Liberal pundits, mainstream reporters and Democratic senators and activists are aghast that the Democratic presidential primary has become “nasty.” Hillary Clinton is accused of calling Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt. — gasp! — “unqualified,” which she did not (but if she had, she would have been on solid ground, if you go by his atrocious interview with the New York Daily News).
He retorts that she is “unqualified” because of her Wall Street donors and Iraq War vote. (Strictly speaking, neither makes her “unqualified” — “unfit” or “vulnerable” or “wrong,” in the eyes of Democrats, perhaps.) The Clinton camp responds that this is a new “low” and that Sanders should take a “time out.” Get the smelling salts. The micro-aggressions are piling up.
Republicans are wondering when the nasty part comes in. Really, “unqualified” is now beyond the pale? Donald Trump calls Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, a “liar” practically every hour. Sometimes he throws in “crazy” and “very dishonest.” Cruz called Trump a “sniveling coward” for retweeting an unflattering picture of Cruz’ wife.
Trump’s campaign fired off a statement after losing in Wisconsin, accusing Cruz’ super PAC of committing a crime, namely coordinating with the campaign in violation of federal law.
Listen, the Republican primary zoomed past “nasty” months ago. The outrage over much tamer language in the Democratic race stems, one can infer, from the frustration in the Clinton camp and among her media allies that Sanders has no place even being in the race, should have lost like a good fellow and is making Clinton look like a weak candidate. Sanders, you see, was supposed to be a “sparring” partner who would make Clinton a better candidate. He wasn’t supposed to win!
It may also derive from the mistaken assumption that since Clinton has a nearly insurmountable delegate lead, Sanders cannot do real damage. Ah, but he is, simply by winning.
No Democrat should want to look whiny and weak complaining about comparatively tame campaign rhetoric, not with Trump and Cruz in the wings licking their chops. A socialist berating Clinton as a sellout to the left is the last thing she need worry about in a general election. As much as she would like to pivot for the general election, she has to knock out Sanders first.
In doing so, by the way, she will improve her image as a fighter for the general election. Rather than chide Sanders for having the temerity to call her “not qualified,” Clinton would do well to go after him for appalling ignorance and for cynically telling voters they can have it all without paying for anything. She should go ahead and call him unsuited to the times in which we live, where real threats to America and real domestic problems tear at the fabric of the country. She might as well say he’s going to be a pushover for the Republicans.
The Clinton camp seems to think that by training their guns on him Clinton will somehow elevate Sanders, give him more attention or credit than he is due. That’s denial talking. He is now tied with her in at least one national poll. He has won seven of the last eight states. In fact, conflict avoidance has gotten her nowhere in the race and has let her opponent gain new credibility.
Clinton has a challenge similar to opponents of Trump. Sanders and Trump have no inclination to stick to reality, no regard for facts and hence feel no obligation to propose anything approaching a realistic solution.
Clinton must watch in amazement as Sanders “gets away” with this, coming through interviews (except the New York Daily News) virtually unscathed. Sanders and Trump do, as their opponents complain, enjoy a double standard, the soft bigotry of low expectations.
Clinton should learn the lesson that Cruz did after months of trying not to tangle with his opponent. You have to embrace the fight that you are in and go on offense, attacking gross errors and misstatements, demanding that your opponent provide more than anger.
In the last debate before the Florida primary Cruz declared, “Listen, we’ve got lots of challenges in the world. But the answer can’t just be wave a magic wand and say problem go away. You have to understand the problems. You have to have real solutions.” Later, on China and Islamic terrorism, he argued, “You’ve got to understand the nature of the threats we’re facing and how you deal with them.” Those were good lines, well targeted and entirely within the bounds of civil discourse.
Clinton should steal a few.
Come to think of it, they work just as well against Sanders as they do against Trump.
Jennifer Rubin is a columnist for The Washington Post.