There was a time when the Democratic presidential campaign was a sea of tranquility and civility compared with the mud wrestling going on between billionaire Donald Trump, Sen. Ted Cruz and others in the Republican race.
But as the Democratic race between Sen. Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton has tightened, the gloves have come off, and the kind of bitter exchange previously limited to the GOP campaign flared up in New York and Philadelphia on Wednesday.
Capping a day of acrimonious back and forth between the two rivals, Sanders told a large group of supporters in Philadelphia that he does not believe the former secretary of state and U.S. senator from New York is qualified to be president because she was beholden to Wall Street for massive campaign contributions and speaking fees, because she supported free trade agreements that he thinks have hurt the economy, and because of her vote for the Iraq War.
“She’s been saying lately that she thinks I am quote-unquote not qualified to be president,” Sanders said. “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 money. I don’t think you are qualified if you get $15 million through Wall Street for your super PAC.”
“And I don’t think you are qualified if you have voted for the disastrous war in Iraq,” he added, referring to her 2002 vote in favor of the U.S. invasion of Iraq.
Brian Fallon, Clinton’s press secretary, described Sanders’s speech as a “new low” in campaigning and insisted that Clinton never explicitly said Sanders was not qualified to be president. Yet Clinton hasn’t been shy about suggesting that Sanders isn’t ready to be commander in chief, snidely commenting yesterday that Sanders had not done his “homework” with regard to Wall Street reform, one of his chief campaign issues.
The fracas revealed that Sanders has a relatively thin skin. He raised the temperature again Wednesday during an interview with CBS News in which he was asked whether he thought he should apologize to the families of the victims of the December 2012 mass shooting at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut for voting for legislation that granted immunity to gun manufacturers – a position that Clinton has frequently criticized Sanders for.
“Maybe Secretary Clinton might want to apologize to the families who lost their loved ones in Iraq, or to the massive levels of destabilization we’re now seeing in that region,” Sanders snapped.
Sanders was showing no sign of backing down on Thursday, saying at a news conference in Philadelphia that while he respects Clinton, he continues to harbor doubts about her qualifications.
Once again displaying a bit of temper, Sanders said: “If Secretary Clinton thinks that I just come from a small state of Vermont, ‘They are not used to this.’ Well, we will get used to it fast … I’m not going to get beaten up. I’m not going to get lied about. We will fight back.”
The heated exchanges highlight the huge stakes on the table. Long frustrated by the steady drumbeat of the media and political analysts saying it is impossible for Sanders to overtake Clinton without astronomical victories in the remaining races, Sanders has begun lashing out at Clinton in hopes of discrediting her in the eyes of the remaining voters.
He is also trying to impress and change the minds of many of the Democratic Party super delegates who will have a big say in the final decision. Most are backing the former secretary of state, but some could still change their minds before the convention.
The obvious danger as Sanders and Clinton turn up the heat is that they might reach a point where it would be difficult to heal the divisions within the party as it heads into the general election campaign.
Clinton and Barack Obama managed to come together and heal the wounds after a lengthy and often bitter campaign in 2008. But it could be different this time, given the huge political and ideological differences between the populist Sanders’s liberal base and Clinton’s more politically mainstream and racially mixed supporters. With Sanders relentlessly portraying Clinton as a pawn of Wall Street and a dupe of Republican President George W. Bush’s administration for voting to invade Iraq following the 9/11 attacks, many of the youthful liberal Democrats rallying for Sanders may find it difficult to back Clinton if she ultimately wins the nomination.
“This is getting nasty – more so than could have been expected earlier in the season,” said Larry Sabato, the director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics. “We are starting to see polls suggesting that up to a quarter of Sanders voters could refuse to back Clinton in the fall – though I think those numbers will be significantly reduced by November. Nonetheless, Clinton will not have the love fest she had hoped for in Philadelphia. She needs to worry about what his delegates will demand and do at the convention.”
Even before the current dust-up, there were signs of growing tension between Clinton and Sanders supporters. A national poll conducted by McClatchy News Service and Marist College from March 29 to 31 found that in a general election, Clinton could lose nearly one-third of Sanders’ supporters.
Asked if they would support Clinton in a general election if she were the nominee, only 69 percent of Sanders supporters said they would. Twenty-five percent said that they definitely would not vote for her. By contrast, 79 percent of Clinton supporters said they would vote for Sanders in the general if he were the nominee, and only 14 percent said they definitely would not support him.
Polls show that, for now, either Clinton or Sanders would beat Trump, the GOP presidential frontrunner, in a general election matchup -- but that assumes a fairly united Democratic party. The nagging question for party leaders now is that if Sanders is declaring Clinton unqualified to be president in April, how could he in good conscience – and with a straight face -- urge voters to get behind Clinton this fall, if she manages to capture their party’s presidential nomination?