Published on TheHill.com on July 7, 2015
With Bernie Sanders creeping up on Hillary Clinton for the 2016 presidential nomination — closing to within 8 points in New Hampshire and holding her to 52 percent in Iowa — the new and unanticipated threat he poses presents an important challenge to the former secretary of State. Unfortunately for her, she has no good choices.
Her current strategy of ignoring Sanders has failed abysmally. While she has been hiding from the media and avoiding questions about her emails, Sidney Blumenthal and Benghazi, the Clinton Foundation and her speaking fees, the Vermont senator has been catalyzing the left base with bold proposals. His advocacy of a reduced retirement age, a confiscatory top bracket on the income tax, a single-payer socialized medicine system and a $15 minimum wage, as well as opposition to free trade, have all generated an enthusiasm among liberals that has totally stolen the thunder of the first serious chance at a female president.
The humble act has failed. Clinton’s listening tour has accomplished nothing. Carrying her own baggage, flying coach and driving to Iowa are all being dismissed as the gimmicks they are.
So how can Hillary Clinton counter the rise of Bernie Sanders?
She can’t attack him without giving him more credibility than he has. All hope of dismissing him as an also-ran would evaporate when she mentions his name. Indeed, the more he appears as a harmless protest vote against the party establishment in general and the Clintons in particular, the easier it is to back him in the primary.
She can’t attack his issue positions without alienating a big part of her base. Sanders, even without much polling, has identified new hot buttons to elicit a strong response from liberals. She doesn’t dare oppose this new agenda for the left. She can move to the center once she has the nomination in hand, but not now.
Nor can she attack Sanders personally or go after his record. First, many liberals support him when he has strayed to the left, and second, she cannot give him the legitimacy of criticizing him. Personal attacks, such as on his sexual fantasies and writings of 40 years ago, look strained and artificial and like the product of an overly active negative researcher.
Her most likely approach is to say that Sanders can’t win, raising fears among Democrats that he might steal the party’s chances for victory. Just as the Clintons and the Kennedys torpedoed Howard Dean’s candidacy in 2004 after he surged in the wake of his approval of a gay marriage bill in Vermont, so Hillary’s people will warn of disaster if Bernie is nominated.
In a sense, Clinton will abandon the strategy of ignoring Sanders and try to fast-forward the campaign to a Sanders victory, warning of the consequences — just as the Clintons did with Dean.
The problem is, Clinton can’t know how the rebound off Sanders would carom. In a simple two-way zero-sum race between the two, his negatives are her positives. Perhaps her other opponents for the nomination, like former Virginia Sen. Jim Webb, might be able to capitalize, however.
But what could paralyze Clinton is the prospect of Joe Biden entering the race. If the vice president makes it a three-way contest, her shots at Sanders will likely push votes to Biden. If the rap is Sanders can’t win, what is the logic that says doubts about his electability will cause voters who once supported Clinton and have since abandoned her to move back to her? If Sanders can’t win because he’s too liberal, what makes anyone feel that Clinton can overcome her various scandals, particularly voters who themselves have dropped her precisely because of those scandals?
Clinton is stuck. And the more she appears to be stuck in the dilemma of how to handle Sanders, the greater is the likelihood that Biden jumps in.
If Biden does run, how does Clinton attack him without pulling President Obama into the debate as collateral damage? How can she go after the vice president without her attacks reflecting ill on the sitting and, among Democrats, wildly popular president?
Clinton’s in a tough spot.
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