What to learn from Hillary Clinton’s primary struggles
All the way back in the now ancient-year of 2008, a bygone era when Tik Tok was neither social media platform nor Ke$ha single, the Democratic Party’s presidential primary was mired in a nasty state of affairs by its conclusion. Long thought to have the contest in the bag, Senator Hillary Clinton slowly lost ground to political newcomer Barack Obama over the course of a lengthy and bruising primary season.
As Obama racked up primary wins and slowly neared the magic delegate number of 2,117, a group of furious Clinton backers formed a group named PUMA. Although they claimed that the acronym stood for “People United Means Action,” that was a fig leaf for its real name of “Party Unity My Ass.” PUMA actively attempted to sabotage Obama’s campaign, encouraging former Clinton supporters to write in her name on the ballot or vote for Republican nominee John McCain, and was an early booster of the Obama birtherism conspiracy theories. Remember “Bernie or Bust,” the very small but very vocal group of Sanders supporters who promised to stay home or vote for Donald Trump if he wasn’t the nominee? PUMA was there first.
Something of a political afterthought after her stunning defeat in the 2016 general election, the former First Lady and Secretary of State has reinserted herself back in the national conversation in a big way of late. Ahead of a Hulu documentary airing next month, Clinton attacked Sanders in an interview with the Hollywood Reporter, claiming that Sanders “was in Congress for years. He had one senator support him. Nobody likes him, nobody wants to work with him, he got nothing done. He was a career politician. It's all just baloney and I feel so bad that people got sucked into it.” Harsh stuff indeed.
Additionally, when asked if she would vote for Sanders if he became the Democratic nominee, Clinton refused to answer, flatly stating,“I’m not going to go there yet. We’re still in a very vigorous primary season.” Instead, she doubled down on her criticism of the Vermont Senator, remarking, “I will say, however, that it’s not only him, it’s the culture around him. It’s his leadership team. It’s his prominent supporters. It’s his online Bernie Bros and their relentless attacks on lots of his competitors, particularly the women.” Although she successfully dissociated herself from PUMA 12 years ago, it appears that Clinton is channeling its energy.
One might ask why Clinton felt the need to pipe up about Sanders all of a sudden, particularly since the 2020 Democratic candidates have almost entirely avoided mentioning the former Secretary of State, whose standing with Democratic voters remains at an all-time low.
The roundabout answer will point to Sanders’ recent spat with Elizabeth Warren over a he said-she said story about comments he may or may not have made about the viability of a woman presidential candidate, and will charitably interpret Hillary’s outburst as her intervening on Warren’s behalf as a fellow woman politico. This probably isn’t untrue, but it’s missing a rather easy thread to spot.
The simple answer is that Hillary Clinton doesn’t want Bernie Sanders to be the Democratic nominee, really doesn’t want him to be President and really, really doesn’t want his strain of social democracy to become standard within the Democratic Party. As the first-in-the nation Iowa caucuses approach, Sanders is surging in state and national polls. A recent New York Times/Siena poll of registered Iowa voters found Sanders with a 7-point lead over runner-up Pete Buttegieg. A WBUR/MassINC survey found him with a 12-point lead over the secondplace Buttegieg.
Of course, Sanders supporters shouldn’t start writing his nomination speech quite yet: primary voters are a notoriously fickle lot, and even two early victories cannot outright end a primary season this well-funded. Besides, Joe Biden’s nearly 20-point lead in South Carolina will assuredly give him momentum heading into all-important Super Tuesday, where the absurdly well-funded Michael Bloomberg will appear on ballots for the first time. If success in pre-primary polling were all you needed to be nominated, we’d be talking about how these Democrats stack up with President Jeb.
The scary part for centrist Democrats like Clinton is that Bernie is being taken seriously at all after they signed the Vermont Senator’s death warrant many times over. In the dog days of September, the Sanders campaign appeared left for dead. With his thunder stolen by the then-ascendant Warren and a heart attack scare convincing many in the media class his age was a liability, the Sanders campaign was on the decline. Clinton and allies like the Center for American Progress’ Neera Tanden and Tom Watson were likely sleeping soundly, content that an acceptable candidate like Kamala Harris or Warren would eventually surpass Biden.
After Warren’s clumsy rollout of her healthcare plan alienated many of her supporters on the party’s soft left and liberal darling Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez joined the Sanders campaign as a surrogate, that decline halted. In the months since, Sanders has established a clear lead over every Democrat barring Joe Biden, with Warren’s reputation on the party’s left in permanent tatters and Buttegieg’s support with the African American Democratic base doggedly stuck between 0.5 percent and “humanity has not yet invented a device to observe something this small.” Recent publications from the New York Times would lead you to believe that there is a candidate named “Amy Klobuchar” in the race, but the available evidence suggests that the coverage of this rarely-seen candidacy is some sort of elaborate prank the D.C. press corps is playing while they anxiously await the Iowa results.
Although a good deal of political observers and insiders predicted a Biden/Bernie showdown on the horizon from the very moment Trump took office, that contest always comprised the nightmare scenario for the neoliberal Third Way set that Clinton serves as the avatar for. On one hand, a Biden victory would be a tough pill to swallow for many in the Clinton camp, putting another problematic white man at the head of a moderate wing that has spent the better part of a decade making issues of representation a major party tenet.
On the other, a Sanders nomination represents a true doomsday scenario for the Demcratic Party’s right, a complete repudiation of their central political ideal. Sanders is promising to win the primary and the general not by the traditional Democratic approach of appealing to the political center, but by energizing would-be voters who have given up on the process to come out and vote for the first time. If Sanders’ wager on voter engagement bears fruit, it would throw the Democratic playbook used since Jimmy Carter straight into the garbage.
Whether you agree with Sanders or not, one must recognize that his candidacy is implicitly staked upon the notion that Democrats have needlessly handcuffed themselves, prisoners to a center that never really existed. Existing as Hillary Clinton in a Democratic Party recast in Sanders’ image would render her a living political fossil, like those Rockerfeller Republicans rendered inert in the age of Reagan. According to rumormongering, even Barack Obama has begun to get skittish about the prospect of a Sanders win, albeit not enough to make his fears public. If Sanders keeps up the success, expect other longtime Democrats to pull out the old PUMA card.