This article was originally published in Current Affairs. Written by
Democrats need to seriously and pragmatically assess their strategy for defeating Trump. A Clinton run would be disastrous; Bernie Sanders is their only hope.
With Donald Trump looking increasingly likely to actually be the Republican nominee for President, it’s long past time for the Democrats to start working on a pragmatic strategy to defeat him. Months of complacent, wishful insistences that Trump will disappear have proven false, and with a firm commanding lead in polls and several major primary victories, predictions are increasingly favoring Trump to win the nomination. If Democrats honestly believe, as they say they do, that Trump poses a serious threat to the wellbeing of the country and the lives of minority citizens, that means doing everything possible to keep him out of office. To do that will require them to very quickly unite around a single goal, albeit a counterintuitive one: they must make absolutely sure that Bernie Sanders is the Democratic nominee for President.
The electability question should be at the center of the Democratic primary. After all, elections are about winning, and high-minded liberal principles mean nothing if one has no chance of actually triumphing in a general election. Hillary Clinton has been right to emphasize that the pragmatic achievement of goals should be the central concern of a presidential candidate, and that Bernie Sanders’s supporters often behave as if this is immaterial.
Instinctively, Hillary Clinton has long seemed by far the more electable of the two Democratic candidates. She is, after all, an experienced, pragmatic moderate, whereas Sanders is a raving, arm-flapping elderly Jewish socialist from Vermont. Clinton is simply closer to the American mainstream, thus she is more attractive to a broader swath of voters. Sanders campaigners have grown used to hearing the heavy-hearted lament “I like Bernie, I just don’t think he can win.” And in typical previous American elections, this would be perfectly accurate.
But this is far from a typical previous American election. And recently, everything about the electability calculus has changed, due to one simple fact: Donald Trump is likely to be the Republican nominee for President. Given this reality, every Democratic strategic question must operate not on the basis of abstract electability against a hypothetical candidate, but specific electability against the actual Republican nominee, Donald Trump.
Here, a Clinton match-up is highly likely to be an unmitigated electoral disaster, whereas a Sanders candidacy stands a far better chance. Every one of Clinton’s (considerable) weaknesses plays to every one of Trump’s strengths, whereas every one of Trump’s (few) weaknesses plays to every one of Sanders’s strengths. From a purely pragmatic standpoint, running Clinton against Trump is a disastrous, suicidal proposition.
Sanders supporters have lately been arguing that their candidate is more electable than people think, and they have some support from the available polling. In a number of hypotheticals, Sanders does better than Clinton at beating Trump, and his “unfavorable” ratings among voters are a good deal lower than Clinton’s. In response to this, however, Clinton supporters insist that polling at this stage means very little, and since Bernie is not well known and there has not been a national attack campaign directed at him from the right yet, his supporters do not account for the drop in support that will occur when voters realize he is on the fringes. Imagine, they say, how viciously the right will attack Sanders’s liberal record.
Clinton’s people are right to point out that these polls mean very little; after all, Sanders’s entire campaign success is a caution against placing too much weight on early polling. And they are especially right to emphasize that we should visualize how the campaign by conservatives will realistically play out, rather than attempting to divine the future from highly fallible polling numbers. But it’s precisely when we try to envision how the real dynamics of the campaign will transpire that we see just how disastrous a Clinton-Trump fight will be for Clinton.
Her supporters insist that she has already been “tried and tested” against all the attacks that can be thrown at her. But this is not the case; she has never been subjected to the full brunt of attacks that come in a general presidential election. Bernie Sanders has ignored most tabloid dirt, treating it as a sensationalist distraction from real issues (“Enough with the damned emails!”) But for Donald Trump, sensationalist distractions are the whole game. He will attempt to crucify her. And it is very, very likely that he will succeed.
Trump’s political dominance is highly dependent on his idiosyncratic, audacious method of campaigning. He deals almost entirely in amusing, outrageous, below-the-belt personal attacks, and is skilled at turning public discussions away from the issues and toward personalities (He/she’s a “loser,” “phony,” “nervous,” “hypocrite,” “incompetent.”) If Trump does have to speak about the issues, he makes himself sound foolish, because he doesn’t know very much. Thus he requires the media not to ask him difficult questions, and depends on his opponents’ having personal weaknesses and scandals that he can merrily, mercilessly exploit.
This campaigning style makes Hillary Clinton Donald Trump’s dream opponent. She gives him an endless amount to work with. The emails, Benghazi, Whitewater, Iraq, the Lewinsky scandal, Chinagate, Travelgate, the missing law firm records, Jeffrey Epstein, Kissinger, Marc Rich, Haiti, Clinton Foundation tax errors, Clinton Foundation conflicts of interest, “We were broke when we left the White House,”Goldman Sachs… There is enough material in Hillary Clinton’s background for Donald Trump to run with six times over.
The defense offered by Clinton supporters is that none of these issues actually amount to anything once you look at them carefully. But this is completely irrelevant; all that matters is the fodder they would provide for the Trump machine. Who is going to be looking carefully? In the time you spend trying to clear up the basic facts of Whitewater, Trump will have made five more allegations.
Even a skilled campaigner would have a very difficult time parrying such endless attacks by Trump. Even the best campaigner would find it impossible to draw attention back to actual substantive policy issues, and would spend their every moment on the defensive. But Hillary Clinton is neither the best campaigner nor even a skilled one. In fact, she is a dreadful campaigner. She may be a skilled policymaker, but on the campaign trail she makes constant missteps and never realizes things have gone wrong until it’s too late.
Everyone knows this. Even among Democratic party operatives, she’s acknowledged as “awkward and uninspiring on the stump,” carrying “Bill’s baggage with none of Bill’s warmth.” New York magazine described her “failing to demonstrate the most elementary political skills, much less those learned at Toastmasters or Dale Carnegie.” Last year the White House was panicking at her levels of electoral incompetence, her questionable decisionmaking, and her inclination for taking sleazy shortcuts. More recently, noting Sanders’s catch-up in the polls, The Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin said that she was a “rotten candidate” whose attacks on Sanders made no sense, and that “at some point, you cannot blame the national mood or a poor staff or a brilliant opponent for Hillary Clinton’s campaign woes.” Yet in a race against Trump, Hillary will be handicapped not only by her feeble campaigning skills, but the fact that she will have a sour national mood, a poor staff, and a brilliant opponent.
Every Democrat should take some time to fairly, dispassionately examine Clinton’s track record as a campaigner. Study how the ‘08 campaign was handled, and how this one has gone. Assess her strengths and weaknesses with as little bias or prejudice as possible. Then picture the race against Trump, and think about how it will unfold.
It’s easy to see that Trump has every single advantage. Because the Republican primary will be over, he can come at her from both right and left as he pleases. As the candidate who thundered against the Iraq War at the Republican debate, he can taunt Clinton over her support for it. He will paint her as a member of the corrupt political establishment, and will even offer proof: “Well, I know you can buy politicians, because I bought Senator Clinton. I gave her money, she came to my wedding.” He can make it appear that Hillary Clinton can be bought, that he can’t, and that he is in charge. It’s also hard to defend against, because it appears to be partly true. Any denial looks like a lie, thus making Hillary’s situation look even worse. And then, when she stumbles, he will mock her as incompetent.
Charges of misogyny against Trump won’t work. He is going to fill the press with the rape and harassment allegations against Bill Clinton and Hillary’s role in discrediting the victims (something that made even Lena Dunham deeply queasy.) He can always remind people that Hillary Clinton referred to Monica Lewinsky as a “narcissistic loony toon.” Furthermore, since Trump is not an anti-Planned Parenthood zealot (being the only one willing to stick up for women’s health in a room full of Republicans), it will be hard for Clinton to paint him as the usual anti-feminist right-winger.
Trump will capitalize on his reputation as a truth-teller, and be vicious about both Clinton’s sudden changes of position (e.g. the switch on gay marriage, plus the affected economic populism of her run against Sanders) and her perceived dishonesty. One can already imagine the monologue:
“She lies so much. Everything she says is a lie. I’ve never seen someone who lies so much in my life. Let me tell you three lies she’s told. She made up a story about how she was ducking sniper fire! There was no sniper fire. She made it up! How do you forget a thing like that? She said she was named after Sir Edmund Hillary, the guy who climbed Mount Everest. He hadn’t even climbed it when she was born! Total lie! She lied about the emails, of course, as we all know, and is probably going to be indicted. You know she said there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq! It was a lie! Thousands of American soldiers are dead because of her. Not only does she lie, her lies kill people. That’s four lies, I said I’d give you three. You can’t even count them. You want to go on PolitiFact, see how many lies she has? It takes you an hour to read them all! In fact, they ask her, she doesn’t even say she hasn’t lied. They asked her straight up, she says she usually tries to tell the truth! Ooooh, she tries! Come on! This is a person, every single word out of her mouth is a lie. Nobody trusts her. Check the polls, nobody trusts her. Yuge liar.”
Where does she even begin to respond to this? Some of it’s true, some of it isn’t, but the more she tries to defensively parse it (“There’s been no suggestion I’m going to be indicted! And I didn’t say I usually tried to tell the truth, I said I always tried and usually succeeded”) the deeper she sinks into the hole.
Trump will bob, weave, jab, and hook. He won’t let up. And because Clinton actually has lied, and actually did vote for the Iraq War, and actually is hyper-cosy with Wall Street, and actually does change her positions based on expediency, all she can do is issue further implausible denials, which will further embolden Trump. Nor does she have a single offensive weapon at her disposal, since every legitimate criticism of Trump’s background (inconsistent political positions, shady financial dealings, pattern of deception) is equally applicable to Clinton, and he knows how to make such things slide off him, whereas she does not.
The whole Clinton campaign has been unraveling from its inception. It fell apart completely in 2008, and has barely held together against the longest of long shot candidates. No matter how likely she may be to win the primary, things do not bode well for a general election, whomever the nominee may be. As H.A. Goodman put it in Salon:
Please name the last person to win the presidency alongside an ongoing FBI investigation, negative favorability ratings, questions about character linked to continual flip-flops, a dubious money trail of donors, and the genuine contempt of the rival political party.
The “contempt” bit of this is obviously silly; we all know levels of contempt have reached their world-historic high point in the Republican attitude toward Obama. But the rest is true: it’s incredibly hard to run somebody very few people like and expect to win. With the jocular, shrewd Donald Trump as an opponent, that holds true a million times over.
Nor are the demographics going to be as favorable to Clinton as she thinks. Trump’s populism will have huge resonance among the white working class in both red and blue states; he might even peel away her black support. And Trump has already proven false the prediction that he would alienate Evangelicals through his vulgarity and his self-deification. Democrats are insistently repeating their belief that a Trump nomination will mobilize liberals to head to the polls like never before, but with nobody particularly enthusiastic for Clinton’s candidacy, it’s not implausible that a large number of people will find both options so unappealing that they stay home.
A Clinton/Trump match should therefore not just worry Democrats. It should terrify them. They should be doing everything possible to avoid it. A Trump/Sanders contest, however, looks very different indeed.
Trump’s various unique methods of attack would instantly be made far less useful in a run against Sanders. All of the most personal charges (untrustworthiness, corruption, rank hypocrisy) are much more difficult to make stick. The rich history of dubious business dealings is nonexistent. None of the sleaze in which Trump traffics can be found clinging to Bernie. Trump’s standup routine just has much less obvious personal material to work with. Sanders is a fairly transparent guy; he likes the social safety net, he doesn’t like oligarchy, he’s a workaholic who sometimes takes a break to play basketball, and that’s pretty much all there is to it. Contrast that with the above-noted list of juicy Clinton tidbits.
Trump can’t clown around nearly as much at a debate with Sanders, for the simple reason that Sanders is dead set on keeping every conversation about the plight of America’s poor under the present economic system. If Trump tells jokes and goofs off here, he looks as if he’s belittling poor people, not a magnificent idea for an Ivy League trust fund billionaire running against a working class public servant and veteran of the Civil Rights movement. Instead, Trump will be forced to do what Hillary Clinton has been forced to do during the primary, namely to make himself sound as much like Bernie Sanders as possible. For Trump, having to get serious and take the Trump Show off the air will be devastating to his unique charismatic appeal.
Against Trump, Bernie can play the same “experience” card that Hillary plays. After all, while Sanders may look like a policy amateur next to Clinton, next to Trump he looks positively statesmanlike. Sanders can point to his successful mayoralty and long history as Congress’s “Amendment King” as evidence of his administrative bona fides. And Sanders’s lack of foreign policy knowledge won’t hurt him when facing someone with even less. Sanders will be enough of an outsider for Trump’s populist anti-Washington appeal to be powerless, but enough of an insider to appear an experienced hand at governance.
Trump is an attention-craving parasite, and such creatures are powerful only when indulged and paid attention to. Clinton will be forced to pay attention to Trump because of his constant evocation of her scandals. She will attempt to go after him. She will, in other words, feed the troll. Sanders, by contrast, will almost certainly behave as if Trump isn’t even there. He is unlikely to rise to Trump’s bait, because Sanders doesn’t even care to listen to anything that’s not about saving social security or the disappearing middle class. He will almost certainly seem as if he barely knows who Trump is. Sanders’s commercials will be similar to those he has run in the primary, featuring uplifting images of America, aspirational sentiments about what we can be together, and moving testimonies from ordinary Americans. Putting such genuine dignity and good feeling against Trump’s race-baiting clownishness will be like finally pouring water on the Wicked Witch. Hillary Clinton cannot do this; with her, the campaign will inevitably descend into the gutter, and the unstoppable bloated Trump menace will continue to grow ever larger.
Sanders is thus an almost perfect secret weapon against Trump. He can pull off the only maneuver that is capable of neutralizing Trump: ignoring him and actually keeping the focus on the issues. Further, Sanders will have the advantage of an enthusiastic army of young volunteers, who will be strongly dedicated to the mission of stalling Trump’s quest for the presidency. The Sanders team is extremely technically skilled; everything from their television commercials to their rally organizing to their inspired teasing is pulled off well. The Sanders team is slick and adaptable, the Clinton team is ropey and fumbling.
There’s only one real way to attack Bernie Sanders, and we all know it: he’s a socialist fantasist out of touch with the Realities of Economics. But Trump in the worst possible position to make this criticism. Economists have savaged Trump’s own proposals as sheer lunacy, using every word deployed against Bernie and then some. And while from a D.C. policy veteran like Clinton, charges of a failure to understand how political decisionmaking works may sound reasonable, Sanders is a successful legislator who has run a city; the host of The Apprentice may have a more difficult time portraying a long-serving congressman as being unfamiliar with how Washington works.
Of course, the American people are still jittery about socialism. But they’re less jittery than they used to be, and Bernie does a good job portraying socialism as being about little more than paid family leave and sick days (a debatable proposition, but one beside the point.) His policies are popular and appeal to the prevailing national sentiment. It’s a risk, certainly. But the Soviet Union bogeyman is long gone, and everyone gets called a socialist these days no matter what their politics. It’s possible that swing voters dislike socialism more than they dislike Hillary Clinton, but in a time of economic discontent one probably shouldn’t bet on it.
One thing that should be noted is that all of this analysis applies solely to a race against Trump; the situation changes drastically and unpredictably if Marco Rubio is the nominee or Michael Bloomberg enters the race. Yet the moment, it doesn’t look like Marco Rubio will be nominated, but that Donald Trump will be. And in that case, Clinton is toast.
Some in the media have rushed to declare Sanders’s campaign moribund in the wake of his recent loss in Nevada. This is absurd; after all, out of 50 states, only three have voted, one being a tie, one being a major Sanders win, and one being a small Clinton win. The media has dishonestly pointed to Hillary Clinton’s higher superdelegate count as evidence of her strong lead, despite knowing full well that superdelegates are highly unlikely to risk tearing the party apart by taking the nomination out of voters’ hands, and are thus mostly a formality. The press has also crafted a narrative about Sanders “slipping behind,” ignoring the fact that Sanders has been behind from the very start; not for a moment has he been in front.
But even if it was correct to say that Sanders was “starting to” lose (instead of progressively losing less and less), this should only motivate all Democrats to work harder to make sure he is nominated. One’s support for Sanders should increase in direct proportion to one’s fear of Trump. And if Trump is the nominee, Hillary Clinton should drop out of the race and throw her every ounce of energy into supporting Sanders. If this does not occur, the resulting consequences for Muslims and Mexican immigrants of a Trump presidency will be fully the responsibility of Clinton and the Democratic Party. To run a candidate who can’t win, or who is a very high-risk proposition, is to recklessly play with the lives of millions of people. So much depends on stopping Trump; a principled defeat will mean nothing to the deported, or to those being roughed up by Trump’s goon squads or executed with pigs’ blood-dipped bullets.
Donald Trump is one of the most formidable opponents in the history of American politics. He is sharp, shameless, and likable. If he is going to be the nominee, Democrats need to think very seriously about how to defeat him. If they don’t, he will be the President of the United States, which will have disastrous repercussions for religious and racial minorities and likely for everyone else, too. Democrats should consider carefully how a Trump/Clinton matchup would develop, and how a Trump/Sanders matchup would. For their sake, hopefully they will realize that the only way to prevent a Trump presidency is the nomination of Bernie Sanders.