Welcome to 2020 Vision, the Yahoo News column covering the presidential race with one key takeaway every weekday and a wrap-up each weekend. Reminder: There are 13 days until the Iowa caucuses and 287 days until the 2020 election.
Nothing the Clintons do is accidental. And so when the news broke less than two weeks before the Iowa caucuses that in a forthcoming Hulu documentary, Hillary Clinton badmouths her 2016 rival Bernie Sanders as a “career politician” whom “nobody likes,” it didn’t just call attention to the ill feeling still lingering from that year’s bitter primary campaign.
It also signaled that Clinton has thrown her weight behind the nascent “Stop Sanders” movement gaining steam among Democratic power brokers.
The question now is whether Democratic voters will follow her lead — and whether Barack Obama himself might come out of semiretirement to join the cause.
Asked by the Hollywood Reporter whether she would endorse and campaign for Sanders if he were to win the nomination, Clinton refused to commit. “I’m not going to go there yet,” she said.
Clinton immediately added, however, that her beef is “not only” with Sanders but with “the culture around him” — a culture she considers sexist.
“It’s his leadership team,” Clinton said. “It’s his prominent supporters. It’s his online Bernie Bros and their relentless attacks on lots of his competitors, particularly the women. And I really hope people are paying attention to that because it should be worrisome that he has permitted this culture — not only permitted, [he] seems to really be very much supporting it. And I don’t think we want to go down that road again where you campaign by insult and attack and maybe you try to get some distance from it, but you either don’t know what your campaign and supporters are doing or you’re just giving them a wink and you want them to go after Kamala [Harris] or after Elizabeth [Warren].”
Then Clinton twisted the knife: “I think that that’s a pattern that people should take into account when they make their decisions.”
Clinton’s timing is conspicuous. Since the start of the 2016 primary, pundits and mainstream Democrats have refused to consider Sanders a serious threat for the nomination. That’s changed in recent weeks as Sanders has surged to the top of the polls in Iowa and New Hampshire, cementing his status as the nearest competitor to frontrunner Joe Biden while also out-fundraising the entire field. Meanwhile, the headlines about Clinton’s remarks come on the heels of Sanders’s clash with Warren over the same subject: his (and his campaign’s) alleged sexism.
In other words, this isn’t coming out of nowhere: Clinton is piggybacking on a fresh controversy at a pivotal moment.
“This argument about whether or not or when [Sanders] did or didn’t say that a woman couldn’t be elected, it’s part of a pattern,” Clinton opined. “If it were a one-off, you might say, ‘OK, fine.’ But he said I was unqualified. … I just think people need to pay attention because we want, hopefully, to elect a president who’s going to try to bring us together, and not either turn a blind eye, or actually reward the kind of insulting, attacking, demeaning, degrading behavior that we’ve seen from this current administration.”
Clinton’s decision to go nuclear on Sanders by comparing him to Donald Trump is undoubtedly personal. Clinton and her allies have never gotten over the fact that in 2016 Sanders continued campaigning well past the point when he was mathematically eliminated from contention and did not formally endorse her until 10 days before that year’s Democratic National Convention. They also remain disturbed by allegations of sexism on Sanders’s 2016 campaign and blame the “Bernie Bro” phenomenon, in part, for Clinton’s loss that November — the theory being that some significant number of misogynist “Never Hillary” Sanders supporters stayed home, voted for minor-party candidates or even cast ballots for Trump.
The response from Sanders supporters feels personal as well. They are already arguing that their candidate campaigned vigorously for Clinton after the convention; that his base is far more diverse than suggested by the Bernie Bro caricature; and that the “Never Hillary” numbers just don’t add up. Precisely zero hardcore Sanders fans — and Sanders has more hardcore fans than any other 2020 Democrat — will be swayed by Clinton’s naysaying. In fact, they’ll almost certainly double-down on antiestablishment, pro-Sanders sentiment instead.
Sanders himself has been dismissive of Clinton’s comments. “My focus today is on a monumental moment in American history: the impeachment trial of Donald Trump,” he said in a statement. “Together, we are going to go forward and defeat the most dangerous president in American history.” When NBC News asked Sanders why he thought his former primary opponent was still harping on 2016, he scoffed. “That’s a good question,” he said. “You should ask her.”
Clinton’s purpose seems to dovetail with that of Warren, who chose to “attack” the issue “head on” at last week’s debate in Des Moines: Galvanize Democrats along gender lines right before the caucuses and perhaps stir up enough anti-Sanders solidarity to block him from winning. We’ll know in 13 days whether the strategy worked.
But if not — if Sanders wins Iowa and barrels toward the friendly states of New Hampshire and Nevada with a realer-than-ever shot at the nomination — then the true anti-Bernie backlash will likely begin. And it will dwarf whatever Clinton is doing now.
In Tuesday’s New York Times, liberal columnist Paul Krugman accused the Sanders campaign of having “flat-out lied about things Biden said in 2018 about Social Security,” calling the “smear” of Biden “almost Trumpian.”
“The last thing we need is another president who demonizes and lies about anyone who disagrees with him, and can’t admit ever being wrong,” Krugman scolded — an unusual move by a writer who generally aligns with progressives like Sanders, a self-described “democratic socialist.”
Earlier in January, Third Way, the centrist Democratic think tank, sent Washington insiders a two-page memo titled “Bernie Sanders and ‘Electability’” that highlighted national polling on the unpopularity of socialism and noted that surveys showing Sanders running ahead of Trump may not hold up in a general election.
“A January 1984 Gallup poll had Walter Mondale tied with Ronald Reagan,” the memo began. “Eleven months later, Reagan crushed Mondale 59-41%, winning by the biggest Electoral College margin ever.”
Shortly after, Obama’s 2012 campaign manager Jim Messina told Politico that “if I were a campaign manager for Donald Trump and I look at the field, I would very much want to run against Bernie Sanders.”
“I think the contrast is the best,” Messina added. “He can say, ‘I’m a business guy, the economy’s good and this guy’s a socialist.’”
And then there’s Obama himself to consider. In November, the former president cautioned against putting too much stock into “certain left-leaning Twitter feeds or the activist wing of our party.”
“Even as we push the envelope and we are bold in our vision we also have to be rooted in reality,” he said. “The average American doesn’t think we have to completely tear down the system and remake it.”
Around the same time, Politico’s Ryan Lizza reported that while Obama “sees his role as providing guardrails to keep the process from getting too ugly and to unite the party when the nominee is clear,” there is “one potential exception”: Bernie Sanders.
“Back when Sanders seemed like more of a threat than he does now, Obama said privately that if Bernie were running away with the nomination, Obama would speak up to stop him,” Lizza wrote.
“Yeah, if Bernie were running away with it, I think maybe we would all have to say something,” one Obama adviser added. “But I don’t think that's likely. It’s not happening.”
Maybe it wasn’t happening in November. Now, however, it might be — and Sanders’s chances will only improve if he wins Iowa. At that point, we may look back on this week’s skirmish with Hillary as the first shots in a much larger war.
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