by BILL SCHER · September 7, 2017
Her new book relaunches the Democratic civil war of 2016.
Democrats are living their own version of Groundhog Day. Every day, they wake up and realize they are still in the 2016 presidential primary.
The leaked excerpts of Hillary Clinton’s campaign memoir, “What Happened,” have stirred up another round of relitigation over, well, what happened. Clinton reserves some blame for Vladimir Putin, James Comey and herself. But it’s her fingering of Bernie Sanders that has cheered her loyalists, enraged his, and made every other Democrat consider emulating Bill Murray by taking a bath with a plugged-in toaster.
Sanders’ attacks on her character and progressive credentials “caused lasting damage,” she charges in the book, “making it harder to unify progressives in the general election and paving the way for Donald Trump’s ‘Crooked Hillary’ campaign. I don’t know if that bothered Bernie or not.”
Ouch. “This is the grudge that won’t go away,” said Slate’s Ben Mathis-Lilley of Clinton’s feelings toward Sanders. But Clinton’s jabs are more than personal pique. She is effectively warning her colleagues in the Democratic establishment: Don’t give Bernie the keys to the party.
That message is not one often said out loud. Even if many Democrats harbor reservations about the Vermont independent’s rising influence in their party, “unity” has been the buzzword since the Election Day debacle. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer invited Sanders to join the party leadership, along with the Democrat from the reddest state in the union, West Virginia’s Joe Manchin. The new Democratic National Committee chair, Tom Perez, asked his rival, Sanders supporter Rep. Keith Ellison of Minnesota, to be vice chair, and then filled out a “Unity Reform Commission”—part of the compromise 2016 party platform—with members picked by Clinton, Sanders and Perez.
Democrats have been bending in Sanders’ direction on policy in hopes of keeping Berniecrats in the fold. Schumer’s “Better Deal” policy package is aimed at breaking up corporate monopolies (though Sanders’ political arm Our Revolution was unimpressed and staged a protest at the DNC the day after Schumer’s unveiling). After Sanders supporters tagged potential presidential candidate Sen. Kamala Harris as soft on Wall Street, she fortified her left flank by endorsing his forthcoming single-payer health care bill. (In a Thursday statement responding to Clinton’s criticisms, Sanders slipped in that his bill would be introduced next week, perfectly timed to step on her book rollout.)
Sanders holds the whip hand. He pushes the party. Then the party, terrified of losing his voters, gets pushed.
This lurch to the left has caused no immediate problems; congressional Democrats have been remarkably unified against Trump all year. And from the progressive populist perspective, Sanders is pushing Democrats only where they need to go, substantively and politically.
But Clinton’s book waves a big red flag: “… he isn’t a Democrat—that’s not a smear, that’s what he says. He didn’t get into the race to make sure a Democrat won the White House, he got in to disrupt the Democratic Party.”
Sanders might say: Guilty as charged. In a June address to the “People’s Summit,” an annual gathering of about 4,000 leftists with little fealty to the Democratic Party, he made plain his agenda of remaking the party in his image: “[T]he current model and the current strategy of the Democratic Party is an absolute failure … The Democratic Party needs fundamental change … The Democratic Party must, finally, understand which side it is on. And that cannot be the side of Wall Street or the fossil fuel industry or the drug companies.”
While Sanders argues that the Democratic Party must choose sides between people and corporations, Clinton counters that Sanders must choose whether or not to be a Democrat. For Clintonites, his refusal to embrace the party label is not a mere matter of nomenclature. It suggests he does not have the Democratic Party’s best interests at heart; he is unwilling to partner with Democrats who have different views about the scope of government and its relationship with business; and, in turn, he can’t make the trade-offs essential to governing.
In another leaked passage, Clinton equates Sanders’ grandiose plans with the get-rich-quick scheme shared by the drifter in There’s Something About Mary who plans to outsell “Eight-Minute Abs” with “Seven-Minute Abs.” “On issue after issue,” she mockingly complains, “it was like he kept promising four-minute abs, or even no-minutes abs. Magic abs!”
She doesn’t say this outright, but the implication is that she believes Sanders is a snake oil salesman (the leaked excerpt appears to say there was no way “Bernie could keep his promises or deliver real results”) who shouldn’t be allowed to become the face of the party and define its agenda.
Will any Democrat care about what she has to say? Clinton is already being pilloried anew for “reopening this wound” at “the worst possible time” when Democrats could be seizing the offensive against divided and reeling Republicans. Her book comes out as a new NBC/Wall Street Journal poll puts the percentage of those viewing her positively at an abysmal 30 percent, 6 points worse than President Trump—hardly making her a perfect messenger.
But perhaps it’s that unpopularity—the combined loathing from Trump and Sanders supporters—along with the extreme unlikelihood that she ever would run for another office, that liberates her to do what elected Democrats cannot: front-stab Bernie. After all, she has literally nothing to lose.
Sanders, however, has a lot to lose. Thanks to his audacious bet on disruption, he now wields the most influence he’s ever had since he redeveloped the Lake Champlain waterfront. He finished the primary as a national figure with some of the strongest poll ratings of any active politician in America, often cracking 50 percent favorability when no others can. He is almost certain to be a major factor in 2020, be it as a candidate or the leader of the left and a powerhouse endorser.
The new NBC/Wall Street Journal poll found Sanders with a 44 percent positive rating. That’s pretty good in this age of polarization, especially considering his negative rating stood at only 30 percent. But dropping below the 50 percent threshold suggests he’s paying some price for his intraparty scuffles, such as when he resisted an endorsement of moderate Democratic House candidate Jon Ossoff, and touted a mayoral candidate in Omaha, Nebraska, with a record of restricting abortion rights. If Clinton can narrow his appeal, she may not buoy her personal popularity, but she may complicate Sanders’ attempt at a party makeover.
The prospect of Clinton seeking to outmaneuver Sanders makes the reception to her book and promotional tour worth watching. Strong sales and enthusiastic crowds could send a signal to other Democrats running in 2018 and 2020 that Bernie-style populism hasn’t cornered the market on grass-roots passion. On the other hand, if Democrats are buzzing more about “Medicare for All” than “What Happened,” then Bernie’s hold on the party will be solidified.
Clinton’s four-month road trip won’t end like Groundhog Day, with our rumpled male and buttoned-down female protagonists breaking the curse and settling down together in Western Pennsylvania. Democrats instead are doomed to relive the bitter Clinton-Sanders battle day after day for a simple reason: There is no consensus on “what happened,” and there never will be.