Since she launched her campaign, Hillary Clinton's pitch to voters has been simple: She's an experienced pragmatist who knows how to get things done in Washington. Clinton touts her progressive credentials when and where she can, of course, but she knows she can't out-progressive Bernie Sanders.
Although she never quite says it (and I don't blame her), Clinton constantly implies that Sanders is right about a lot of things, but that he's too radical to implement his agenda in a town that demands compromise and consensus. Clinton, on the other hand, has a well-earned reputation for centrism and bipartisanship — she can negotiate the political obstacles in Congress.
Clinton's appeal is that she's of the establishment, which isn't exciting but it is a reasonable case to make. To accomplish things in Washington is difficult, and we've seen how little popular opinion matters. Change is easy in the abstract, but nearly impossible in practice, particularly in a convoluted and corrupt system like ours. Clinton's only argument against a candidate like Sanders is a utilitarian one: She may not agree with Sanders on everything, but she agrees with him on most things, and she's better positioned to push those policies in office.
True or false, this has been the prevailing narrative for the duration of this campaign: Sanders is the insurgent outsider and Clinton is the experienced insider. And it's been more or less accepted by the candidates and their supporters. Well, it appears Clinton wants to upset that narrative.
In an astonishing exchange with CNN's Wolf Blitzer yesterday, Clinton dodged the “establishment” label and instead pinned it on Bernie Sanders (yes, you read that correctly). Blitzer began by asking Clinton about Sanders recent comments on Planned Parenthood's endorsement of her campaign. In case you missed it, Sanders claimed that Planned Parenthood was part of the “political establishment.” This was a mistake and Clinton responded appropriately:
“Well, I have to say I didn't understand that at all. Planned Parenthood does so much on the front lines to provide women and men health care, often low income people, people who don't have any alternative. And of course we know that Planned Parenthood has been under attack constantly from the Republicans both in Congress and in many states. And the Human Rights Campaign has been in the forefront of making sure that LGBT Americans are not discminated against. They help to lead the battle for marriage equality. I really don't understand what he [Sanders] means by that.”
Clinton is right here, which is why Sanders quickly walked his comments back on MSNBC last night. “That's not what I meant,” Sanders said, “We're taking on not only Wall Street and the economic establishment...I have friends and supporters in the Human Rights Fund and Planned Parenthood. But, you know what? Hillary Clinton has been around there for a very, very long time. Some of these groups are, in fact, part of the establishment.”
This was a win for Clinton. Sanders mispoke and she capitalized on it. But then Blitzer asked a follow up question, and Clinton said something ridiculous:
BLITZER: But are you the establishment?
CLINTON: I just don't understand what that means. He's [Sanders] been in Congress. He's been elected to office a lot longer than I have. I was in the Senate for eight wonderful years representing New York. He's been in Congress for 25. And so I'll let your viewers make their own judgment.
It's hard to know where to begin. There isn't another Democrat in American politics who more fully represents the establishment than Hillary Clinton. And that's not because of time served in office. It's because Clinton is the establishment-approved candidate in this race. Harry Enten of FiveThirtyEight.com put Clinton's establishment appeal in context two months ago:
“Clinton already has 71 percent of all possible endorsement points on the Democratic side...That's more than the 68 percent of possible endorsement points that George W. Bush had on the day of the Iowa caucuses in 2000. It's nearly three times as much support as Clinton had on the day of the Iowa caucuses in 2008...Indeed, Clinton has been endorsed by more governors and members of Congress in the past three weeks than all the other Democratic and Republican presidential candidates combined.”
It's not just that Clinton has the overwhelming support of party elites. It's also about her record, which conforms to the Washington consensus as consistently as any member of Congress in the last two decades. Clinton has flopped with the political winds on a number of issues over the years, including the Iraq War, which Sanders continually points out. Despite her recent lunge to the left, Clinton's record in Congress is anything but progressive.
Sanders, whatever you think of him, is challenging – and has always challenged – the status quo. Yes, he's been in Congress for 25 years, but he's the longest-serving independent in Congressional history. You can question Sanders positions on the issues, but there's no doubt that he's been a consistent progressive voice in Congress, and often a lone one. He hasn't shape-shifted when it was expedient, and that's rare in Washington.
Sanders independence is why he's relying on small individual donations and grassroots support to fund his campaign, in contrast to Clinton, whose list of top contributors over the years includes Citigroup, Goldman Sachs, Lehman Brothers, and Morgan Stanley. Perhaps Clinton would make a better president than Sanders; maybe her influence and pragmatism are crucial in our current polarized climate – all of that's debatable.
But there's no debate to be had about which Democratic candidate most represents the establishment, and everyone, including Hillary Clinton, knows it.