The Negative Campaigning Dilemma for Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton

When it comes to attacking one another or the Republicans, both Democratic candidates are in a bind.

Peter White

Both Clinton and Sanders have failed to make unions an importance in their presidential campaigns.

Now that Sanders has won in New Hampshire, the question on everybody’s mind is whether he can keep on winning. The conventional wisdom, of course, has it that he can’t. For months now Hillary has been working the Democratic Party apparatchiks from Alabama to Alaska and every place in between. She’s the progressive who can get things done,” and it would be unseemly to stop running now after a single small stumble in the race to win the Democratic nomination. Clinton is still far ahead in South Carolina, and with her large amounts of campaign donations and plenty of endorsements, her coronation is all but secured.

Hillary has to decide if she will go negative, not Sanders. His only chance of winning is to take the high road. While “nice guys finish last” may be the dominant narrative in U.S. politics, it is not the only one.

So far, the Clinton campaign has done most of the sniping. Yet, Sanders has not responded in kind. He has vowed not to go negative, although Clinton claimed his campaign ads have slandered her by innuendo. Jeffrey St. Clair, editor of Counterpunch, thinks Sanders is a wuss for not taking off the gloves, not challenging the Iowa count and playing too nice during the debates. He thinks it’s a character flaw.

But what’s the alternative? Should Sanders act like Chris Christie, who took down Rubio in the last Republican debate with dismissive remarks about him having no real resume and nothing but 30-second sound bites that Rubio repeats everywhere he goes? Why do Americans think that the best verbal warrior shows who’s got the gravitas to be tough, tougher, toughest on the job? Why must we pick the most adroit and mean-mouthed candidate to be our champion? Because politics is a blood sport and we like to watch.

Sanders is no Odell Beckham and he does seem a bit slow-thinking on his feet, but it isn’t true that he isn’t as sharp as Hillary. He’s just quite disciplined about putting out his message — which, like Rubio, he repeats everywhere he goes. But he will have to become more specific on the details before too long or the mainstream media will crucify him as a Don Quixote jousting at windmills (which they will probably end up doing anyway). When it comes to what Sanders calls the media establishment,” he’s between a rock and no place at all.

When Clinton tried to put down his foreign policy cred, Sanders acknowledged Clinton’s resume but pointedly added that having a lot of experience does not mean having good judgment. If Sanders hangs on beyond South Carolina, maybe he will point out some of Clintons’ faux pas. Will he attack her about Benghazi? Ukraine? Syria?

Sanders has already distanced himself from Clinton about the wars the Obama, Bush and Clinton administrations have pursued. What Sanders hasn’t said, and he should, is that the Pentagon needs its budget cut in half. But he is a realist. He knows we’ll get single payer health care before that ever happens. 

And, of course, if he called for a sane defense budget he’d be pilloried for not securing American interests in the world. I’d loved to see Sanders and Clinton square off about what those interests are, exactly. 

In the February 4 Democratic debate in Durham, New Hampshire, Sanders said the United States can no longer be the world’s policeman, while Clinton has stayed wedded to American exceptionalism that has brought nothing but disaster from Turkey to Turkistan for more than 20 years and is now destabilizing Europe. We’ve been at war now for going on three decades with nothing to show for it but almost universal condemnation by much of the world and the rise of ISIS, which may be a bunch of brutal maniacs but who have killed a lot fewer people than US forces have in the region. We have swung a big stick and not cared who got hit.

Clinton wants to keep on doing that. She’s in favor of encircling Russia by arming its neighbors with American weapons (Sanders is against that). Regarding de-stabilizing Ukraine, Sanders is against sending U.S. troops, but he has endorsed the economic sanctions Obama put on a Russian bank and several high-roller Russians who are Putin cronies. He told Ed Schultz on MSNBC in March 2014: If you’re asking me if those same set of policies will play out, more money for Defense, and then rising deficits, and then cutbacks on programs that middle class and working families need, absolutely that is what will happen.” Sanders’ thinking echoes MLK’s criticism of the Vietnam War for the same reasons. He tied militarism to injustice and inequality at home in a way nobody had before. None of the candidates have invoked King’s legacy to connect their campaign to something transformative and inspiring in our recent history as Sanders has. Regarding his call to address economic injustice, Sanders — not Clinton — speaks to the Occupiers who just few years ago befuddled the politicians and pundits with the self-identifier, 99 percenter. Sanders is focusing attention on that other 1 percent.

The Telegraph in London ran a story on February 9 quoting the New York Times, saying the Obama administration is about to send arms to Ukraine, officially opening a proxy war there with Russia. CNN reported in March 2014 that Clinton was in favor of doing more to support Ukraine and she agrees with Obama’s plans to keep US forces in Afghanistan for at least another year.

When asked specifically about U.S. policy in Ukraine during that same appearance on the Ed Show, Sanders said:

I think what you have there, Ed, as is often the case with foreign policy, is a very very complicated issue and usually what the Republicans do in complicated issues is say the only thing these people understand is force. We gotta gear up, we have to be tough.’ That took us into Iraq, at huge cost of military lives and money. It kept us in Afghanistan for 11 years. So I would prefer to deal with a complicated issue in a measured way, serious international discussions about how we proceed. But force, force should be the last option that we use.

A query to the Sanders press office asking if he supports an escalation in Ukraine was not returned. Clinton and Sanders will soon have to clarify what progressive means to them on this issue.

As for their contrasting styles, consider that just before the presidential election in 1980, Ronald Reagan buried Jimmy Carter by asking: Are you better off than you were four years ago?” Now, as then, most people would say no. What Sanders lacks is The Gipper’s personal touch with voters who felt he was talking to them personally while Sanders talks to The Common Man” and Woman almost as an abstraction, rather than to our own personal Idahoes of discontent with the way things are.

Sanders needs to connect with voters like Reagan did. He is too much like Jimmy Carter — another decent guy who was too smart for his own good. He needs clearly articulated policy proposals peppered with anecdotes of people whose lives would be better if they were in place. That’s what Sanders’ handlers need to figure out how to get him to articulate or it’s going be a short campaign season on the Democratic Party side. Sanders has pushed Clinton further to the Left. In large, bold print, her website now proclaims that she is a progressive who can get things done.” But that is more rhetoric than reality.

Hillary Clinton is running as the tough” candidate. It may well prove to be her Achilles heel — and is part of the sexist double-bind that all women candidates face. If she’s as tough as the boys, she’ll be called a ball-buster. If she’s too feminine, she doesn’t meet the job requirements. Therein lies the dilemma that may prove to be Clinton’s undoing. If her style and substance matches that of the Republican contenders, she will have nothing to distinguish herself from them but her sex. That may not be enough for her to win the general election.

In the coming weeks, if Clinton goes after Sanders personally, she may hoist herself on her own petard. As Marc Daalder argued in these pages, Sanders’ decision not to go negative was quite savvy. If Clinton does not take the high road and refuses to debate Sanders on the issues, instead taking advantage of his decency to dismiss him as a Pied Piper with an impossible dream, as many mainstream pundits have already done, she may prove herself to be nasty enough to face the Republican nominee. But a lot of voters will be put off by that approach, and she just may not get the nomination if enough Sanderistas get to the polls.

So it is Hillary that has to decide if she will go negative, not Sanders. His only chance of winning is to take the high road. While nice guys finish last” may be the dominant narrative in U.S. politics, it is not the only one.

If Clinton gets nasty, will Sanders take off the gloves and start attacking Clinton? Will the campaign become personal? Doubtful. Even if Sanders stays on the high road and gets Clinton to debate the issues, he likely won’t get past Super Tuesday. But if he goes negative now, he certainly won’t survive for long. He will only be sparring with Clinton to get her ready to face the Republicans. You can bet the Republican candidate will grant Clinton no quarter, but she can take it. Clinton won’t crack, but perhaps she will get nasty. Maybe that’s what it takes to live in the White House.

Please consider supporting our work.

I hope you found this article important. Before you leave, I want to ask you to consider supporting our work with a donation. In These Times needs readers like you to help sustain our mission. We don’t depend on—or want—corporate advertising or deep-pocketed billionaires to fund our journalism. We’re supported by you, the reader, so we can focus on covering the issues that matter most to the progressive movement without fear or compromise.

Our work isn’t hidden behind a paywall because of people like you who support our journalism. We want to keep it that way. If you value the work we do and the movements we cover, please consider donating to In These Times.

Peter White, a former USFS smokejumper, has reported for In These Times from Mexico about NAFTA and the Chiapas rebellion. He has also written for the PBS series This American Land and Yahoo​.com. He lives in Nashville with his two sons.
Illustrated cover of Gaza issue. Illustration shows an illustrated representation of Gaza, sohwing crowded buildings surrounded by a wall on three sides. Above the buildings is the sun, with light shining down. Above the sun is a white bird. Text below the city says: All Eyes on Gaza
Get 10 issues for $19.95

Subscribe to the print magazine.