The Clintons really don't get it: False attacks and failed strategies as Hillary repeats 2008

They're distorting Sanders' plans and ham-handedly using Obama and race. It's a dangerous game and a losing plan

Published February 16, 2016 11:01AM (EST)


The 2016 New Hampshire presidential primary was the most significant in the 64-year history of that venerable institution, surpassing even the mythic 1968 battle by which Gene McCarthy drove Lyndon Johnson from office. McCarthy didn’t win the nomination but he did forge a consensus to end what was, until Iraq, our most tragic foreign war. Whether or not Bernie Sanders is nominated, he too is forging a new consensus. The old order is dying; a new one’s being born.

If you get your news from cable TV you don’t know any of this. Whatever their age or gender, cable reporters still cover politics like cigar-chomping old men poring over racing forms. History was made under their noses and they still spent the night talking win, place or show, obsessed by the order of finish in the crowded middle of a lame Republican pack. It was a coming out party for a political revolution, but Gil Scott Heron had it right: The revolution will not be televised.

Sanders made history even by the metrics of horse-race journalism. He had the most votes (155,578), biggest vote share (60.4 percent) and biggest margin in a contested race (22.4 percent) of any candidate of either party in New Hampshire primary history. As in Iowa, he outperformed late polls by more than their alleged margins of error. Sanders won 55 percent of women, a stunning 84 percent of voters under 30, and 92 percent of those who say the trait they prize most in a politician is honesty.

Clintonites said Sanders had home-court advantage. (If you buy that excuse, just ask a friend to name a senator from a neighboring state.) Hillary may be the world’s best-known politician after Barack Obama, Vladimir Putin and her husband. It gives her an overwhelming head start in every state but Vermont, which is why she began New Hampshire 30 points up. They made other lame justifications for their loss, but after the flood there was nothing left to spin.

How Clinton lost is as telling as the historic margin she lost by. Just as in 2008, she presented as a hawk to a party bone-weary of war. Now as then, her high-dollar, tone-deaf, leak-prone campaign telegraphed every punch. Her backers harp on her experience -- but experience only counts if you learn from it. Eight years later, Clinton makes the exact same mistakes. Still, party elites have bet the farm she’ll have it all sorted out by October. Dangerous wager.

She isn’t learning from this race, either. Her response to New Hampshire has been to double-down on her strategy. How such a bright person could be such a slow learner is a mystery. Her worst moments prior to New Hampshire were her ham-handed attempts to take down Sanders. Chelsea distorted his healthcare plans, Bill ripped his character. Hillary accused him of an “artful smear” for suggesting, obviously, that banks give to super PACs to influence policy. She voiced “concern” over reports he’d mingled with real live lobbyists at Democratic fundraisers. But to many voters the Clintons attacking Sanders' integrity was like draft-avoider George W. Bush swift-boating Purple Heart-winner John Kerry -- except this time it backfired, and her whole family took the hit.

At this point she might have decided to curtail the personal attacks, but alas, no. In a public television debate two days after the primary, she waited till the last second to launch an attack, this time on Sanders’ alleged disloyalty to Obama. It seems this will be a principal theme going forward, so in case you missed, a sample:

Today Senator Sanders said President Obama failed the presidential leadership test…. he has called him weak. He has called him a disappointment. He wrote a forward for a book that basically argued voters should have buyers' remorse when it comes to President Obama's leadership and legacy it is the kind of criticism I expect from Republicans. Calling the president weak…  [Saying] several times he should have a primary opponent when he ran for re-election…

Much of this is flat-out false; all is shorn of context and rife with what Politifact called “half-truths." Bill Press wrote a book criticizing Obama, but Sanders didn’t write the foreword (just a blurb that doesn’t criticize Obama). He never called Obama weak or a disappointment, though he once said Obama showed weakness in budget negotiations. Talking to a radio host who wanted Obama primaried, Sanders said open debate was a good thing. But notice in the above quote how Clinton, the Mary Lou Retton of syntax, made it seem Sanders said all these things.

When Clinton at last holstered her weapon, moderators Judy Woodruff and Gwen Ifill, who’d done yeoman’s work to that point, said there wasn’t time for Sanders to answer her final fusillade, but that he could do so in his closing remarks. Off balance for the first time all night, he split the difference, which made for a weak finish to an otherwise strong performance. Too bad; he deserved a chance at a full rebuttal even if it meant shaving a minute or two off "Antiques Roadshow."

Clinton’s playing an explosive game, especially since she herself spent much of 2015 sniping at Obama. When Obama described his foreign policy as “Don’t do stupid stuff,” she ridiculed him. When he wouldn’t violate international law by declaring a no-fly zone in Syria, she broke with him. She talks a lot about being commander in chief. She must know it’s hard to be one when your old secretary of state is taking shots at you. Ironically enough, on foreign policy Sanders has been more loyal to Obama than Clinton, but the irony doesn’t end there.

As Hillary laced into Sanders, Bill was miles away lacing into Obama. In a listless swipe at the banking system, he said, “Yeah, it’s rigged, because you don’t have a president who’s a change maker.” It’s what Hillary accuses Bernie of saying. (Note too, the tacit admission that Bernie’s right on Dodd Frank.) All in all, Hillary looks cunning, not loyal. Because integrity is for her what intelligence was for Dan Quayle, she can ill afford to appear hypocritical or be caught doctoring the truth.

Clinton’s ad hominem attacks -- call it the politics of personal destruction -- poison the air around her. Just before New Hampshire, deservedly beloved feminist icon Gloria Steinem told Bill Maher that young women join Sanders’ campaign to meet guys. Steinem got taken to the Internet woodshed for making a lighthearted, self-deprecating joke, on a comedy show, no less, but only because the tone of Clinton’s campaign is so rancid. Clinton must see how her scorched-earth policy hurts her family, her friends and her campaign, but for her there’s never any turning back.

In another reminder of 2008, Clinton has added race to the mix. On primary night on CNN, Clinton ally Michael Nutter slyly accused Sanders of subtle racism, terming his call for criminal justice reform “mildly offensive” because, Nutter falsely charged, Sanders never talks about other African-American issues. For some reason— it can’t be ratings -- CNN lets commentators with clear conflicts of interest mouth thinly veiled partisan message. This is worse. Nutter is no more “offended” than Hillary is “concerned” or Bill “shocked” to discover trolls on the Internet. They want us to think Bernie does what they do, but of course he doesn’t.

Lots of African-Americans live in upcoming primary states. Because they are the firewall Clinton hopes will save her, she’ll ratchet this up as high as she can. Last week the Congressional Black Caucus PAC endorsed her. Asked about Sanders’ civil rights record, Rep. John Lewis dryly replied, “I never met him,” and went on to praise Clinton for her close ties to African-American politicians.

Lewis is a hero to me and to millions. Nothing he says or does in a campaign could change that. But Bernie deserves better. It’s been reported that he and Sanders did meet when Bernie was the sole white member on hand for a hearing Lewis held on voter suppression. Or he might have bumped into him back in the day, when a young Bernie joined the Congress of Racial Equality and braved jail to protest segregated housing in Chicago.

The real problem with the Black Caucus PAC endorsement isn’t anything Lewis said, but the way Washington works. Only seven of 46 caucus members voted on the caucus endorsement but 11 lobbyists voted, including at least two tobacco and two healthcare industry lobbyists. Like the Iowa Democratic Party, the PAC won’t reveal the tally -- but we know at least two of the seven actual members voted no.

On Friday we learned that DNC chairwoman and Clinton lifer Debbie Wasserman Schultz ended Obama’s ban on federal contractors donating to the party. (So much for loyalty to Obama.) On Wednesday we learned Clinton will get a majority of New Hampshire delegates despite losing in a landslide. Schultz told CNN the reason 700 unelected superdelegates get to vote at the convention is to spare grass-roots activists the burden of having to primary them. No matter how much money Schultz wrings from contractors or how many superdelegates Clinton piles up in states Sanders wins, it won’t equal the price they pay for such cynicism.

To the extent Clinton gets away with it, she can thank a media nearly as out of touch as she is. Newspapers beat TV for analysis, but the gap narrows every year, and not because TV is getting better. Elite reporters reflect the elite consensus, which accounts for such recent Washington Post headlines as "Democrats Would Be Insane to Nominate Sanders" and "Sanders’ Oddball Coalition Savors Its Victory."

It may explain the boffo reviews of Clinton’s PBS debate performance, as in the Times headline, "Analysis: Clinton Is Cool, Calm and Effective." Pundits praised her superior grasp of policy partly out of habit-- it was true of earlier debates-- but also because it’s how they see the world. They should read the transcript. If anything, Bernie does the better job of explaining how he’d fund his programs. Hillary won’t say how she’d pay for Social Security. She says she has a universal healthcare plan but she doesn’t. She has a laundry list of programs, one for each demographic, all with unanswered questions about implementation, effectiveness and affordability.

The most striking thing about the debate, other than the low blow Clinton struck at the end of the last round, was that Sanders got the better of her on foreign policy. Has any other presidential candidate ever told the American people that Iran doesn’t “hate us for our freedom” but because we engineered the violent overthrow of their democratically elected president and installed a vicious tyrant in his place? The rest of the world knows, why not us?  Is Clinton’s jingoism about not talking to Iran the signal we want to send to thousands of Iranians who joyously took to the streets to celebrate the nuclear weapons pact? Shouldn’t Clinton’s airbrushing of the hyper-secretive, lawbreaking Kissinger concern us? Has anyone but Bernie ever said Henry Kissinger’s China opening may have cost us some jobs? Clinton mocks him for citing her Iraq vote but he now casts a wider net. Pundits citing her foreign policy cred should feel honor-bound to tell us why she’s right and he’s wrong.

The press doesn’t understand any better than Hillary what made New Hampshire historic. They’re great at figuring out who’s ahead in South Carolina, but awful at grasping -- let alone conveying --the terms of the new debate.

It’s too soon to describe that debate whole, but among Democrats at least it has begun to clarify. A word about it, and what it means to this race.

Thirty years ago, reeling from the Reagan Revolution, elite Democrats rebranded their party, which had long championed both economic and cultural liberalism. They kept cultural liberalism, but ditched economic liberalism for "neoliberalism"; a blend of economic deregulation, free trade, smaller government and targeted tax cuts. Few said it out loud, but it was the end of the Roosevelt coalition, which had been built on economic issues of universal appeal and which had lasted 50 years.

Neoliberalism appeals to the rich. Neoliberal Bill Clinton was the first Democratic presidential nominee to outspend a Republican. In 2008 Obama outspent John McCain 2-to-1, breaking a record set in 1972 by Richard Nixon. But neoliberalism is killing the middle class. It’s why both parties rely on cultural issues to hold their bases. If you back abortion rights, same sex marriage and gun safety you’re a Democrat. If not, you’re a Republican. On economic issues it’s more complex. If you hate big banks and political corruption, you could be for Sanders or Trump. It’s why Sanders talks so much about these things; they’re what the election’s all about.

When Clinton isn’t calling Sanders a traitor, she says she shares his goals. But she doesn't. Clinton was part of the neoliberal revolt that destroyed the Roosevelt coalition and she is as we’ve seen, a woman of markedly fixed views. She may be Obama’s heir, but Sanders is FDR’s. She campaigns as she does out of habit, and to hide the very real choice. The neoliberal experiment is over. Democrats, proud heirs to Franklin Roosevelt, are ready to come home.

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By Bill Curry

Bill Curry was White House counselor to President Bill Clinton and a two-time Democratic nominee for governor of Connecticut.

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