Remember in the debate Thursday night, when Bernie Sanders torched Hillary Clinton over being caught up in yet another federal investigation? Man, it was brutal.
“Ladies and gentlemen, as we stand here today, we’re just learned that the Department of State has subpoenaed records from the Clinton Foundation as part of an investigation into some of its projects that were greenlighted by the federal government while she was serving as Secretary of State. The inspector general is also looking into the questionable employment status of her close aide, Huma Abedin. In case you’ve lost count, that makes three ongoing federal investigations related to Secretary Clinton, including one by the FBI into whether she put national security at risk and another by the State Department into her use of a private email server.
“My friends, I have great respect for Hillary Clinton’s service to the country, but we have to approach the upcoming election strategically. Public opinion polls consistently show that the American people view her as neither honest nor trustworthy. How many more scandals are out there? How many federal investigations do we want our presidential nominee caught up in when the general election comes around? I’m willing to give Secretary Clinton the benefit of the doubt on the questions these investigations raise, but will Donald Trump? Or Ted Cruz? Or, most importantly, the Independent voters we need to make sure a Democrat sits in the Oval Office in 2017?”
Oh, wait. Sanders didn’t say that stuff? Well, why not? (The PBS moderators, Gwen Ifill and Judy Woodruff, didn’t either. But that’s another story.)
An enduring mystery of the Bernie Sanders campaign is that although federal investigators keep throwing him batting practice fastballs right over the plate, he refuses to swing. Last month, when the State Department, which Clinton used to run, had to admit that emails found on her private email server contained top secret information too sensitive to release even in redacted form, the Sanders campaign was silent.
Memorably, in an early Democratic debate, Sanders dismissed any discussion of Clinton’s emails at all as a distraction.
None of this is to say that the investigations are certain to uncover serious wrongdoing by Clinton. Perhaps they will all come to nothing. That’s certainly Clinton’s prediction. But in the context of a presidential campaign, that’s irrelevant. Sanders’ opponent has a very serious problem with her public image when it comes to questions of honesty and trustworthiness, and he has consistently refused to exploit it.
Exit polls after the New Hampshire primary showed that one in three voters said the most important attribute a candidate needs to have in order to win their vote is honesty. Clinton lost those voters by an astounding 92-6 margin. National polls have revealed voter uneasiness about trusting Clinton since before she officially announced her candidacy.
That’s not a chink in Clinton’s armor. It’s a massive hole. If Clinton is the Democratic nominee, the trust question will be the first thing her Republican opponent talks about when he wakes up in the morning, and the last thing he mentions before going to bed. (And he’ll probably have scheduled tweets about it teed up for the overnight hours.)
Yet, Sanders won’t go there. Politically, this is hard to explain, but here’s a theory.
Bernie Sanders does not expect, and never did expect, to be president. He entered the race as a longshot – a protest candidate who wanted to get his message about income inequality and an economic system “rigged” to favor the rich onto a larger stage. Maybe he could push his party a little further to the left on issues important to him before he was forced out of the race.
Despite more success than anyone, including Sanders, expected, he remains a long-shot candidate. He performed well in Iowa and won in a landslide in New Hampshire, but he knows very well that the demographics in those states are the best he will see for the rest of the primary campaign.
He could blast Clinton on the trust issue night and day, and probably sway some voters. But it doesn’t seem likely that he would accomplish much more than souring a considerable portion of the Democratic electorate on Clinton and making her more vulnerable to the ultimate Republican candidate.
Sure, Bernie Sanders would like to win the primary, but he’s smart enough to know the odds are stacked badly against him. And he also knows that savaging the eventual nominee might have the unintended effect of putting a Republican in the White House.
So, he continues to hit her from the left. On Henry Kissinger. On Wall Street. But he refuses to amplify the most effective attack, because he just doesn’t want to do too much damage.