If there has been a dumber controversy in the Democratic primary this cycle than whatever we’re calling the back-and-forth over who said what about whose qualifications for the presidency – Unqualified-gate? Unqualified-ghazi? – I am hard-pressed to remember it. The screeching for the last 36 hours, starting with Bernie Sanders’s tone-deaf comments in Philadelphia and the Hillary supporters who clutched their pearls in response (the tone-policing on Lawrence O’Donnell’s show Wednesday night was egregious enough that I haven’t turned on my TV since then) has been enough to make pouring molten lead into one’s ears feel like a rational response.
It was the end of what must have been a whiplash-inducing week for Sanders. Just last Sunday, the New York Times published the type of post-mortem for his presidential run that one does not usually see until either a campaign is circling the drain or has already been suspended. The story featured Sanders advisers, on the record, second-guessing themselves and the candidate for strategies they followed throughout 2015 that may have failed to take advantage of Hillary Clinton’s weaknesses and put Sanders in a better position to grab the nomination. Usually this sort of assessment can be read as campaign advisers polishing their resumes for future employers, but I thought this one should scare people off. If anything, the failure to anticipate Clinton’s problems and position Sanders to take advantage shows a lack of both preparation and imagination.
The Times piece, as well as the floundering interview in the New York Daily News and the “unqualified” dust-up, bracketed Sanders’s win in Tuesday’s Wisconsin primary, which could have given the campaign an energy boost if it didn’t feel like such a Pyrrhic victory. Yes, I know he won all but one county in the state and beat Clinton by 100,000 votes, but, (a) he also outspent her something like 2.5-to-1 in the race, and (b) she had all but conceded the state to him well before the voting started. For all their public happiness, I’m betting that inside the Sanders campaign, they know this.
I’m not going to recap all the details of the back-and-forth over the “unqualified” comments, but combined with the Times article (was that only five days ago?), it laid bare something that has been obvious for some time: Sanders is being ill-served by the people he has hired to run his campaign. And it also laid bare one of the conclusions of the Times that had also been obvious to anyone paying attention, which is that this is not a campaign that was ever built to win the nomination.
First, to the “unqualified” comments: The source of the claim that Clinton called Sanders the "u"-word seems to be a headline from the Washington Post, which is not exactly covering itself in glory these days with its Clinton coverage. Others can quibble over the question of intent with some of her statements to the vapor-headed homunculi who populate the set of "Morning Joe, but the simple fact is that she did not use the word “unqualified” once during her interview. So to let Bernie Sanders go on stage that night and claim Clinton had said “I am quote-unquote ‘not qualified to be president’” is messaging malpractice. Whether it was the product of incompetence or an overly tired staff, or more likely some combination of the two, is beside the point. The whole contretemps could have been easily avoided if whomever on Sanders’s communication team fed him that line had read past the headline of that Post story, which it seems they did not do.
Charlie Pierce, who has been to a few of these rodeos, pointed this out on Thursday, and it bears repeating: The Clinton campaign baited Sanders beautifully, and he fell for it. Clinton may be an awkward politician, but she’s got a few national campaigns under her belt and she and her people are savvy about manipulating both the media and opponents.
Sanders, by contrast, has a vocal adviser named Tad Devine, whose resume includes a string of losing presidential campaigns (Michael Dukakis, Al Gore, John Kerry). He also has a campaign manager named Jeff Weaver, a longtime loyalist who spent the five years prior to this campaign running his own comic book shop in Virginia. (How this hasn’t resulted in many, many, many more Comic Book Guy jokes being thrown around the media-sphere is beyond me, though maybe I just don’t get invited to the right parties.)
These two have made terrible surrogates for a man who claims to want to win the Democratic nomination and become the de facto head of the party. Weaver in particular should have been replaced by someone with national campaign experience the minute Sanders realized he could indeed win this thing. Instead he has stuck with a couple of guys who undercut him in the nation’s most prominent newspaper, fed him (or allowed him to be fed) bad info that he used to attack his opponent, and have floated some of the more awkward trial balloons imaginable.
For example, just in the last week, Weaver has suggested that the campaign, knowing it can’t win enough pledged delegates through the rest of the primaries, will instead aim for a contested convention and try to convince the super-delegates to flip their votes to Sanders, a strategy somewhat akin to what the GOP is hoping to use to stop Donald Trump. He also pleaded for Clinton to not “destroy the Democratic Party to satisfy [her] ambitions to become president.” This was an epically ballsy thing to say for a guy whose candidate only joined the party because he thought it would help him get media coverage for his campaign, and whose super-delegate strategy would require those Democratic Party insiders to basically ignore both popular vote cast by the party’s rank-and-file members and delegate counts, based mostly on the claim that Sanders has some ethereal “momentum” propelling him inexorably to the presidency.
All losing campaigns make terrible arguments as exhaustion, reality and desperation set in. Since Sanders has the money to keep going until the convention, and will likely continue hauling in record-setting levels of donations, his advisers need to keep digging deeper for arguments to keep the faithful motivated. But if Sanders really wants his candidacy to be an issues-driven one, this past week has shown that his inexperienced team is failing him.