“The American people are sick and tired of hearing about your damn emails,” said Bernie Sanders at the October CNN debate, after moderator Anderson Cooper questioned Hillary Clinton on her use of a personal server to conduct State Department business. And so, according to many observers, went Sanders’s big chance to hit Clinton where it hurt—something now made all the more tangible by the near certainty he will lose the primary.
“What Sanders should have done,” writes Chris Cillizza at the Washington Post, “was to begin to incorporate Clinton’s email troubles into his stump speech — using the ongoing investigation to raise questions in Democratic voters’ minds about both her trustworthiness and her electability. But, time and again, Sanders turned away from that strategy — or anything like it.”
Yes, attacking on the emails would have exploited a major Clinton vulnerability. She is widely perceived to be untrustworthy, and many believe that her email set up was unethical or illegal. The subject is also certainly fair game: it was the subject of a damning State Department inspector general inquiry and the FBI is still investigating. More to the point politically speaking, it highlights a lot of the things about Clinton that people don’t like. It reflects an imperious politician who so thinks she deserves to play by her own rules that she didn’t even agree to an interview with investigators from the very office she used to run as secretary of state.
The case, however, is not so clear cut.
Attacking on the emails would have also risked handing Sanders’ candidacy over to the media-political machine that he so deplores. It would provide reporters with a too-compelling story, and a historic left-wing challenge rooted in economic justice would have been transformed into the sort of cable news talking points that embody precisely what so many people hate about American politics. Sanders did not have the luxury of attacking Clinton on the emails on his own terms. Allowing his candidacy to become the equivalent of a scary-voice attack ad would have undermined the most basic thing about his appeal and turned some, perhaps many, voters off. It would have crowded out his message about fighting oligarchy in favor of scandal.
When a candidate loses an election, it’s understandable that the campaign will be subject to a postmortem analysis attempting to decipher what wrong moves, if they had been made right, could have altered the outcome. But this was an unordinary campaign. Sanders is a democratic socialist who started the primary on the party’s left fringe and greatly upset not only everyone’s expectations but the basic rules of American politics. What should Bernie have done differently? The answer to that question might be “not much.”