The Wikileaks revelations about Democratic National Committee schemes to undermine Sen. Sanders' campaign against Hillary Clinton for the presidential nomination are balm for the wounded pride of Bernie Bros and other Sanders supporters who want to believe that the fix was in for Clinton. But does anyone doubt that the Republican National Committee tried similar tricks to stop Donald Trump, given how abhorrent he remains to many in the GOP establishment and the official conservative movement? Yet Trump was nominated, though his case differs from Sanders' in that he faced a far more divided field than Sanders ever did. That granted, and DNC favoritism toward Clinton granted, we should resist the temptation to exempt Sanders from any share of blame in his own defeat. No matter what the DNC was up to, Sanders lost in part because he ran the wrong race, and his speech at the Democratic convention Monday night indicates that he still doesn't realize his mistake.
"Let me be as clear as I can be," Sanders said, "This election is not about and has never
been about Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump or Bernie Sanders or any of
the other candidates who sought the presidency. This election is not
about political gossip..." Believing that has a lot to do with why he spoke on Monday rather than Thursday night. History may show soon that no Presidential election in American history has been more about personalities than the 2016 campaign. It will be decided entirely on ad hominem or ad feminam grounds, most Republicans (and many Democrats) believing that Clinton is irredeemably corrupt or incompetent while most Democrats (and many Republicans) believe that Trump is hopelessly incapable of constitutional statesmanship. Numerous Republicans tried to make the case against both Trump and Clinton on these grounds and failed, yet Sanders might have succeeded on those same grounds, had he not refused to run an ad feminam campaign against Clinton.
Remember that the anti-Trump Republicans were divided among themselves, while Sanders, once Gov. O'Malley dropped out of the race, was the only rallying point for anti-Clinton feeling among Democrats and independents voting in open-primary states. Of course, Clinton's fans felt that Sanders did run an ad feminam campaign merely by questioning their candidate's speaking fees and the donations she received from large corporations, if not simply by opposing her nomination in the first place. Yet Sanders effectively tied one hand behind his back when he asserted during an early debate that no one gave a damn about Clinton's emails, when it is self-evident that many Americans do give a damn, presumably including registered Democratic primary voters. Sanders was content to insinuate that Clinton was corrupt in a conventional and essentially impersonal way as a politician dependent on large donations, and did nothing to acknowledge the widespread (and still growing) feeling that she is corrupt in a more personal, venal and imperious fashion. Maybe this was because he was trying to be a good partisan, which meant avoiding as much as possible the argument that someone who might end up the party's nominee was unfit to be President. Maybe it was because, like so many Democrats and sympathizers, he believes that Hillary Clinton has been the victim of an protean yet baseless big lie for the last quarter-century, and that the Republican party has pulled off the biggest con and smear job in American history. It's more likely, however, that Sanders means what he said at the convention, and that his and Clinton's personalities are secondary to the liberal/progressive obligation to vote Democratic, no matter what, to prevent Republican oppression, no matter who their candidate is. What this would show is that Sanders, who is not quite the oldest non-incumbent ever to seek a major-party Presidential nomination, simply entered the lists too late, not realizing that a post-partisan moment may be upon us after all and that conventional partisan fearmongering may not be enough to save a Democratic nominee this time. Had he better sensed the mood of the country he might have realized the necessity of some politics of personal destruction during the primaries. Now it may be left to his erstwhile supporters to do that work for him, whether he wants them to or not.
There's another reason why Sanders might have had better luck with an ad feminam campaign than Trump's Republican rivals had with their ad hominem campaign. The difference between the two primary campaigns, and perhaps ultimately between the two nominees, is that compared to Clinton Trump is a blank slate. That may seem strange to say about Trump at this point, but my own point is that the ad hominem attack on Trump, whether waged by Republicans or Democrats, focuses on what he might do, while the ad feminam attack on Clinton is based on what she has done, or is believed to have done. To put it another way, the case against Trump is essentially speculative: because he sounds like an idiot and acts like a jerk, he'll be a terrible President. Against such attacks Trump's lack of political experience may be his best defense, not because it makes him more appealing as an "outsider," but because it leaves room for people to consider giving him a chance. Many people, and possibly a majority, will still vote for Clinton based on ideology, party loyalty and raw fear of Trump, but there won't be that same "give her a chance" quality to Clinton votes because she's far too much of a known quantity by now, both for detractors and admirers, and her Presidency would be all too predictable to either group. The question from now until November is whether the "Bernie or Bust" people, dismissed as "ridiculous" by a stand-up comedian at the convention, are willing to give Trump a chance, i.e. acquiesce in his election by withholding their votes from Clinton. On one level they are no more inclined to give Trump a chance than the Republican Congress was to give President Obama a chance. I'm sure some of the Bernie Bros (and sisters) are itching to spend four years on the streets protesting Trump's every act and utterance as President. At this point conventional Democrats would ask: what about the poor and the disadvantaged minorities who'll surely suffer under Trump? Those who sincerely intend to give Trump a chance might question whether those groups (apart from illegal immigrants and Muslim refugees) will suffer at all under Trump, but few on the left will doubt that the worst off now will be worse off as long as Trump signs Speaker Ryan's bills. In the absence of such doubt, the question becomes whether alienated progressives allow the Democratic party to continue using the poor and disadvantaged minorities as human shields or challenge the hedonic calculus (I'll get to this in a future post) that effectively compels acquiescence to Democratic party corruption and complacence. If a large group of American voters actually decides, actively or passively, that things need to get worse before they can get better, then the stage may be set for a real revolution in American politics in the years to follow this wretched election.