The fight Bernie Sanders is now trying to start with Hillary Clinton has an “I’m rubber and you’re glue” quality to it. You remember: Whatever you say bounces off me and sticks to you? It’s a debating tool that you likely last deployed in elementary school, unless you’re a politician. Sanders used it just this week when he told Clinton, “If you want to question my qualifications, then maybe the American people might wonder about your qualifications, Madame Secretary.”
What was he responding to? A bad headline from The Washington Post, which read, “Clinton questions whether Sanders is qualified to be president” -- and which Sanders brought up on Thursday morning, doubling down on his remarks from the night before.
Problem is, despite the Sanders claim, Clinton had never said that. Talking on MSNBC about Sanders’s widely panned April 1 interview with the New York Daily News editorial board, Clinton painted him more as unprepared for the questions than unqualified for office. Later, Clinton called for unity, saying that it was "kind of silly" for Sanders to question her qualifications. The actual critique she’s leveling is different: questioning whether Sanders, a lifelong independent who caucuses on Capitol Hill with Democrats, has any allegiance to the party. And she isn’t being subtle about this at all.
“I'm also a Democrat and have been a proud Democrat all my adult life,” Clinton said at a town hall last weekend in Wisconsin. “I think that’s kind of important if we’re selecting somebody to be the Democratic nominee of the Democratic Party.” And in a new podcast interview with Politico’s Glenn Thrush, Clinton said that Sanders is “a relatively new Democrat, and, in fact, I'm not even sure he is one,” adding that her opponent has issued strong criticism of both her husband and President Obama.
Attacking Sanders for not being a Democrat may have something to do with his success in states with open primaries, where you don’t have to be a registered Democrat to vote; only five of the remaining states are open or partially so. Clinton’s pledged delegate lead is still substantial, and since those are allocated in each state by the percentage of the vote, Sanders will have to crush her in virtually every state going forward to overtake her for the nomination. So, surely Clinton is hoping to score points with loyal Democratic voters in the forthcoming closed primaries.
But to tell you the truth, I don’t care whether Sanders is an actual Democrat. In fact, him not being one is part of why he’s so appealing. I welcome the insurrectionist attitude he’s imbued into a younger electorate, encouraging them to question authority at every turn and not to settle. I also love that he’s made a sport of calling out particularly bad actors within the party, such as Democratic National Committee chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz, whom his campaign accused of helping to skew things Clinton’s way with the debate schedule. Wasserman Schultz should step down -- more than anything, for her efforts to weaken the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s effort to target payday lending. A lot of Democrats suck, and it’s good to see a guy running for the Democratic nomination pointing out the party’s faults, even if he admitted he did so for the "media coverage."
What I care about isn’t whether Sanders is a Democrat, but whether he has tangible, pragmatic strategies to deliver on priorities for constituencies tied to that party. To do that, he needs help. Not just from his legions of supporters but from other elected officials who arrive with their own priorities. And he isn’t doing nearly enough to secure their victories.
Sanders has not supplemented his criticism of the Democratic Party with significant efforts to improve it (beyond his own election, of course). He isn’t raising money for state committees supporting Democrats running down the ballot for everything from Congress to state offices. As The Washington Post’s Dana Milbank noted recently, the Democratic Party fears a Sanders nomination not simply because Clinton would be defeated, but because his lack of effort to help the party whose nomination he wants would leave them in a tougher spot.
Sanders raised no money whatsoever for the DNC in March, or in the last quarter. He even attacked Clinton for an astoundingly expensive fundraiser next week with George and Amal Clooney that will actually fund the DNC and the 32 state Democratic accounts, not her campaign. Those accounts need the money to help run the very candidates whom he would need to count on to help usher in his “political revolution” should he be elected. A President Sanders would need more than the capable candidates whom he’s inspiring, and whose support he has earned.
Sanders, who rightfully crows about his campaign’s fundraising prowess and the number of small donations he receives, doesn’t have similar energy when asked about raising money for Democrats. Asked by Maddow last week whether he’d step up his efforts to help the party in this regard, he merely said, "Well, we’ll see." Some of his voters may share his apathy: About 15 percent of Sanders voters ignored a key Wisconsin Supreme Court race that Democrats lost last Tuesday.
That short quote gets to the heart of what Clinton’s attack may be truly about. Although Democratic fundraising down-ballot is extremely important for achieving legislative goals (or blocking Republican ones) in the next presidency, the average Democratic voter might not give a crap who’s raising money for whom and who isn’t. But while Clinton didn’t call him unqualified for the presidency, she can use this Democrat-in-Name-Only strategy to make him appear impractical and selfish. If Sanders is disloyal to Democrats, OK. But that is less important than whether or not he’s selling a snake oil strategy to the party’s voters. Such criticism hasn’t really stuck to Sanders before. But now, oddly, he is playing right into it.
During their New Hampshire debate in early February, Sanders outlined his strategy for dealing with Republican obstructionism that has plagued the Obama presidency: He’d tell Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to look out of a window, where he’d see, Sanders said, “a whole lot of people saying: 'Mitch, stop representing the billionaire class; start listening to working families.'” If McConnell acquiesced in such a scenario, Hollywood would deem it too unrealistic to film. Sanders also told Maddow last week about his curious theory for the continued success of the Republican Party: Journalists don't dig into their shenanigans enough. “Maybe they get 5, 10 percent of the vote,” he said, if the American media did its job right.
In the Daily News interview, Sanders stayed on that same track of wishful thinking. Asked about his “political revolution” getting past a Congress that is currently controlled by Republicans, Sanders offered that “every item that I am talking about on my agenda is, I believe, supported by the majority of the people in this country” and that legislators who weren’t moved by a citizen push for his agenda “would pay a heavy political price.” He did not detail how that price would be paid.
Sanders suffers from a classic delusion. He not only doesn’t accept that compromise has proved necessary in governance and lawmaking, but also thinks that those who disagree with him are uninformed people who would change their thinking with an influx of information. His theory falls in line with his November statement, also to Maddow, that “if I was president of CNN, trust me, the way media deals with politics would radically change.” This thinking also absolves him of most responsibility for enacting the agenda he is so urgently selling. The onus lies mostly, if not all, on his followers to apply the necessary pressure to get things done. While his “look out the window” idea may seem to fit well into an idea of “a government of, by, and for the people,” it shows that Sanders isn’t doing much thinking about the systemic barriers to delivering that “heavy political price” to his detractors. Race-based gerrymandering, for example, helps many members of Congress keep their seats. Does he have a strategy for overcoming that?
The real questions about a Sanders presidency, for me, revolve around effectiveness, not party identification. But Clinton is attacking him for his independence at a moment when pragmatic goals for voters are becoming increasingly clearer, particularly for African-Americans and other loyal Democratic constituencies. That relationship between party and voter has been uncomfortable at times, but thanks to the Republican Party, it remains necessary. The GOP nominee, whoever he will be, would be a horrid choice for president. Clinton holds a substantial delegate lead, and Sanders, as he should, fights on. But it is important, as the general election draws closer, to assess who is most prepared for the fight ahead. Sanders is hurting his own case, thanks less to Clinton’s attacks than to words out of his own mouth.