A few months ago, the contenders for the Democratic Party nomination were getting along swimmingly.
It was nice while it lasted.
I have always admired Hillary Clinton’s ambition. What’s distressing is how far she’s willing to go to fulfill it. As we learned in 2008, Clinton plays nice when an unlikely rival first appears out of nowhere, steadily gaining in popularity and momentum. But as soon as it’s clear that her challenger poses a real threat, she panics and whips off the gloves.
In 2008 she assured “60 Minutes” that then-Sen. Barack Obama was not a Muslim, “as far as I know.” Many interpreted the qualifying phrase as insinuating that Obama could be a Muslim. Others insisted that members of the media were reading too much into that final clause.
That remark was open to interpretation; other tactics were unambiguously dirty. It was reported in 2008 that Clinton staffers circulated a photo of Obama in African dress to fuel rumors that he was a Muslim. Her campaign’s New Hampshire co-chairman, Bill Shaheen, resigned in 2008 after raising questions about Obama’s teenage drug use, and two Iowa volunteer coordinators resigned after forwarding emails about Obama’s nonexistent Muslim identity. Mark Penn, Clinton’s chief campaign strategist early in her 2008 run, advised the campaign in a 2007 memo to emphasize Obama’s “lack of American roots.” Penn, too, ultimately resigned.
By contrast, the most notable resignation from the Obama campaign was that of Samantha Power, now the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, who resigned after calling Clinton a “monster” who would stoop to anything to get elected.
It is possible neither Clinton nor her senior advisers, aside from Penn, knew of or condoned these dirty tactics. But she certainly has a high tolerance for slimy operatives who specialize in sewing doubt and fear. During this year’s campaign, she has accused her top rival, Bernie Sanders, of wanting to “tear up” the Affordable Care Act and dispatched her daughter to frighten voters with the specter of a Sanders health care plan that would strip low-income people of Medicaid. Both claims are patently false. He favors a single-payer health care system that would extend coverage to all Americans, not take it away. Clinton knows this, and it is disingenuous to say otherwise.
Now her campaign is telling voters that Sanders would lose in the general election and damage the prospects of Democrats in congressional and gubernatorial races around the country because America hates socialists. There is nothing to support this claim. Nearly all polls to date indicate that Sanders would do better than Clinton in the general election if his opponent is Donald Trump, and recent polls indicate that he would outperform her against Sen. Ted Cruz as well. She is too young to have many memories of Sen. Joseph McCarthy, but she is surely conversant with his legacy. Evidently she hears no ugly echoes in comments like this gem from Clinton ally and Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon: “Here in the heartland, we like our politicians in the mainstream, and [Sanders] is not. He’s a socialist.”
Never mind that Sanders describes himself as a democratic socialist and his views place him squarely in the mainstream. If Clinton is as eager as she claims to attract millennials to her campaign, she might want to consider the fact that 18-to-29-year-olds have a more favorable view of socialism than of capitalism. She can trot out as many TV showrunners and 23-year-old Disney escapees as she can scare up, but it’s not going to help her much. Lena Dunham’s millennial-bait interview with Clinton revealed little about the candidate’s convictions, aside from an affirmation that Clinton is a feminist who believes student loans should have lower interest rates. (Sanders thinks college should be free.) Even young people care more about policy positions than pop stars.
The Clinton campaign hit a new low in 2016 when Clinton ally and confirmed liar David Brock told The Associated Press that Sanders’ latest ad makes it seem as if “black lives don’t matter much to Bernie Sanders.” It’s not surprising that Brock — who is best known for, back in his archconservative days, viciously smearing Anita Hill during the 1991 Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings — doesn’t know the difference between advocacy and pandering. But let’s pretend for a moment that counting the number of black faces in a political ad is a fair and reasonable way of assessing a candidate’s commitment to defending black lives.
Even by this dubious standard, Clinton fares no better than Sanders. By the more rational standard of taking candidates at their word, both Clinton and Sanders believe that black lives matter. But unlike Clinton — who came late to her critique of private prisons, has made no pledge to reform unjust marijuana laws and supports the death penalty — Sanders has consistently put forth policies that reflect that belief.
The Clinton campaign has launched exactly one legitimate attack on Sanders: that his legislative record on guns conflicts with the views of many Democratic primary voters (while arguably improving his chances in a general election). He voted against the Brady Bill, which mandates background checks for gun purchases from licensed dealers; for allowing passengers to carry guns on Amtrak; and for shielding gun manufacturers from civil lawsuits filed by the families of victims of gun violence.
Sanders may have gotten some things wrong, but as Clinton pointed out in the first Democratic debate, he did so consistently, voting against the Brady Bill five times. Where does Clinton stand on guns? Now she hates them, but in 2008 she moved to the right of Obama, reversing her earlier calls for a national gun registry, defending the rights of states to pass their own gun laws and, as Obama put it, “talking like she’s Annie Oakley.”
It is possible Clinton has a set of core principles from which she would never deviate, even in a tight race for a position she really wanted. But aside from a belief that women should not be limited by gender — a view Sanders shares — it’s not at all clear what those are. So far, the worst the Sanders campaign has said about Clinton is that she has accepted obscenely high speaking fees from Goldman Sachs (she has) and should be ashamed of her affiliation with Brock (she should be).
Plenty of politicians will do or say anything to get elected. What’s alarming about Clinton’s shady tactics is that she seems to believe her ends always justify her means. Back in ’08, angered by her transparent triangulation on guns, Obama chided Clinton in absentia, saying, “She knows better.”
That’s precisely what makes her campaign behavior — deliberately misrepresenting her opponents’ beliefs and biographies when she feels threatened, altering her own positions whenever it’s expedient and stoking voters’ fears when she can’t win on substance — so appalling.