As we get closer to the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary, Hillary Clinton’s campaign is doing its level damnedest to frame the race between herself and Bernie Sanders as a choice between a naive, callow idealist and a seasoned, hard-nosed realist. You can guess which candidate they want to shoehorn into each role – Clinton’s leaning heavily on the “experience” argument to make the case that she’d be a stronger candidate in the general election and better prepared to serve in the White House. Right now they’re taking this fight to Sanders on two fronts, healthcare policy and national security, and the way they’re doing it is politically baffling.
On healthcare, Clinton is whacking Sanders for wanting to “tear up” the Affordable Care Act and “end all the kinds of healthcare we know” in favor of a single-payer system. She says, with some justification, that single-payer is too politically fraught to stand any chance of passage, but she’s also attacking Sanders simply for advocating it as a position. And she’s being explicit in calling out Sanders for being detached from reality. “Now in theory, there is a lot to like about some of his ideas,” she said at a campaign event last week. “But in theory, is it enough? A president has to deliver in reality.” Busily mocking Sanders for espousing a policy goal that is broadly shared within the Democratic Party seems like an odd way to win the Democratic presidential nomination.
But that’s the strategy the Clinton people have settled on, and they’re doing much the same in the foreign policy realm. At the last Democratic debate, Sanders said American policy should be to “move as aggressively as we can to normalize relations with Iran,” proceeding along the same lines as we have with Cuba. He praised the nuclear deal with Tehran as “a very positive step” and said he’d like our relationship to become more positive, but acknowledged that it will take time.
Clinton’s response at the debate was measured and non-confrontational: She was happy with the nuclear deal as well, but said that “we still have to carefully watch them” and “we have to go after them on a lot of their other bad behavior in the region.” But as last week wore on, Hillary the hawk emerged to attack Sanders for advocating greater diplomatic engagement with Iran. “Senator Sanders doesn’t talk much about foreign policy,” Clinton said, “but when he does it raises concerns, because sometimes it can sound like he hasn’t really thought it through.” The campaign released a video featuring Clinton’s foreign policy adviser Jake Sullivan attacking Sanders for his comment about normalizing relations with Tehran. “Iran seeks the destruction of Israel. Iran is a leading sponsor of terror in the region,” Sullivan says gravely. “Secretary Clinton supports diplomacy with Iran… but normal relations with Iran right now? President Obama doesn’t support that idea. Secretary Clinton doesn’t support that idea. And it’s not at all clear why it is that Senator Sanders is suggesting it.”
But Bernie didn’t suggest that. He specifically said that Iranian support for terrorism and anti-American rhetoric is “not acceptable.” And he said outright that normalized relations cannot be attained right now. “Can I tell that we should open an embassy in Tehran tomorrow? No, I don't think we should.” Clinton’s team is lying about Sanders’ position and attacking him from the right when he proposes diplomacy with Iran – again, how is this a good idea in a Democratic primary?
It’s also risky for Clinton in that it invites blowback from Sanders, who can highlight those instances in which hawkish policies backed by Hillary, like the interventions in Iraq and Libya, have resulted in drawn-out, unresolved conflicts. He can point out that Hillary backs a no-fly-zone over Syrian airspace, but won’t directly answer the question of whether she would shoot down a Russian jet that violated it. Hillary assumes she’s operating from an obvious position of strength on national security, even though that assumption has burned her in the past.
We’re also seeing another bit of 2016 conventional wisdom take a hit. It was broadly assumed that a strong challenge from Sanders would impel Hillary to tack to the left for the primary to keep liberal voters from flocking to the Vermont senator. But now she’s doing just the opposite and attacking Sanders for holding positions that, in her view, are too liberal, too academic, and not rooted in reality. Maybe she’s determined that it’s too late to shore up her left flank and thinks it’s more useful to just tear down Bernie in the eyes of primary voters.