As you no doubt saw, last night Bernie Sanders launched a pretty blistering attack on Hillary Clinton, calling her unqualified to be president because of various past positions, relationships and votes. The attack was premised on Sanders’ claim that Clinton had said that he was unqualified to serve as president. Only she didn’t say that. The sorry tale tracks back to what was simply a false story in The Washington Post. The Post published a story that put together various Clinton interviews and recent statements and summed it up as ‘Clinton questions whether Sanders is qualified to be President.’ As I said last night, I’m willing to believe, actually assume that Sanders was told the story was true. But the fact is that it wasn’t.
This morning he half blamed the press for the false claim but also doubled down on it. “So when, you have headlines in The Washington Post, ‘Clinton questions whether Sanders is qualified to be president,’ my response is well, you know, if you want to question my qualifications …”
All candidates, by definition, say that they’re more qualified than their opponent. Various things Clinton said can be reasonably interpreted as questioning whether Sanders is up to the job of the presidency. But it is an entirely different matter when an opponent, in his own voice, says flatly his challenger is “unqualified” to serve as President of the country. That’s something that cannot be unsaid. If Clinton is the nominee, it will undoubtedly be a staples of GOP stump speeches in the Fall. These are simple realities of political campaigns. Primaries that drag on get intense. Especially in the venomous and kinetic New York media environment. The Clinton operation has plenty of sharp elbows themselves. But it is incumbent on both candidates to fight hard and yet not say things that can’t be unsaid – not always as easy thing to manage. Because it matters a lot on various fronts, what the candidate him or herself says, says explicitly.
The scuffle got more intense and more cynical later this morning when Sanders’ campaign manager Jeff Weaver came on MSNBC and now explicitly doubled down, actually doubly double-down. He says the Post was right. Clinton did say Sanders was unqualified. So they’ll say it about her. So there!
Now, as I’ve watched this campaign unfold, I’ve increasingly had the sense that Weaver is a, maybe the key source of toxicity and cynicism in the Sanders camp, and I suspect doesn’t care terribly about the November election if Sanders isn’t the standard bearer. Obviously Sanders is responsible for his own campaign. And it’s difficult to overestimate the mix of exhaustion, frustration and intensity that gets churned up in a hotly contested race like this. People get mad. On both sides. No crying in baseball, of course. Campaigns can and do do what they feel they need to do. But the consequences are ones all should understand and absorb.
This is cynical. It’s a lie. And it’s playing with fire.