The Bernie Sanders smear campaign has begun

A Hillary Clinton surrogate took the campaign's first real shot at Bernie Sanders last week. But it ain't working.

Published July 2, 2015 5:58PM (EDT)

  (AP/Carolyn Kaster)
(AP/Carolyn Kaster)

It’s been relatively easy so far for Senator Bernie Sanders, the candidate giving Hillary Clinton the most trouble so far on the road to the presidential primaries. But that’s because Clinton’s squad hasn’t deployed yet. Hillary’s got shooters. She rolls way deeper than Bernie, and one has to assume that a good-sized pocket of the Democratic Party establishment waits like a sleeper cell to be called on to attack Sanders if necessary.

It’s a sign of Sanders’ success that one of Clinton’s hitters was set on the ascendant candidate last Thursday, with Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill appearing on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” to test out some new talking points to address Sanders’ astounding crowds and climbing poll numbers. McCaskill went with the "acknowledge-then-conflate" maneuver. Sanders’ crowds are at times dwarfing those of any candidate in either party. This cannot be denied. So Team Clinton has to try to make that clear sign of success a liability.

“Well, you know, Rand Paul's father got massive crowds, Ron Paul," she said. "He got the same size crowds. Pat Buchanan got massive crowds. It's not unusual for someone who has an extreme message to have a following."

Ooooh, gotcha: Big crowds mean you’re an extremist. So the fewer people you have, the more reasonable you are. And, so, I guess if you stand at a podium before no one, just an empty field, and give a stump speech you're the most reasonable and fringe-averse candidate ever to run for office.

Is this the best the Clinton team has right now? McCaskill endorsed Clinton for president more than two years ago, way back in 2013, but she apparently didn’t spend a whole lot of that time working on her potential talking points. It feels a little embarrassing as a tactic. Its fallacious, clumsy logic seems more suited for the YouTube comments section: You know who else got big crowds? Hitler.

McCaskill’s attack obviously wasn’t that crudely drawn, but it falls apart almost immediately when any scrutiny is offered on the trio she presents: Ron Paul, Pat Buchanan, and Bernie Sanders. One of these is not like the others.

Sanders’ domestic economic platform, his campaign’s bread and butter, is mostly a return to mid-century, postwar policies, infused with social democratic ideas from places like Sweden, where social democrats gained a majority in parliament 75 years ago.

What Sanders proposes is not new, and it’s not particularly radical. It’s just radical-seeming given our decades-long turn toward hyper-capitalism and neoliberalism (which happened to a large degree under President Bill Clinton). The Swedish “socialism” that Sanders favors is capitalism with boundaries. Sweden, with a population less than that of North Carolina, has birthed an impressive list of global companies under its “extreme” “socialism”: Volvo, IKEA, Spotify, Saab, H&M, Skype, Ericsson, AstraZeneca, and many more. Terrifying! So extreme!

Now compare that to the worldview of Ron Paul, who’s been proffering something that’s never been tried before, the marketization of virtually everything and the evaporation of the State to little more than a police and judicial apparatus to enforce contracts. Paul says that Social Security, Medicaid and Medicare are all unconstitutional and should be abolished. The Civil Rights Act, too. Speaking of civil rights, he had a special hatred of Martin Luther King for years until, one assumes, he had to temper his King hatred for the spotlight he was stepping into in the 2000s. Paul has shown himself to be a pretty thoroughly racist politician who’s prone to conspiracy theories, even trutherism.

Pat Buchanan is a Christian white nationalist. Try doing a “Pat Buchanan” Google search and not hitting racist, anti-semitic insanity. In the wake of the Emanuel AME terrorist attack in Charleston, Buchanan penned a column in which he defended the surviving symbol of the Confederacy, the slave-owning rebels’ battle flag, writing that “the battle flag is not so much a symbol of hatred as it is an object of hatred, a target of hatred.”

That’s because Buchanan is really, really into the whole white persecution thing. In his defense of the Confederate flag, he calls the national clamor for its removal in South Carolina a “cultural lynch mob.” White folks are the ones really being besieged, says Buchanan, subject to all that virulent “reverse racism” and losing our country to black and brown folks. (In that way, his rhetoric is sometimes scarcely distinguishable from that of Dylann Roof, who spoke from the same white-man-as-besieged lexicon and whose racist flag Buchanan leapt out to defend.)

McCaskill boasts of what she describes as a perfectly centrist position in the Senate. During her 2012 reelection campaign, she said she was “proud of being ranked the most moderate senator,” number 50 on the ideological spectrum in the hundred-person body. In her desperate attempt to convince Missourians during her 2012 reelection campaign that she was conservative enough against Todd “legitimate rape” Akin, McCaskill ran a television ad with the crafty slogan, “right in the middle is right for Missouri,” a phrase which employs the word “right” twice.

It would stand to reason, then, that someone plum in the middle of the ideological room could, from her singular position, gauge the distance of ideological deviation from the middle point, where she proudly resides. Given the way she sells her own perfect centrism, McCaskill might even be more highly attuned to the breadth of the political spectrum than most, since she’d need to constantly readjust her positions and political decisions to maintain her place “right in the middle.”

We have no way of knowing whether or not the Clinton team signed off on this means of attack, if the Sanders-as-extremist line will be something returned to as his success continues. If so, it will be hard for some to hear from the political family most responsible for making Sanders’ fairly standard postwar liberalism an extreme position. Bill Clinton helmed the rightward turn of the party in 1992, and now Hillary can call anyone who didn’t follow Bill’s lead an “extremist.” It compounds the already problematic dynastic dimension of Clinton’s campaign. The Clintons, preparing for the coronation, also get to police what is acceptable in the party, with Hillary the enforcer of the law Bill laid down? Continuing to call Sanders an “extremist” might only convince many Democrats that the Clintons consider the party theirs.

By Matthew Pulver

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2016 Elections Bernie Sanders Hillary Clinton The Democratic Party The Democratic Primary