No More Mister Nice Guy

The narrative shifted. Everyone was getting used to the Republican primaries and caucuses being a kind of junior high spat with the kids taunting each other, calling each other names – liar, fraud, thief, wimp, fool and so on. There would be pouting and whining too, and a lot of bragging and flexing of this and that – and the Republicans didn’t disappoint. The sneers of Donald Trump and Ted Cruz cleared the field of all but John Kasich, who hung around being relatively pleasant, but insignificant. He wasn’t worth attacking. He was the quiet kid in the corner – but it was a great show anyway.

The Democrats were boring. They weren’t a great show, because Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders persisted in talking about policy – what the country should do and why – not about each other. They agreed on most everything anyway. They just disagreed on how to get there from here – Bernie wanted a Revolution of sorts and Hillary said that would never work. She was the pragmatist. And she’d been there. Change comes from persistent pressure and it comes slowly – all those years as a senator and then secretary of state taught her that. Never give up but understand what can be done at the moment given the situation and the often unpleasant people in the mix at the moment. Bernie said do that and you never get anywhere – things don’t change, really. That was the dispute, such as it was.

That was also what they were selling America – the two of them were actually thinking about the future of the country. On the Republican side, Donald Trump was assuring America he had a really big dick, and, by the way, Ted Cruz’s wife is kind of ugly. Cruz was saying attack my wife and family and I’ll destroy you – and he’s working behind the scenes to flip Trump’s pledged delegates to his side – and Trump is screaming bloody murder about that. There’s no discussion of policy going on – but it is a great show. The media cover that show. Policy is boring – and what little Republican policy that pops up is so absurd (or illegal) that there’s not much point in even talking about it.

Those were our politics this year. Everyone knew what to expect. The news stories almost wrote themselves, but then as things shifted to the New York primary the narrative shifted:

The contest between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders grew increasingly nasty with a series of testy exchanges that have prompted widespread concern among Democrats that their rivalry is doing lasting damage to the party and the eventual nominee.

With both candidates launching 10-day sprints here ahead of New York’s April 19 primary, the strain and resentment of a hard-fought and unexpectedly long contest boiled over repeatedly in interviews, speeches and other public appearances. The senator from Vermont refused to retract his assertion that Clinton is not qualified to be president. Clinton dismissed that claim as “silly” and countered that Sanders has repeatedly made promises he can’t keep.

In an interview with The Washington Post on Thursday, Sanders stood by his view that Clinton is not qualified – but he also pledged to support her if she is the nominee.

“Look, as I’ve said before, on her worst day, she is 100 times better than Donald Trump or Ted Cruz or the other candidates,” he said. “To me, that is not a very hard choice.”

Still, what was said was said – she was unqualified. Donald Trump and Ted Cruz may be dangerous fools who would destroy America, but she was unqualified. On the other hand, he was angry:

Sanders continued to blame Clinton for going on the attack and said he has simply been defending himself. And while he expressed regret for the tenor of the campaign over the previous 24 hours and said the acrimony will make it harder for Democrats to unite in the fall, he also said he does not regret his own statements.

“When somebody says that I am unqualified to be president and gives her reasoning,” Sanders said, “I think it is totally appropriate for me to respond as to why I think she may not be qualified as well. And that has to do with her views and her actions on a number of the major issues facing this country, and the way she’s run this campaign in terms of how she’s raised her money.”

Note:

Clinton had raised questions in a television interview about whether Sanders was prepared to be president, but she repeatedly stopped short of saying he was unqualified.

He didn’t care, but someone else did:

President Obama, who has sought to stay out his party’s nominating contest, weighed in Thursday, though a spokesman. Traveling with Obama on Air Force One, White House spokesman Eric Schultz said Obama believes that Clinton “comes to the race with more experience than any non-vice president” in recent campaign history. Schultz emphasized that Obama feels “fortunate” that Clinton, whom he defeated in a sometimes nasty battle for the 2008 nomination, served as his secretary of state.

But Bernie had his bill of particulars:

Sanders based his assertion about Clinton’s lack of qualifications on claims that she is too closely tied to Wall Street, a charge he has been repeating for months. He also said her candidacy was undermined by her support of the Iraq War and her backing of what he termed a series of “disastrous” trade deals.

Those are issues, but the party is upset:

“There are policy disagreements he may have with her on some things – let’s stick to those, let’s not say that the most qualified candidate for president is simply unqualified,” said Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.). “We’ve got to refrain from ad hominem attacks…. we’ve got to stay focused on what we’ve got to do in November.”

“It concerns me deeply,” said Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.). “What he does is divide the Democratic faithful, and why would he want to do that?”

And there’s this:

Some Democrats said they found Sanders’s words particularly troubling because, outside the heat of the campaign trail, they don’t really think he means them.

“I really don’t think he believes that,” said Sen. Timothy M. Kaine (D-Va.), another Clinton supporter. “Nothing he’s ever said to us had conveyed that sentiment. Competition’s tough. I hope that they might back off it a little bit.”

And this:

Clinton said in an NBC interview: “I think it’s kind of a silly statement. But he’s free to say whatever he chooses.” Her husband, former president Bill Clinton, and a large cast of other supporters make public and sometimes indignant defenses of her credentials. Her campaign produced a cheeky online true-or-false quiz to bolster the argument that her long résumé and practical experience make her eminently qualified. …

The Clinton campaign has been eager to knock Sanders’s halo off by emphasizing what it has described as the increasingly negative and political nature of his campaign. Trying to convince Democrats that Bernie Sanders is more of a typical politician than a principled crusader has been an ongoing – and largely unsuccessful – effort. But the latest skirmish provided a new chance to try.

And this:

Sanders may have given his rival a boost by attacking Clinton in a way that seems to cut against his issues-only ethos, said Dan Pfeiffer, a former top aide to President Obama.

“Sanders made a strategic mistake by going down this road, because it’s off-brand. And you can convince voters of lots of things, but you can’t convince them Hillary Clinton is unqualified to be president,” Pfeiffer said.

Salon’s Amanda Marcotte agrees with that:

It’s hard to deny that things are looking a little tense for the Bernie Sanders campaign these days, despite a long series of primary wins. How else to explain why it is they’ve turned to tired 80s-era stereotypes of professional women as cold-hearted ambition monsters in an effort to take potshots at Hillary Clinton?

“Don’t destroy the Democratic Party to satisfy the secretary’s ambitions to become president of the United States,” Jeff Weaver, Sanders’s campaign manager, said to a not-present Hillary Clinton on CNN.

Well, it’s been a campaign season rife with women being dismissed with the whole cornucopia of sexist stereotypes, from the Donald Trump camp using the “crazy lying bitch” stereotype against a female reporter allegedly assaulted his campaign manager to Ted Cruz and John Kasich backing the idea that women are too stupid to make the abortion decision. So why not just add to the pile by insinuating that Clinton is a real life version of Glenn Close’s character in “Fatal Attraction”: A cold-hearted careerist who will stop at nothing to get what she wants, destroying men and all the sweet housewives who stand in her way.

Marcotte says that is more than just implied:

Sanders’ remarks at a Wednesday rally drove it home.

“Secretary Clinton appears to be getting a little bit nervous,” Sanders said during his speech. “And she has been saying lately that she thinks that I am quote unquote not qualified to be president. Well, let me, let me just say in response to Secretary Clinton: I don’t believe that she is qualified, if she is, through her super PAC, taking tens of millions of dollars in special interest funds.”

“I don’t think you are qualified if you have voted for the disastrous war in Iraq,” he added, as part of a long list of grievances against Clinton that you have probably gotten the gist of by now.

That Iraq thing is of course absurd:

At this point, I’m beginning to sincerely worry that young voters won’t learn that it was Republicans that started that quagmire, since Hillary Clinton is the only person being held accountable for it these days. They sure as hell aren’t going to learn that she spoke out against war and only voted for the authorization after the Bush administration promised her that they would turn to it only as a last resort, a promise they almost immediately broke.

But details, details. It’s clear from Weaver and Sanders’ remarks that the strategy now is to go all in on insinuating that Clinton is a bunny boiler. She lies and steals and kills all to serve her endless scratching hunger for power, her vile ambition, a trait that we can safely assume no men in politics possess.

Clinton is a bunny boiler? That reference is to the nastiest part of that 1987 movie but no matter:

Clinton has been subjected to accusations of being a harpy ambition monster in shoulder pads her entire life. Unsurprisingly, under the circumstances, she’s working this to her advantage. When Chris Cuomo asked her about Weaver’s remarks on CNN, she laughed so hard and so winningly that it immediately went viral with gifs flying around the internet – though perhaps Bernie-or-bust folks see it as the evil cackle of someone about to kill a bunny.

But this is serious:

For women, this stuff isn’t just a silly story about political point-scoring. This strikes right at a double bind many women experience. You feel you have to work twice as hard to get as far – even young girls realize they have to get all As while boys often coast on Bs and Cs – but if you put your nose to the grindstone like that, you then run the risk of being called Tracy Flick at best, and an emasculating ambition beast who probably kills bunnies at worst.

And it’s a problem that speaks directly to income inequality. That double bind, where you have to be perfect to be considered good but you can’t be seen as too ambitious lest you get called castrating, often leads to women shying away from risky and competitive career paths, like science or politics, and towards safe occupations that reward competence but aren’t seen as too threatening. It’s a problem that definitely contributes to the pay gap, because the “safe” options are often the less lucrative ones.

As for Sanders, he is already struggling to get women to vote for him. As NPR reported Wednesday, Sanders has only won the women’s vote in three primary states: New Hampshire, Vermont and Wisconsin. Whatever he wants to be, the cold hard numbers show he is the white guy candidate that white guys vote for, while everyone else votes for Clinton. This “ambition” gambit against Clinton might have seemed like a smart defensive move for Sanders, but it’s also feeding the ugliest fears about him and his campaign when it comes to women.

And it’s all happening right before the primary goes to New York, which probably has the densest concentration in the entire country of smart women dressed in black who don’t care if you think their ambitious is unfeminine.

The Washington Post’s Michael Gerson sees the exact opposite:

Clinton is inevitable. But this is inevitability without affection – the inevitability of a glacier, not a movement.

The counterfactuals, in this case, are instructive. If the field of Democratic establishment candidates had been broader – including, say, Joe Biden, John Kerry and Jerry Brown – Sanders might be in Donald Trump’s situation, leading for the nomination with a strong plurality. If the Sanders slot had been filled by a more electable progressive – say, Elizabeth Warren – Clinton would be toast.

Why is an impeccably qualified candidate who is winning her party’s nomination so politically feeble? Some of this is just raw political skills, or the lack of them. Clinton – who is engaging and self-deprecating in small groups – does not translate well to a big rally setting. Her attempts at intensity get mixed reviews.

“She is out of her element,” the former Democratic official told me. “But lurking underneath these concerns are questions: What is she really about? What is her core? What is she willing to fight for? So far, this is an antiseptic campaign.”

For evidence, let’s go to Clinton’s descriptions of her own cause. Recently on “Morning Joe,” she summarized her appeal: “I’ve been in the trenches a long time.” That is quite a slogan to win over the youngsters. Elsewhere she said: “I think that should be the way people judge who the next president they want to see in the Oval Office is, because at the end of the day, producing results is really what it’s all about.” This is a purely instrumental description. Lawn mowers produce results. Drain cleaners produce results. A preacher with that sense of mission would have an empty collection plate.

Maybe she isn’t qualified after all:

She seems to be running as a candidate who happens to have all of Barack Obama’s views (except, perhaps, on Syria). What, other than the desire for power in her own experienced hands, explains her political relentlessness?

This is the context in which 59 percent of Americans, in a recent Post-ABC News poll, do not judge Clinton to be honest and trustworthy. This doesn’t mean they wouldn’t leave her alone with the cash drawer. Rather, this represents a belief that the main cause of the Clintons is the Clintons themselves, and that a variety of rules get bent in service to that cause. It is sometimes claimed that Hillary Clinton is a Teflon figure; that nothing – not her email troubles, not her foundation troubles, not her Benghazi troubles, not her FBI troubles — sticks to her. This is true if it means that no single scandal has knocked her out of the race. But there has been a cumulative effect – a gradual oxidation that has left a layer of rust. For the purposes of this election, none of this is likely to matter. Republicans seem utterly determined to lose a perfectly winnable race. But it is not a small thing, or a good thing, that Americans seem prepared to elect a president they do not trust.

Ah, so the ultimate qualification for the office is trust, but Ezra Klein has a few things to say about that:

Bernie Sanders says Hillary Clinton isn’t qualified to be president. He says he only said this because Hillary Clinton said he’s not qualified to be president, which Clinton’s campaign says she didn’t say. Asked for evidence of Clinton’s attack, Sanders’s campaign pointed to this Washington Post story, which is headlined, “Clinton questions whether Sanders is qualified to be president,” but does not actually include any comments from Clinton questioning Sanders’s qualifications to be president.

Fine, but Klein argues that no one knows what being qualified actually means:

1) The debate about who is “qualified” to be president is frustrating because Americans have never decided what it means to be qualified for the presidency. In practice, we tend to elect career politicians to the office despite occasionally flirting with businessmen, but there’s no rule saying we have to do that.

2) That said, there’s no doubt that both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders are more than qualified to be president. Both of them have been in politics longer than the current president of the United States, for instance.

3) Both Clinton and Sanders have significantly more government experience than the current frontrunner for the Republican nomination who has spent exactly zero days in elected office or any other kind of public service.

4) Even though voters prefer politicians, they don’t much respect political experience. Note that Joe Biden is the vice president, not the president, and John McCain wasn’t elected to the White House – which is all to say that passing the amorphous, ill-defined “qualifications” bar doesn’t win you the presidency. This is a debate that’s rather less important than it sounds.

This is less important than it sounds? Josh Marshall disagrees:

All candidates, by definition, say that they’re more qualified than their opponent. Various things Clinton said can be reasonably interpreted as questioning whether Sanders is up to the job of the presidency. But it is an entirely different matter when an opponent, in his own voice, says flatly his challenger is “unqualified” to serve as President of the country. That’s something that cannot be unsaid. If Clinton is the nominee, it will undoubtedly be a staple of GOP stump speeches in the fall. These are simple realities of political campaigns. Primaries that drag on get intense – especially in the venomous and kinetic New York media environment. The Clinton operation has plenty of sharp elbows themselves. But it is incumbent on both candidates to fight hard and yet not say things that can’t be unsaid…

The scuffle got more intense and more cynical later this morning when Sanders’ campaign manager Jeff Weaver came on MSNBC and now explicitly doubled down, actually doubly double-down. He says the Washington Post was right. Clinton did say Sanders was unqualified. So they’ll say it about her. So there!

Now, as I’ve watched this campaign unfold, I’ve increasingly had the sense that Weaver is a, maybe the key source of toxicity and cynicism in the Sanders camp, and I suspect doesn’t care terribly about the November election if Sanders isn’t the standard bearer. Obviously Sanders is responsible for his own campaign. And it’s difficult to overestimate the mix of exhaustion, frustration and intensity that gets churned up in a hotly contested race like this. People get mad – on both sides. No crying in baseball, of course. Campaigns can and do what they feel they need to do. But the consequences are ones all should understand and absorb.

This is cynical. It’s a lie. And it’s playing with fire.

Really? Kevin Drum disagrees with that:

I’m curious about something: is this actually true? I hear it every four years. At some point, the primary races always get a little (or a lot) nasty, and the candidates start saying things that seem like they’d be great fodder for attack ads by the other side in the general election. But are they? Do these kinds of comments ever end up as a major theme in political ads?

I never see it. Of course, I live in California, and nobody ever bothers advertising here. Still, I never really hear about it elsewhere either. By the time the general election comes along, both sides have far more important attacks to make. And they probably assume – rightly – that most undecided voters don’t care much what some angry primary opponent said six months before.

I’d prefer that both Bernie and Hillary dial it back a notch. But is Donald Trump really going to attack Hillary by showing footage of Bernie saying she’s not qualified to be president, nyah nyah nyah? I doubt it. Even low-information voters know that this is the kind of thing that happens in the heat of campaigns, and it doesn’t really mean anything.

In 2012, for example, did the Obama campaign run attack ads featuring Newt Gingrich saying that Romney kept money in the Cayman Islands? Did the McCain campaign in 2008 use footage of Hillary attacking Obama?

This may not matter at all, but Charles Pierce thinks it’s dumb stuff:

I’m starting to wonder seriously about both of these people. Neither campaign seems able to avoid the easiest mistakes in optics. Neither one seems to grasp the appetite of the elite political media for a Democratic hooley to correspond to the ongoing one in the Republican Party, because that will allow for the Both Sides In Turmoil narrative that will allow the elite political media to ignore the fact that the top two contenders for the Republican nomination are an ego-driven vulgar talking yam, and an extremist theocrat who believes himself to be blessed by the Almighty to redeem this sinful land. When your opponent is drowning, you throw him the anchor. You don’t cling to it yourself.

There’s another way to put that. If you can’t beat them, join them, but if you can beat them, don’t be a damned fool about it – keep doing what you’re doing. Our two Democrats shifted the winning narrative they had going – but Democrats aren’t Republicans. At the next debate, scheduled for a few days before the New York primary, they should have a good laugh about this. They disagree on how they both want to get to the same place, but it may be that they actually trust each other. Yes, Democrats aren’t Republicans. They’re boring, in a good way. They should stick to that narrative.

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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