The truth about the Dem civil war: Bernie vs. Hillary might seem life-and-death — but it could always be much, much worse

Sanders & Clinton partisans are waging increasingly ferocious campaigns. We must not lose sight of recent history

Published February 8, 2016 10:58AM (EST)

Bernie Sanders, HIllary Clinton   (Reuters/Mark Kauzlarich/Mary Schwalm/Photo montage by Salon)
Bernie Sanders, HIllary Clinton (Reuters/Mark Kauzlarich/Mary Schwalm/Photo montage by Salon)

John Kerry’s 2004 White House run was the first political campaign I ever worked on. I was a student volunteer, given a roughly outlined script and notebooks full of prospective voters to ring up, reminding them to show up on Election Day.

Kerry was the kind of candidate you needed bullet points to sell. “He’s not President Bush!” may as well have been the first one on the list. The Kerry voters I spoke to were kind and respectful in their praise—but most of all restrained. He was the kind of candidate you campaigned for not because you believed in the message but because you believed the alternative was far worse.

The Massachusetts senator’s passion problem showed at the polls. He lost both the popular vote and the Electoral College to an incumbent who seemed, at least in the height of "Fahrenheit 9/11" fever, like a sitting duck. In recent years, Kerry has suggested that the reason he wasn’t elected was campaign mismanagement. During a New Yorker profile on the current secretary of state, a colleague of Kerry’s, Mike Barnicle, blamed the loss on Robert Shrum, the campaign strategist who advised him not to “strike back” at attacks on the Vietnam veteran’s military record.

“Yeah, yeah, I realize how badly Shrum screwed me,” Kerry once remarked.

That is, of course, wishful thinking: You cannot sell a product the public simply doesn’t want. If former President Richard Nixon once shrewdly referred to Kerry as “kind of a phony,” that image plagued his entire candidacy. The Republican opposition branded him a “flip-flopper”—someone who will say anything to get elected—but the greater problem was that his reserved, chilly personality didn’t make the public want to believe in him. He was the rare candidate who could alienate both Democrats and Republicans by supporting affirmative action, even while he argued that it “engendered racism” and amounted to “reverse discrimination.”

This example is not to further denigrate Kerry’s candidacy (that damage has long been done) but to illustrate how different the case of 2016 is from 2004. The Kerry-Bush election was one in which voters were faced with a choice between two men no one liked that much, a Massachusetts ice prince and a buffoon. This year is, by contrast, an embarrassment of riches — for Democrats, at least. While the GOP is flooded with politicians who appear to be running to increase their book sales, the Democratic Party offers two of the most experienced, compelling candidates in its history: Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton.

Sanders represents one of the most exciting challenges to the political establishment since FDR. The Vermont senator’s New Deal for America targets widening inequality while holding the big banks that caused our current financial crisis responsible. He represents the promise of the young activists who marched on the streets in the name of the Occupy movement three years ago, those who looked to a future in which they would die in debt and decided to do something about it. If the American Dream has become rigged, Sanders is a sign that voters may be waking up.

Clinton, meanwhile, was recently endorsed by the New York Times as “one of the most broadly and deeply qualified presidential candidates in modern history.” Indeed, her résumé is impeccable: She served as both a senator for New York and then secretary of state. Prior to that, she spent eight years in the White House as perhaps the most politically engaged first lady in modern memory. She also weathered one of the most deeply invasive and painful scandals in recent history, her husband’s affair with his intern, Monica Lewinsky. Her ability to remain calm in the face of crisis—whether her husband’s infidelities or partisan opposition to her handling of Benghazi—has proven her a strong, capable leader. She would be ready on day one.

For all the talk of Hillary Clinton’s “likability” problem, she—like Bernie Sanders—inspires strong passions among voters. According to recent research from Public Policy Polling, a vast majority (88 percent) of Hillary voters say they’re “firmly committed to supporting her,” a higher percentage than Sanders. Following an Iowa caucus that was literally decided by a coin flip, those passions, on both sides, have never been higher. The 0.3 point split in Iowa is the ultimate embodiment of the fact that this time around, Democrats will be forced to make a choice between two candidates a lot of people love.

The confusing finish to the Iowa caucus has only fueled the antagonism between these two camps. There's been a steady stream of “I’m a Democrat and I’ll never vote for Hillary Clinton” Op-Eds on the Internet in the past few months—many of them published on Salon. They have reached their inevitable peak this week, suggesting that, for many, it’s either Bernie or bust. Pajiba’s Courtney Enlow compared the growing liberal schism to “the Democratic Party eating itself like a snake that loves science and Planned Parenthood.”

As Enlow suggests, the race feels “very, very personal” for voters—especially women who might feel deeply invested in electing the first female president—but we’re creating an issue out of something that’s actually very, very good. In most years, Democrats are lucky if they get one candidate they feel strongly about. Until the '90s, the party was saddled with a string of weak contenders—Hubert Humphrey, George McGovern, Walter Mondale and Michael Dukakis, who won just 37 states among the four of them. McGovern and Mondale's campaigns in particular registered historic levels of apathy, as the two candidates racked up just 17 and 13 Electoral College votes, respectively.

This year, by contrast, we’ve got not one but two candidates whom voters would kill to see elected. That’s an amazing, wonderful and potentially historic problem to have. I wish we had that problem back in 2004. And I wish that every person who is continuing to fight the wrong battle on Facebook had the opportunity to call voters 12 years ago. I wish they could have heard the quiet malaise among Democrats—stuck with another guy who could be described as “fine, I guess.” I wish they could see the enemy isn’t the other guy’s preferred Democratic candidate but another election fueled by complacency.

Give me Bernie. Give me Hillary. Just give me anything but another Kerry.

By Nico Lang