29 March 2016
Dictating the tone of a political campaign
Senator Sanders trails Hillary Clinton in the delegate count but continues to win states, sweeping weekend contests in Alaska, Hawaii and Washington. Sanders has challenged Clinton to debate him in New York, a state where she should have a big lead as a twice-elected Senator but also borders on Vermont. The Clinton campaign grows tired of debates and uses the occasion of the challenge to chastise Sanders for running a negative campaign, advising him to change his "tone" if he wants to share the stage with Clinton again. That Clinton is thin-skinned is well-known, but she and her people seem to be confusing the stance of the Senator with the attitude of many of his supporters, be they supposedly chauvinist "Bernie Bros." or leftists who see Hillary as a stooge of Wall Street. The Clintonites' own tone is ironic given how clearly Sanders has been battling Clinton with one hand tied voluntarily behind his back. The contrast with the Republican campaign is telling. Democrats boast lately of the high tone of their debates, and there's obvious truth to the boast. But is it really a flattering comparison when Sanders won't go as all-out to stop Clinton as Senator Cruz and his allies are going to stop Donald Trump? After early, calculated reticence toward Trump the campaign has become personal for Cruz and passionate for many Republicans who have no problem saying that they consider Trump unfit to lead their party, much less the nation. If the Sanders campaign lacks that same sense of urgency, Democrats may say that's because Hillary Clinton is no Donald Trump, but that's not saying much. Being liberals, Democrats idealize a campaign and debate in which each candidate says of the other, "You have some good ideas, but mine are better." That's presumably what the Clintonites want to hear from Sanders, and they may even claim that you do hear that about Sanders from Clinton, though what I've heard from her during the debates is that everything Sanders proposes is impractical or impossible. To be fair, she hasn't said that Sanders is unfit to be President because he calls himself a socialist, or for any other reason, but Bernie Sanders is no Hillary Clinton. It should not be off-limits during a primary campaign for one candidate to say that another is unfit to be President. You're not supposed to do that, of course, because the party is expected to rally behind the nominee and it'll look bad if someone now endorsing the nominee said earlier that he or she is unfit for office. The Republicans are tearing that rule book apart this year, and that may hurt them this fall, but there is a compelling if ugly honesty to the GOP race that transcends the stupidity of the front-runners and is absent from the Democratic campaign, where the party line, apparently, is that everything you've heard about Hillary Clinton is a big Republican lie -- and misogynist to boot! -- and Sanders doesn't give a damn about any of it. The only thing that seems to bug him is the speaking fees and the corporate donations she receives -- and his saying so was enough to get him branded a negative campaigner -- but things that bug so many others, not all of whom are chauvinist conservatives, are nothing to him. It would be strange if Sanders is refraining from going negative out of loyalty to a party to which he doesn't even belong, but he may well believe that he shouldn't say anything to damage Clinton considering what the Republicans are likely to vomit forth. But if you worry about how your words will impact someone else in November, haven't you really given up on yourself already? Sanders may talk a good game by demanding debates and drawing big crowds to his speeches, but if he hasn't already resigned himself to Clinton's nomination, his unwillingness to run an all-or-nothing campaign practically concedes it to her. If Clinton has a problem with Sanders's tone despite all this, she must have an intolerance of criticism that could rival Trump's -- which ought to make their debates really interesting.