There’s a lot of chatter today in Democratic circles about this New York Times story, which reports (based on interviews with more than 15 people on Sanders’s campaign or close to the Vermont Senator) that there’s a fair amount of second-guessing going on in Bernie-land right now. The conclusion: If Sanders had handled the campaign differently last year — by attacking Clinton harder and earlier on her Wall Street speaking fees and email arrangement — then she would not be far ahead of him in delegates right now.
I’m highly skeptical. If anything, this might have been counter-productive, undermining precisely the thing that has made the Sanders campaign into the movement that it has become. However, there is some fascinating reporting in here that suggests how this nominating contest might end up getting resolved.
Here are the guts of the story:
Despite the urging of some advisers, Mr. Sanders refused last fall and early winter to criticize Mrs. Clinton over her $675,000 in speaking fees from Goldman Sachs, an issue that he now targets almost daily. He also gave her a pass on her use of private email as secretary of state, even though some allies wanted him to exploit it. And he insisted on devoting time to his job as a senator from Vermont last year rather than matching Mrs. Clinton’s all-out effort to capture the nomination. Some advisers now say that if he had campaigned more in Iowa, he might have avoided his critical loss there.
All those decisions stemmed in part from Mr. Sanders’s outlook on the race. He was originally skeptical that he could beat Mrs. Clinton, and his mission in 2015 was to spread his political message about a rigged America rather than do whatever it took to win the nomination. By the time he caught fire with voters this winter and personally began to believe he could defeat Mrs. Clinton, she was already on her way to building an all but insurmountable delegate lead.
The idea that Sanders might have done better in the delegate count if he’d attacked her email arrangement misses a crucial point about Sanders’s decision not to do that. It wasn’t just about a desire by Sanders to preserve the moral high ground, though that was part of it. It was also key to what made his campaign what it was early on, when it gained momentum. When Sanders shouted at a debate last fall that “the American people are sick and tired of hearing about your damn emails,” the reason it elicited such rousing applause — and became such an important moment for Democrats — was not simply that he’d given a fellow Dem a pass. It was that he was declaring our political system — and our political media — to be hopelessly mired in trivia, rendering it borderline pathologically unable to grapple with the major challenges facing our country.
Given how crucial that broader story-line has been to Sanders’s candidacy — that our political system and media are dithering while the middle class, our democracy, and our planet are facing quasi-existential threats from creeping oligarchy and climate change — it might have been difficult for him to prosecute a case against Clinton’s email arrangement. For many Dems the media obsession with it had already become a symbol of the dysfunctional, frivolous Beltway political culture Sanders is running against.
The idea that Sanders didn’t attack Clinton hard enough over her Wall Street speeches also deserves some skepticism. The Sanders campaign aired an ad implicitly hitting Clinton over the speeches as early as the end of January, before the very first voting in the Iowa caucuses. What’s more, Sanders’s criticism of Clinton over Wall Street money has long been problematic for him, too, because it shed light back on to a tension within his own candidacy. Sanders has offered up a critique of our broader system as corrupt and in thrall to big money interests, which has had the salutary effect of forcing the topic squarely on to the Democratic agenda. But his campaign has sometimes seemed to equivocate on whether it wants to be seen implying that Clinton herself is bought and paid for, or at least that her policy positions are the direct result of donations to her campaign. One charitable interpretation is that Sanders has been uncomfortable with this latter implication, but that he and his campaign have at times succumbed to the temptation to indulge in it, because, after all, he’s trying to defeat her.
The Sanders campaign has apparently decided it must lean harder into this line of criticism right now, judging by the increased volume being brought to bear on criticism of her Wall Street speaking fees and the claim that she took “significant” money from the “fossil fuel industry” (an assertion Glenn Kessler dissected over the weekend). But would it have made a big difference if he had done this earlier? As Dem strategist Joe Trippi argued to Bloomberg Politics, one key structural problem Sanders has long faced is that Clinton has tended to fare better than he does with minorities and women, and in more diverse states. Hitting her harder on the money-policy nexus might have brought in more cash from Sanders’s national army of small donors, but it might have complicated his ability to cut into those constituencies.
The Times revelation that Sanders was “originally skeptical” that he could win — and had only hoped to “spread his political message about a rigged America” as far and wide as possible — suggests a way this could all be resolved, if Clinton does win the nomination. Thanks to Sanders’s efforts, Clinton has been more attentive to his issues than she otherwise might have been. He has succeeded in bringing sustained national attention to a critique of our political and economic systems that resonates for millions of Democrats nationwide. If Clinton and Sanders can reach an arrangement by which this critique has a meaningful impact on the Democratic convention and on her agenda in the general election — not to mention on a Clinton presidency — then he will perhaps have succeeded at his own early mission well beyond what he’d expected.