With just two weeks left before the 2020 Iowa caucuses, the race for the Democratic Party’s 2016 nomination is finally heating up.
After a lengthy truce between the two camps, Hillary Clinton went on the offensive Tuesday morning, decrying her top rival in the (simultaneously long-over and never-ending) 2016 primary as an unlikable, unproductive sexist whom she would not necessarily endorse over Donald Trump.
Clinton’s resentment of Bernie Sanders is not entirely unfounded. The Vermont senator did remain in the 2016 primary through the very end (of its first year, anyway), despite the fact that he had no plausible path to a delegate majority by early spring. Further, given how close the general election proved to be, it is conceivable that, had Bernie Sanders never entered the 2016 primary, Donald Trump would have never entered the Oval Office.
But then, one could plausibly say the same thing about Clinton. We can’t know whether Bernie (or Martin O’Malley) would have won. But we do know that Clinton ultimately proved to be the second-most-unpopular major-party nominee in American history. And we also know that Clinton pulled few punches — and offered no timely surrender — during her 2008 campaign against Barack Obama, which makes her complaints about Sanders’s intransigence and attacks in 2016 more than a little hypocritical.
All this said, Clinton’s antipathy for Sanders is understandable. But the criticisms she levies in a new interview with The Hollywood Reporter range from misleading to mendacious. Her refusal to pledge her support for Sanders in a general election, meanwhile, would be shameful even if her critiques of the socialist senator were all indisputably true.
Clinton’s interview is aimed at promoting an upcoming docuseries on her life in politics. In that film, she offers the following scathing assessment of Sanders, which she chose to reaffirm in Tuesday’s interview:
He was in Congress for years. He had one senator support him [in 2016]. Nobody likes him, nobody wants to work with him, he got nothing done. He was a career politician. It’s all just baloney and I feel so bad that people got sucked into it.
It is true that Bernie Sanders has been in Congress for years and that Jeff Merkley was the only senator to endorse him in the 2016 primary. But everything else Clinton says here is false. Eight members of Congress have endorsed the Vermont senator this cycle, including the co-chairs of the Congressional Progressive Caucus and three of the House’s most prominent first-term congresswomen. The fact that these lawmakers have rallied to Sanders’s side — despite the presence of another viable progressive candidate in the race — suggests that they have a high-level of interest in working with him.
The notion that Sanders “got nothing done” over his long tenure in Washington is also untrue. During his 16 years in the House, Sanders passed more amendments than any other member of Congress, shoehorning small progressive wins into must-pass legislation. In 2016, the Observer’s Michael Sainato compiled this summary of Sanders’s minor victories:
He kicked off his political career with an amendment to start a National Program of Cancer registries, which is now maintained by all 50 states. In 2001, he successfully passed an amendment to the general appropriations bill which banned the importation of goods made with child labor, and passed an amendment to increase funding by $100 million for community health centers … When Mr. Sanders was elected to the Senate in 2006, he continued pushing amendments through legislation, including securing $10 million in additional funds for the Army National Guard, providing financial assistance for childcare to people in the armed forces, exposing corruption in the military industrial complex, support in treating autism in the military’s healthcare system and ensuring bailout funds weren’t used to displace American workers.
During negotiations over the Affordable Care Act, meanwhile, the senator found a way to make Barack Obama’s health-care bill more progressive — and more appealing to conservative Senate Democrats — at the same time. As the fact-checker Politifact writes:
[A]s negotiations were in their final stage, Sanders successfully pushed for the inclusion of $11 billion in funding for community health centers, especially in rural areas. The insertion of this funding helped bring together both Democratic lawmakers on the left and Democrats representing more conservative, rural areas.
On occasion, Sanders has managed to assemble bipartisan congressional support for his goals, partnering with John McCain to pass a reform of the Veterans Affairs administration in 2014, and with Utah Republican Mike Lee to pass a resolution calling for the end of U.S. involvement in Yemen’s civil war just last year. One can reasonably argue that Sanders’s ideological isolation — and aversion to backslapping — limited his legislative productivity as a Congress member, and thus that a more moderate, jovial Democrat would be more likely to “get things done” as president. On the other hand, many of the bipartisan “things” that Congress “got done” over the past three decades were not worth doing. Regardless, Clinton’s characterization of Sanders’s record is patently false.
The former secretary of State proceeds to argue that Sanders encourages the worst behavior of his online supporters (the bold here is The Hollywood Reporter, the plain text, Clinton):
If he gets the nomination, will you endorse and campaign for him?
I’m not going to go there yet. We’re still in a very vigorous primary season. I will say, however, that it’s not only him, it’s the culture around him. It’s his leadership team. It’s his prominent supporters. It’s his online Bernie Bros and their relentless attacks on lots of his competitors, particularly the women. And I really hope people are paying attention to that because it should be worrisome that he has permitted this culture — not only permitted, [he] seems to really be very much supporting it.
It is true that Bernie Sanders has plenty of extremely online, incredibly unpleasant supporters. And it’s also true that the campaign has hired some pugnacious left-wing commentators as official staffers and surrogates. But the notion that the senator actively cultivates a uniquely vicious culture among his Twitter acolytes is tough to square with the events of the past 24 hours. On Monday, the law professor and prominent Sanders supporter Zephyr Teachout wrote a Guardian column that argued Joe Biden has a “corruption problem” that will undermine him in a general election. This argument, coming on the eve of Donald Trump’s impeachment trial, irked many of Sanders’s Democratic skeptics. His supporters and ideological sympathizers rallied to Teachout’s defense, insisting that her column was rooted in an honest appraisal of Biden’s record — only to see their candidate disavow their argument, and scold them for their incivility hours later.
“It is absolutely not my view that Joe is corrupt in any way. And I’m sorry that that op-ed appeared,” Sanders told CBS News Monday night. “If anyone knows me, what I believe is we need a serious debate in this country on issues. We don’t need to demonize people who may disagree with us.”
“I appeal to my supporters,” the senator continued, “please, engage in civil discourse.”
Finally, Clinton weighs in on the controversy over whether Bernie Sanders told Elizabeth Warren that he did not believe a woman could win the 2020 election during a private conversation a little over one year ago. Clinton suggests that Sanders’s alleged remark can be fairly interpreted as an expression of sexism, given broader patterns in the senator’s behavior:
[T]his argument about whether or not or when he did or didn’t say that a woman couldn’t be elected, it’s part of a pattern. If it were a one-off, you might say, “OK, fine.” But he said I was unqualified. I had a lot more experience than he did, and got a lot more done than he had, but that was his attack on me. I just think people need to pay attention because we want, hopefully, to elect a president who’s going to try to bring us together, and not either turn a blind eye, or actually reward the kind of insulting, attacking, demeaning, degrading behavior that we’ve seen from this current administration.
This might be the most egregiously dishonest of all of Clinton’s criticisms. The former Democratic nominee implies that, in 2016, Sanders argued she was unusually inexperienced and uncredentialed for a presidential candidate — a charge so objectively false one might fairly interpret it as an expression of virulent sexism. But that is not remotely what happened.
In April 2016, Clinton told MSNBC’s Morning Joe that Sanders “hadn’t done his homework” ahead of an interview with the New York Daily News’ editorial board and that this raised “a lot of questions” about his fitness for the presidency. The Washington Post wrote up her comments under the headline “Clinton Questions Whether Sanders Is Qualified to Be President.”
This rankled Sanders, who proceeded to question Clinton’s own “qualifications” thusly:
When you voted for the war in Iraq, the most disastrous foreign policy blunder in the history of America, you might want to question your qualifications. When you voted for trade agreements that cost millions of Americans decent paying jobs, and the American people might want to wonder about your qualifications. When you’re spending an enormous amount of time raising money for your super PAC from some of the wealthiest people in this country, and from some of the most outrageous special interests … Are you qualified to be president of the United States when you’re raising millions of dollars from Wall Street whose greed and recklessness helped destroy our economy?
I think these remarks were misguided. At the time Sanders made them, Clinton was already overwhelmingly likely to be the Democratic nominee. In my view, the senator should have tempered his remarks in deference to that fact and criticized Clinton’s record without disputing her baseline eligibility for the White House. But Clinton’s characterization of Sanders’s comments is patently false. He did not deny that Clinton possessed conventional qualifications for the presidency in a fit of psychedelic sexism. Rather, his diatribe is quite clearly aimed at disputing the value of conventional qualifications. Sanders never disputed that Clinton had gotten a lot done during her career — his speech is actually a litany of her accomplishments. His point was that applicants for the position of president should not be judged on the strength of their meritocratic credentials but on the substantive merits of their voting records and policy platforms. There is nothing remotely sexist about this point of view.
Clinton is entitled to her grievances. But if she is as interested in fostering Democratic unity as she claims to be, she should probably avoid wrapping her calls for intraparty civility in defamatory barbs about the second-most-popular Democrat in the 2020 primary.