NPR this morning that the “consistent pounding” she took from Sanders and his supporters “really was hard to break out from.” But Sanders’s criticisms of her association with Henry Kissinger and Goldman Sachs pale in comparison to the kind of gutter politics she engaged in against Obama.
For one, while the Clinton camp denied the charge, the Drudge Report claimed that the infamous photo of Obama in traditional Somali garb had been passed on by a Clinton staffer. Even more suspiciously, the head of Clinton’s campaign responded to the charge with a non-denial, saying: “If Barack Obama’s campaign wants to suggest that a photo of him wearing traditional Somali clothing is divisive, they should be ashamed.”
Whether or not Clinton’s camp was indeed the source, the allegation did fit a pattern of race-baiting during the campaign: Clinton’s claim that Obama’s support among “working, hard-working Americans, white Americans” was weakening and “how whites in both states who had not completed college” were supporting her; her criticism of Obama over Reverend Jeremiah Wright; her insistence that Obama both “denounce” and “reject” Louis Farrakhan’s endorsement; and her doe-eyed claim that there was nothing to suggest Obama was a Muslim, “as far as I know.”
It’s worth noting that some of these attacks, such as the Jeremiah Wright one, were being made in March, as the campaign began to wrap up and as Obama’s nomination looked increasingly likely and Clinton’s looked increasingly remote. In other words, Clinton was guilty of the exact thing she’s now blaming Sanders for, only with an added, racist twist.
Clinton is also annoyed now that Sanders supposedly created Trump’s attacks against her. But this is not only an accusation one can level against any primary opponent, but it’s also one that particularly applies to her ’08 campaign. Clinton spent that campaign attacking Obama as inexperienced and incapable of protecting Americans’ security, a line John McCain and other Republicans would later take. In March, she actually suggested to reporters that McCain — by then the GOP nominee — was better qualified to be president than Obama, explaining that he would bring “his lifetime of experience” to the post while Obama would “put forth a speech he made in 2002.”
Say what you will about Sanders’s criticisms of Clinton, but even at the campaign’s most acrimonious, I don’t recall him ever suggesting Trump would be a better president than her.
This wasn’t all. Everyone remembers the way McCain made hay of Obama’s minor connection to former Weather Underground member Bill Ayers. Fewer people remember that in February 2008, long before McCain tried it out, the Clinton campaign pushed the story to the media, with Clinton’s spokesman writing to reporters: “Wonder what the Republicans will do with this issue.”
Just as important: none of it mattered. The stinging criticisms and scurrilous character attacks Clinton threw at Obama didn’t stop him from handily beating McCain months later, much as the vicious attacks on Trump by the other Republican candidates didn’t stop him from ascending to the presidency in November last year. Perhaps rather than Sanders’s critiques about her connections to big banks and other moneyed interests — a widely made critique he never came up with in the first place, especially with articles pointing out the unsavory funding of the Clinton Foundation appearing as early as February 2015 — it could be that Clinton’s hapless campaign was to blame.
Clinton also now paints herself as an eager soldier who “immediately” backed Obama once she lost, and is annoyed that Sanders stayed in the race as long as he did.
“I won, really, by March and April,” she told NPR. “But he just kept going, and he and his followers’ attacks on me kept getting more and more personal, despite him asking me not to attack him personally.”
Yet this is exactly what Clinton did in 2008. Even with two big wins in March, Clinton faced the kind of insurmountable lead that she held against Sanders in 2016. By the end of March, Obama supporters like Vermont senator Patrick Leahy were calling on her to bow out, with Leahy charging that her attacks were hurting Obama “more than anything that John McCain has said.” Clinton refused and stayed on to the bitter end, telling people to “relax and let this happen” and denying it was “wrecking the party.” She repeatedly cited the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy as a reason for why she shouldn’t bow out, apparently implying that there was still time for Obama to be murdered before the primaries were over. In a moment of desperation, she also suggested that pledged delegates weren’t pledged at all, and could simply vote “however they choose,” regardless of the will of the public.
Finally, Clinton is somewhat right that she had “convinced [her] supporters to vote for” Obama, but the idea that Sanders hadn’t done the same for her is patently untrue. Exit polling had 15 percent of Clinton-supporting Democrats voting for McCain in 2008. A recent study showed 12 percent of Sanders voters ended up going for Trump. If anything, Sanders convinced a little more of his supporters than Clinton did.
And it’s not surprising he did. Sanders ultimately swallowed his pride, endorsed Clinton, campaigned with her, and sternly warned his backers at the Democratic National Convention of the disaster that would unfold if they refused to vote for her.
All of which makes Clinton’s continued lambasting of Sanders now as hypocritical as it is characteristically self-defeating. Though Sanders’s place in the Democratic Party may still be ambiguous, he is wildly popular among Democratic voters. Moreover, he’s the closest thing the party now has to a nationally recognized leader, as evident in the fact that centrist Democratic lawmakers once fiercely allied to Clinton are increasingly shifting toward his policy positions.
By contrast, prominent Democrats have already understandably expressed their unhappiness with Clinton’s decision to very publicly relitigate the primary fight. One donor wishes she would “just zip it.” But it’s too late now. Clinton is too preoccupied to hear, fighting a war long over, clinging desperately to a party and public that has long since left her behind.