Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont backed down on Friday from his controversial assertion that rival Hillary Clinton isn’t qualified to be president following a huge backlash from Democrats complaining that Sanders was hurting their party’s chances for victory in November.
Fuming after days of perceived slights from Clinton that he might not be prepared to be president and needs to do his “homework” -- even on his signature issue of breaking up the big banks -- Sanders earlier this week said she had disqualified herself by accepting millions of dollars in campaign funds from Wall Street and other special interests, voting in 2002 to support the U.S. invasion of Iraq, and backing free trade deals that hurt U.S. workers.
The response from Democratic party leaders and liberal columnists was swift and stern: The Vermont senator who once prided himself on his civility in campaigning had breached political etiquette and risked creating an irreparable fissure in the party. New York Times columnist Paul Krugman wrote that Sanders’s campaign “has lost its ethical moorings” in attacking Clinton.
In back-to-back appearances on MSNBC’s Morning Joe and NBC’s Today, a mildly repentant Sanders sought to repair the damage with laudatory comments about Clinton’s intelligence and experience. He told Today hosts Matt Lauer and Savannah Guthrie that “of course” Clinton was qualified to be the next president.
Despite the bitter exchanges between the two, Sanders hastened to add, “On her worst day, she would be an infinitely better president than either of the Republican candidates."
Sanders said during both television appearances that it had become apparent that the Clinton campaign had decided to “change its tone” and go negative after losing to Sanders in Wisconsin and five other states recently, and that Sanders felt he had no choice but to punch back.
“What am I supposed to do? Just sit back and say, hey, I come from a small state. We’re really nice people,” Sanders told the Morning Joe anchors. “We’ve got to fight back and that’s what we’re trying to do. I hope though, let me be clear on this, let’s get back to the issues. Hillary Clinton and I have strong disagreements, I respect her, but let’s start debating the issues.”
As for Krugman’s criticism that he has lost his ethical moorings, Sanders retorted: “How often have I talked about Hillary Clinton’s emails? Have you heard me? Not a word? How often have I talked about the Clinton Foundation’s fundraising? Have you heard me say one word about that? I am trying to stay away from personal attacks on Hillary.”
Democrats who have been tolerant and even encouraging of Sanders’ run at Clinton from the left balked at his most recent statements, and by Friday morning he faced a torrent of attacks from pundits on the left.
Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson, who has been generally friendly toward Sanders, called his attack on her qualifications “a ridiculous thing to say” and mocked him for falling back on “the she-hit-me-first defense,” noting, “The problem is that Clinton never said such a thing.”
Krugman, the liberal New York Times columnist who has been notably cool to Sanders so far, blew up on Friday, saying, “the way Mr. Sanders is now campaigning raises serious character and values issues.”
Krugman took issue with Sanders’ claim about Clinton’s supposed disqualification for office by supporting past trade agreements and voting to authorize the Iraq war.
“This is really bad, on two levels. Holding people accountable for their past is O.K., but imposing a standard of purity, in which any compromise or misstep makes you the moral equivalent of the bad guys, isn’t. Abraham Lincoln didn’t meet that standard; neither did F.D.R. Nor, for that matter, has Bernie Sanders (think guns).”
The criticism of Sanders echoed on Capitol Hill on Thursday, when virtually no Democratic senator would take Sanders’s part in his mushrooming feud with Clinton.
“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,” Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO), told The Washington Post. “We’ve got to refrain from ad hominem attacks. We’ve got to stay focused on what we’ve got to do in November.”
Despite his surprisingly strong performance throughout the primary contests, Sanders rarely has gotten a favorable nod from congressional Democrats, in part because he has run as an independent throughout his political career and only caucuses with the Democrats to leverage his influence in the Senate. Clinton, by contrast, has labored in the Democratic vineyards for decades and enjoys widespread support among Democratic lawmakers and party leaders.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), a veteran lawmaker, voiced deep concern that Sanders was doing terrible damage to the party’s prospects this fall with his outbursts. “What he does is divide the Democratic faithful, and why would he want to do that?”
The Sanders camp quickly went into full retreat, evidenced by the candidate’s own comments on the morning talk shows and by an interview Sanders’ senior advisor Tad Devine gave to the Washington Post’s Greg Sargent.
“Bernie has said he’s going to support the nominee, and I’m sure he’ll do everything to make sure that the next president is a Democrat,” Devine said.