Hillary Clinton's Bernie Sanders problem isn't going away: She still won't acknowledge that he's no flash in the pan

The Dem frontrunner -- no longer as dominant as she once was -- remains sanguine about Sanders. That's a mistake

By Sean Illing
September 28, 2015 11:29PM (UTC)
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(AP/Jacquelyn Martin/Jim Cole/Photo montage by Salon)

Hillary Clinton has a tactical problem. In virtually every recent poll, her lead over the Democratic field -- and Bernie Sanders in particular -- has narrowed. So far Clinton’s approach to Sanders and the other candidates mostly hands-off, choosing not to attack her Democratic rivals by name. But while it’s too soon to panic in Hillaryland, her aides are growing increasingly nervous about her unwillingness to engage Sanders more directly.

According to a report over the weekend in the Washington Post, “Clinton told a longtime supporter and donor recently that she understands her friends are frustrated and worried by her slide in the polls. But the solution, she said, is not to attack the challenger who is surging as she slumps. ‘I am not going to start to take shots at Bernie Sanders,’ Clinton said, according to a person familiar with the exchange.”


Clinton has been content to focus on the Republicans more than her primary competitors, and that’s not necessarily a mistake, but it’s getting harder to defend. Sanders, as I argued two weeks ago, is not a fluke. His message is resonating with progressive voters and much of the Democratic base. By tiptoeing around Sanders, Clinton, as one anonymous backer put it, “risks looking overconfident or oblivious to the challenge Sanders poses.”

In the 2008 campaign, many would argue that Clinton failed to take Obama seriously enough early on, and that she paid a price for that. While Obama and Sanders aren’t really comparable candidates, Hillary supporters have reason to doubt her hands-off approach to Sanders. Eventually, she’ll have no choice but to engage him (in the debates, for example), and delaying that only helps him gain momentum while she waits.

Clinton’s long-term bet, the authors of the Washington Post piece conclude, is that she “has the policy credentials and organizational muscle to withstand the senator’s [Sanders] challenge without angering his supporters overmuch.” Perhaps that’s true, but I wouldn’t count on it. There are a lot of variables at play here, such as the possibility of a Joe Biden run, which could change the dynamics of the race overnight.


Still, though, people like Paul Begala, a longtime ally of Clinton, think it’s best to avoid attacking Sanders in any way. “I have five words of advice for the campaign,” Begala said. “No, no, no, no and no.” It’s better, he added, to keep the focus on Donald Trump and the Republicans, who are “running on a set of issues that make it next to impossible that Republicans can win in 2016.”

Begala isn’t wrong about the Republicans. The party seems destined for extinction, or at the very least national irrelevance. As John Boehner’s resignation illustrates, the backwards-looking nihilists are in full control of the GOP at this moment. So it stands to reason that the Democratic nominee, whoever it happens to be, will do well in the general election.

The problem with Clinton’s cautious strategy is that it presupposes that Sanders can’t win the nomination. That’s a mistake. It will be very hard for Sanders to win, but it’s not at all impossible. This idea that Clinton can just sit back and wait for Sanders to implode is foolhardy at best. Sanders is talking about issues that matter deeply to liberals and progressives, and the more Clinton cedes that ground to Sanders, the more popular he gets.


Clinton’s benign neglect for Sanders has helped him surge in the polls so far – it’s not clear why that should change anytime soon. But it’s also true that there’s no easy way for Clinton to engage Sanders. To attack him too sharply is to risk alienating his supporters, who rightly regard him as the only authentic progressive in the race. There are several issues (especially on the economic front) on which Clinton could draw a contrast between herself and Sanders, but that’s unlikely to improve her image amongst the Democratic base, who already find Bernie a more credible voice on these topics.

If Clinton is going to win over liberals, she’ll have to do it on the basis of her experience and electability – and this argument isn’t as convincing as it was, say, a year ago. But there’s no way for her to avoid the Sanders problem. Bernie is closing the gap with Hillary because of his stances on the relevant issues. If Clinton waits until the debates or longer to engage him more directly, it may well be too late. She could still win the Democratic nomination, of course, but it’s awfully risky to assume she can coast to the nomination without confronting Bernie’s challenge head-on.

Sean Illing

Sean Illing is a USAF veteran who previously taught philosophy and politics at Loyola and LSU. He is currently Salon's politics writer. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter. Read his blog here. Email at silling@salon.com.

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2016 Democratic Primary 2016 Elections Bernie Sanders Democratic Party Hillary Clinton