Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders are in a race with every tea party conservative to make “establishment” the most toxic word in politics.
As part of an intense exchange in Thursday night’s debate to prove who has been more “progressive” in their long political careers, Clinton and Sanders also got deadlocked in a battle to deny their connection to the Democratic “establishment.” It was a fight that seemed especially off-key on a Democratic stage featuring two candidates who have been part of the government establishment in Washington since the 1990s and affiliated with a party defined by significant support from unions and advocacy groups that create a longstanding political establishment.
Clinton, especially, smarted at the accusation of being a part of the establishment, delivered by Sanders after she touted her numerous endorsements from senators, representatives and governors. Sanders has been in Congress since 1991, and despite his Independent designation, has caucused with Democrats in the Senate and has been a reliable vote for leaders.
“Sen. Sanders is the only person who would characterize me, a woman running to be the first woman president, as exemplifying the establishment. And I’ve got to tell you, it is really quite amusing to me,” Clinton said. “People support me because they know me, they know my life’s work, they have worked with me and many have also worked with Sen. Sanders. And at the end of the day, they’ve endorsed me because they know I can get things done.”
Clinton’s effort to frame herself as anti-establishment just because she is a woman is complicated by the fact that she already has lived in the White House for eight years, served as a senator for the same length of time and was secretary of state during President Obama’s first term. It’s also at odds with her core argument that she is the best person to protect the Obama administration’s priorities, as the sitting president is often considered the most powerful person in his party’s establishment.
Moreover, the political differences between Democrats, no matter how stark Sanders in particular tries to paint them, are much less pronounced than on the Republican side, where an existential conflict exists between a small-government, pro-business wing and a far-right conservative faction that is largely antigovernment.
By reacting so aggressively to the “establishment” moniker, Clinton is in effect validating the idea that a history in Democratic politics is a negative against a candidate who wants to be the party’s leader and whose top claim to being qualified for that job is deep experience.
In one of the most charged moments of the night, Clinton called on Sanders and his campaign to end their “artful smear” of accusing her of being part of traditional Democratic machinery.
“Sen. Sanders has said he wants to run a positive campaign; I’ve tried to keep my disagreements over issues, as it should be. But time and time again, by innuendo, by insinuation, there is this attack that he is putting forth, which really comes down to: ‘Anybody who ever took donations or speaking fees from any interest group has to be bought.’ And I just absolutely reject that, senator. And I really don’t think these kinds of attacks by insinuation are worthy of you. Enough is enough. If you have something to say, say it directly,” Clinton said.
“I have stood up and I have represented my constituents to the best of my abilities, and I’m very proud of that,” Clinton continued. “It’s time to end the very artful smear that you and your campaign have been carrying out in recent weeks.”