Hillary Clinton's "tone"-gate disaster: Why her campaign's condescending Bernie dismissal should concern Democrats everywhere

If the Clinton campaign can't deal with Bernie's "tone," how are they supposed to handle someone like Donald Trump?

Published March 30, 2016 3:15PM (EDT)

Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton   (Reuters/Shannon Stapleton/Mary Schwalm/Photo montage by Salon)
Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton (Reuters/Shannon Stapleton/Mary Schwalm/Photo montage by Salon)

During a CNN interview on Monday, Hillary Clinton’s Chief Strategist Joel Benenson responded to a question about whether Clinton would participate in a Democratic debate in New York — as the Sanders campaign has requested — in such a condescending way, that he unintentionally managed to break the internet.

“I think the real question is what kind of campaign is Senator Sanders going to run going forward,” opined Benenson. “Senator Sanders doesn’t get to decide when we debate, particularly when he’s running a very negative campaign against us. Let’s see if he goes back to the kind of tone he said he was going to set early on. If he does that, then we’ll talk about debates.”

Shortly after Benenson’s patronizing comments, the Twitter hashtag #ToneDownForWhat began to trend, and the internet fittingly derided the strategist and Clinton, who just eight years ago said that “you should be willing to debate anytime, anywhere” while running for president. One can only assume that Benenson — who has consulted for various Wall Street firms — was alluding to the Sanders campaign’s criticism of Clinton’s financial ties to Wall Street and its insistence that she release transcripts from her Goldman Sachs speeches.

(He certainly couldn’t mean Sanders’s targeting of Clinton for her email scandal and ongoing FBI investigation, or for running direct attack ads, which the Senator has refused to do).

This has become a regular strategy for the Clinton campaign, consistently attacking the Sanders campaign for being “negative,” while itself running a dishonest and petty campaign, from the misleading attack on Sanders’ healthcare plan to Clinton’s deceptive auto-bailout remark to the malicious attempts to smear Sanders as a racist. (“Black lives don’t matter much to Bernie Sanders,” said Clinton surrogate David Brock in January.)

Needless to say, if the Clinton camp thinks that the Sanders campaign is being negative, wait until they face Donald Trump. This kind of touchiness about Sanders stating inconvenient truths (like her $225,000 speeches for Goldman Sachs) should worry any Democrat about the general election, when a Republican challenger, most likely Trump, will be going after Clinton on everything from the email scandal to the Clinton foundation to her deep ties to Wall Street and other industries. If Trump has proven anything over the past year, it’s that nothing — absolutely nothing — is off limits (this includes all the scandals from the '90s, from Whitewater to Travelgate to Monica Lewinsky).

Clinton has proven over the past months that she is not a natural-born politician. (She even said it herself.) And for someone with her political baggage, this is concerning. On Wall Street criticisms, for example, Clinton’s retorts have been impressively clumsy, from her reference to 9/11 at the first debate (“I represented Wall Street as a Senator from New York”) to her dismissive “thats what they offered” reply about her Goldman Sachs speeches.

Wall Street and other big money political connections have been where Sanders has criticized Clinton the most, but he has essentially refused to truly go negative. Most notably, he has declined to go after her “damn emails” and the FBI investigation that looms over her campaign. And whoever thinks this scandal won’t haunt Clinton in the general isn’t paying attention. It was recently revealed that 147 FBI agents are currently on the email probe, and an investigative report from Washington Post paints a surprisingly negligent Clinton and team.

“From the earliest days, Clinton aides and senior officials focused intently on accommodating the secretary’s desire to use her private email account, documents and interviews show,” writes Post reporter Robert O’Harrow Jr. “Throughout, they paid insufficient attention to laws and regulations governing the handling of classified material and the preservation of government records, interviews and documents show. They also neglected repeated warnings about the security of the BlackBerry while Clinton and her closest aides took obvious security risks in using the basement server. Senior officials who helped Clinton with her BlackBerry claim they did not know details of the basement server.”

Trump will have a field day with Clinton’s emails, the Clinton Foundation, the speeches, the big money donations, and all of the other right-wing conspiracy theories that a significant percentage of Americans continue to believe after all these years.

Now, the good news for Clinton, if she does face Trump, is that he has the worst general population favorability ratings of any presidential candidate in recent history. His divisiveness is legendary, and he has run one of the most sexist, racist, xenophobic, and just plain vile campaigns in modern American politics. But this is somewhat offset by the fact that Clinton has the second worst favorability rating of any presidential candidate in recent history. According to a new CBS/New York Times poll, Trump has a negative 33 rating (24% positive/57% negative), compared to Clinton’s somewhat better net negative of 21 (31% positive/52% negative).

With all of this negativity, the 2016 presidential race is shaping up to be one of the most polarizing contests in history. And if Clinton can’t handle the “tone” of the Sanders campaign, maybe Sanders — who conveniently has the highest favorability rating of all presidential candidates — should be the one facing Donald Trump.

By Conor Lynch

Conor Lynch is a writer and journalist living in New York City. His work has appeared on Salon, AlterNet, Counterpunch and openDemocracy. Follow him on Twitter: @dilgentbureauct.

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Bernie Sanders Dem Primary Donald Trump Elections 2016 Hillary Clinton