And so the 2016 presidential contest is taking over New York, a city and a state where politics is played with brass knuckles and brickbats. The press is relentless. The pressure is intense. And on a scale of 1 to 10, the likelihood of a candidate slipping up or overreacting is about a 14.
Case in point: Sen. Bernie Sanders’s (I-Vt.) over-the-top, Donald Trumpian assertion that Hillary Clinton is not qualified to be president.
It all goes back to an interview Clinton did with MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” on Wednesday. Right out of the gate, co-anchor Joe Scarborough tried several times to get the former two-term senator from New York to say that Sanders was not qualified to be president. He failed.
SCARBOROUGH: Let me ask you a couple quick questions. We’re going to ask about Wisconsin in a second, but we’ve been talking about Bernie Sanders’s New York Daily News interview. I want to start with that and ask you, in light of the interview, in light of the questions he had problems with, do you believe this morning that Bernie Sanders is qualified and ready to be president of the United States?
CLINTON: Well, I think the interview raised a lot of really serious questions and I look at it this way, the core of his campaign has been break up the banks, and it didn’t seem in reading his answers that he understood exactly how that would work under Dodd-Frank, exactly who would be responsible, what the criteria were. And you know, that means you can’t really help people if you don’t know how to do what you are campaigning on saying you want to do.
SCARBOROUGH: So is he — so is he …
CLINTON: And then there were other very …
SCARBOROUGH: Is he — I know there are a lot of examples of where he came up short and the interviewers were having to repeat questions. So the question, and I’m serious, if you weren’t running today and you looked at Bernie Sanders, would you look and say this guy is ready to be president of the United States?
CLINTON: Well, I think he hadn’t done his homework and he’d been talking for more than a year about doing things that he obviously hadn’t really studied or understood, and that does raise a lot of questions. Really what it goes to is for voters to ask themselves can he deliver what he’s talking about, can he really help people …
SCARBOROUGH: What do you think?
CLINTON: Can he help our economy? Can he keep our country strong? Well obviously, I think I’m by far the better choice and …
SCARBOROUGH: But do you think he is qualified? And do you think he is able to deliver on the things he is promising to all these Democratic voters?
CLINTON: Well, let me put it this way, Joe. I think that what he has been saying about the core issue in his whole campaign doesn’t seem to be rooted in an understanding of either the law or the practical ways you get something done. And I will leave it to voters to decide who of us can do the job that the country needs, who can do all aspects of the job, both on the economic domestic issues and on national security and foreign policy.
Clinton’s response was pointed. She certainly questioned the depth of his knowledge of his own plans and Sanders’s ability to deliver on his promises and to handle the presidency. But at no point did she say directly that her chief rival for the Democratic presidential nomination is not qualified to sit in the Oval Office.
There are two reasons for that. First, Clinton wouldn’t allow herself to say anything she couldn’t walk back in the general election if she indeed snags the nomination. Second, she wouldn’t allow herself to say anything that would then make it absolutely impossible for Sanders’s supporters to vote for her in the general. Lest her words end up in a Republican attack ad in November no matter who won the nomination.
The same cannot be said for Sanders. In reaction to Clinton’s raising questions about his readiness, Sanders went there — all the way there — at a rally Wednesday in Philadelphia.
Secretary Clinton appears to be getting a little bit nervous. … We have won seven out of eight of the recent primaries and caucuses. And she has been saying lately that she thinks that I am, quote unquote, not qualified to be president. Well, let me, let me just say in response to Secretary Clinton: I don’t believe that she is qualified if she is through her super PAC taking tens of millions of dollars in special interest funds.
I don’t think you are qualified if you’ve supported the Panama free trade agreement, something I very strongly opposed and, which as all of you know, has allowed corporations and wealthy people all over the world people to avoid paying their taxes to their countries. …
He goes on to say, “I don’t think you are qualified if you have voted for the disastrous war in Iraq. I don’t think you are qualified if you have supported virtually every disastrous trade agreement which has cost us millions of decent paying jobs.”
Sanders can’t walk this back without looking like a pretzel-twisted hypocrite. And the indictment he leveled against Clinton at that Philadelphia rally and in subsequent remarks could render her unacceptable to Sanders voters if Clinton is the nominee. By his stinging critique, President Obama isn’t qualified to be president, what with his donations from Wall Street and support of trade deals. Not a good look coming after his disastrous meeting with the New York Daily News editorial board.
Sanders campaign manager Jeff Weaver told MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell that The Post headline that kicked off this Big Apple brawl was right. Never mind that The Post’s Fact Checker just gave the Sanders claim three Pinocchios. “I went to law school just like the secretary and you get a lot of training on how to say things without actually saying them,” Weaver said. “She was asked head-on if she thought he was qualified to be president and what did she say, ‘Well, that’s for the voters to decide.’ So, you know, they’re playing a sort of very cute game in terms of language….”
If that’s the case, then Sanders and his crew are playing a dangerous game in terms of the general election. Tensions between supporters of the two candidates have been high for quite some time. Even Susan Sarandon questioned whether Sanders supporters could bring themselves to vote for Clinton.
At every opportunity, Clinton has praised the senator, his passion and his supporters. “I don’t know why he’s saying that,” Clinton said outside Yankee Stadium before hopping the subway in the Bronx on Thursday, “but I will take Bernie Sanders over Donald Trump or Ted Cruz anytime.” She knows that she needs him and his supporters’ votes if she’s the nominee. Thanks to his Trump-like overreaction, Sanders now cannot say the same.
Follow Jonathan on Twitter: @Capehartj