Sen. Bernie Sanders has been very clear over the past few months about the campaign that he is running, and has repeatedly refused to play politics or personally go after his opponents. Last month, after a reporter baited him to attack Hillary Clinton, he replied:
“Time after time, I’m being asked to criticize Hillary Clinton. That’s the sport that you guys like. The reason this campaign is doing well is because we’re talking about the issues that impact the American people. I’ve known Hillary Clinton for 25 years. I like her, I respect her. I disagree with her on a number of issues. No big secret.”
This unconventional strategy is obviously working, and polls continue to look better and better for Sanders. According to the Huffington Post, he has gone from polling 4.9 percent on March 2 to 23.9 percent on September 2, while Clinton has dropped from 60.2 percent to 46.1 percent during the same period. The Clinton campaign appears to be sinking slowly like ravaged ship in the frozen Atlantic, while Sanders seems to be just hitting his stride.
At the same time, the pseudo-scandal of the former Secretary of State's email use does not appear to be going away anytime soon, and her favorability rating has hit a 23-year low. With this, along with the reality of Sanders, Hillary seems to be getting a bit worried, which may be why she took a subtle knock at Sanders last week in an interview (without directly saying his name):
“You can wave your arms and give a speech but at the end of the day are you connecting with and really hearing what people are either saying to you or wishing that you would say to them?”
It seems more and more likely that Clinton will be taking the same personal approach toward Sanders that she did with President Obama -- i.e., that she is experienced and pragmatic and knows how to get things done in Washington, unlike the idealist Sanders. (Remember when Obama was the liberal idealist?)
This would be a serious mistake for the Clinton campaign. Not only did this approach fail last time around, but the political atmosphere in America has become even more anti-establishment over the past few years. Just look at the GOP race, where the two outsiders, Donald Trump and Ben Carson, are currently ahead of the establishment. The current disenchantment with the political status quo appears on both sides of the aisle, but the GOP establishment seems to be finally grasping this reality, and caved in to the Trump phenomenon. It is time for Clinton and the Democratic establishment to accept the reality that establishment politics are quickly losing their appeal to the American people.
Unlike the rise of Trump, of course, Sanders’ ascent has nothing to do with personality or ad hominem attacks, but with the issues. This is why Sanders has become such a sensation, and Clinton could learn a lot from how he has conducted himself. A perfect example of what not to do comes with her mocking attack on then Senator Obama in Toledo, Ohio, on Feb. 24, 2008:
“I could stand up here and say: let’s just get everybody together, let’s get unified. The sky will open, the light will come down, celestial choirs will be singing, and everyone will know that we should do the right thing, and the world would be perfect. Maybe I’ve just lived a little long, but I have no illusions about how hard this will be. You are not going to wave a magic wand…”
Clinton was obviously operating in hyperbole that day, but of course, the hope and change that the ’08 Obama campaign sold has proven to be naive, as Clinton predicted. This does not mean, however, that Clinton should approach 2016 with a kind of "I told you so" message, and double down on her pragmatic realism. As I said above, the America people seem to be tired of the phony realism that basically assumes the establishment is invincible. But even more important is the fact that Sanders is not running a campaign in the style of Obama’s ’08 campaign, even though it may seem like it to some observers. He has been very consistent in his message, telling his massive crowds that to accomplish the policies he is fighting for, whether it is overturning Citizens United and getting money out of politics or breaking up the too-big-to-fail banks, a “political revolution” is necessary. Unlike Senator Obama, Sanders is not selling optimism, but realism.
“The American people in my view are sick and tired with establishment politics, they are sick and tired of establishment economics, and they are sick and tired with establishment media,” said Sanders in Iowa last week, “I am asking you to get involved in a political revolution, a grass-roots movement which transforms America.”
The Vermont Senator is under no illusion that he could accomplish his proposals by simply becoming president (he has been in Washington for some time), which is why he is calling for a grassroots “political revolution” that demands it. You do not hear Clinton calling for a “political revolution,” and why would she? The establishment has been very good for her and Bill. But going after Sanders as an arm-waving idealist will do nothing but lower Clinton’s favorability ratings. Back in the nineties, Bill Clinton presided as a pragmatic centrist, and at that time Americans ate it up -- but today, the centrist and right-wing policies of neoliberalism have created the many problems that Sanders is now running against. If Clinton wants to recover from the current downward spiral, she may want to avoid playing politics as usual and debate the ideas, as Sanders has been.
Of course, this can be tricky when the majority of questions that reporters ask are either trivial or have to do with the supposed email scandal (about half of Andrea Mitchell’s Friday interview questions were about her email!). Once again, Clinton may want to follow Bernie’s approach. After being asked whether Clinton’s hair gets more scrutiny, Sanders responded: “O.K., Ana, I don’t mean to be rude here. I am running for president of the United States on serious issues, O.K.? Do you have serious questions?”