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The Democratic Primary Reaches Its 'Mad Online' Phase

The current mini-controversy is about whether Bernie Sanders is running a campaign that is 'too negative.'

We’ve now reached the point in the presidential primary cycle where candidates, running low on substantive policy contrasts to draw with each other, start going after each other on the meta level -- debating stuff like which presidential hopeful is running the better campaign or which is taking the high road. Call it the “mad online” phase, and one sign that we’ve reached it is that the campaigns are now trying to tone police each other.

For instance, right now, the Clinton campaign is mad that Bernie Sanders called her “not qualified” to be president at a rally on Thursday. Sanders framed his remarks as a response to Clinton, saying “Secretary Clinton has been getting a little nervous. She has been saying lately that I’m not qualified to be president.” Sanders then turned his accusation back on her, saying that actually Hillary was the one who was not qualified, using air-quotes every time he said “qualified”:

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 that you are qualified if you get $15 million from Wall Street through your super PAC.

I don’t think you are qualified if you voted for the disastrous war in Iraq.

I don’t think you’re qualified if you supported almost every disastrous trade agreement.

I don’t think you are qualified if you supported the Panama free trade agreement, something I very strongly opposed, which has given the green light to wealthy people and corporations all over the world to avoid paying taxes owed to their countries.

These are all the same criticisms that Sanders has been making for most of the primary season, and they're an attempt to recast Hillary’s strengths -- her résumé and experience -- as an indictment of her judgment. The only real difference is that he’s doing it now in response to Clinton saying that he’s not qualified to be president.

Or rather, not saying that explicitly, but heavily implying it while declining to say anything to the contrary. On Wednesday, MSNBC host Joe Scarborough asked Clinton three times whether she believed Sanders was qualified to be president, and each time she dodged, saying that there were “really serious questions” as to his qualifications, that “he hadn’t done his homework,” and that his campaign didn’t seem “to be rooted in an understanding of either the law or the practical ways you get something done.”

Clinton is too smart and too tactical to say the magic word that unlocks the outrage of the press, but Sanders either received bad information from his staff or wasn’t smart enough to avoid the trap himself. You can imagine how few headlines there would be on Sanders’s comments if he had been equally lawyerly in phrasing his attacks on Clinton’s résumé, if he’d said “there are questions about Hillary’s judgment,” or “voters are going to have to take a look at the experience Hillary is claiming qualifies her.” But politics are a dance, and Sanders just messed up one of the moves.

Clinton is familiar with this particular rhetorical two-step, and so am I, because we did the same exact thing eight years ago. After she fell behind in the 2008 primaries, Clinton began trotting out the line that, between her and Obama, “one of us” was ready to be president, with the obvious unsaid trailing implication “... and one of us is not.” After losing the primary in Wisconsin that year, she made this the central theme of her speech to supporters, deploying the line repeatedly: “Both Senator Obama and I would make history. But only one of us is ready on day one to be commander-in-chief, ready to manage our economy, and ready to defeat the Republicans.”

Later, in March, Clinton again used this idea of Obama not meeting some minimum standard to be president, comparing him unfavorably to both herself and Republican nominee John McCain: “And I think it’s imperative that each of us be able to demonstrate we can cross the commander-in-chief threshold. I believe that I’ve done that. Certainly, Senator McCain has done that and you’ll have to ask Senator Obama with respect to his candidacy.” During the same remarks, she said this: [John McCain has] never been the president, but he will put forth his lifetime of experience. I will put forth my lifetime of experience. Senator Obama will put forth a speech he made in 2002.” Later that same month, her chief spokesperson went so far as to say that Obama wasn’t even qualified to be vice-president.

It’s embarrassing to have to say this, but there are two kinds of qualifications to be president: There is the formal set of qualifications in Article II of the Constitution, and there is the amorphous and subjective list of qualities that voters will examine and weigh when deciding whether to vote for a person: their judgment, their values, their experience, their résumé. As @_almaqah pointed out on Twitter, Bill Clinton said as much about Obama’s candidacy, declining to say that Obama was “qualified” to be president … after Obama had been nominated.

The point is, questioning your opponent’s qualifications is standard-issue politics ... as is theatrically pretending that your opponent’s criticisms are indecent and unprecedented.

The current mini-controversy is the latest exchange in a larger conversation about tone, specifically whether Bernie Sanders is running a campaign that is “too negative.” The thinking behind this is that Sanders and Clinton are on the “same side,” since both are running for the Democratic nomination for president. That they’re running as enemies, since we’re in the primaries right now, but they should keep in mind that after one of them wins, they will be allies in the general election against the Republicans. As such, they should take care to avoid criticisms that will make it difficult to present a united front later. For instance, this line of thinking goes, these two shouldn’t make damaging statements about each other that a GOP nominee could later pick up and turn into a campaign ad, or make their criticisms so vociferous that their supporters would be unenthusiastic about backing the eventual nominee should their preferred candidate lose.

In many conflicts, tone policing privileges the powered because it limits the kinds of critiques that are admissible, not just based on their substance, but on what is “appropriate” or “civil.” And the status quo is always going to have the advantage in these sorts of arguments. This is why in presidential primaries, you’ll usually see the “too negative” critique being leveled at the candidate who is behind, in favor of the candidate who is leading. We had the same conversation in 2008, and we’ll probably have it in the next closely contested Democratic primary. Sanders’s attack and Clinton’s counter are not new. They’re just politics.