If the Democratic Party had an adult in the room—if Debbie Wasserman Schultz and the DNC were anything more than a huge corporate money vacuum—that adult would be telling both Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton they need to take a time out. Since this magazine has endorsed Sanders, let’s start with him: It was foolish to claim that Clinton is “not qualified” to be president, and even more foolish to double down on what sounded like a throwaway remark made in the heat of anger. If taking corporate money makes a candidate unqualified, then no president in the modern era, Democrat or Republican, was qualified. Of course Hillary Clinton is qualified to be president. What Sanders should have said—and probably meant—is that his independence from Wall Street money and oil money and Walmart money makes him better-qualified to be president.
But if we’re going to send Bernie—or his campaign manager Jeff Weaver—to the naughty step, then can we please stop pretending they weren’t provoked. Because (in the age appropriate language of fighting 5-year-olds) “she started it.” Last week Clinton erupted at a rally in upstate New York, saying “I am so sick of the Sanders campaign lying” about her contributions from the fossil-fuel industry. Even though it was Greenpeace, not Sanders, who made the specific charge that Clinton had taken $4.5 million in oil and gas money—including nearly $1.5 million from lobbyists—it was Clinton’s accusation that set The Washington Post and other MSM outlets into a finger-wagging frenzy. Where was the comparable outrage when Clinton’s campaign manager Robby Mook lied about guns flooding into New York from Vermont, or when Clinton herself claimed Sanders “stood with Minutemen vigilantes” while they hunted down immigrants—or when, on the eve of the Michigan primary, she lied about his vote against bailing out Wall Street, claiming that he’d opposed helping General Motors?
Any honest account of this campaign so far would see Clinton repeatedly gunning for Sanders—from the very first debate, when he declined to make an issue of her e-mails, while she tried to paint him as a lackey of the NRA—then acting like it’s unfair when either Sanders or his campaign staffers dared to criticize her. As this week’s exchanges prove, Sanders is not just the crinkly grandpa who makes birds suddenly appear—he’s a tough campaigner who doesn’t seem to have forgotten the lessons he probably learned growing up on the streets of Brooklyn. Hit him enough—and in the past few days the Clinton campaign has accused him of lying, twisted his perfectly sensible response to a hostile Daily News interview into supposed “proof” of his unpreparedness for office, and shamefully recruited the parents of children murdered at Sandy Hook into her attacks on Sanders—and eventually he will hit back. And not in a nice way, either.
As for whether any of this is sexist, that seems to me a question for women to judge—just like white people don’t get to decide what’s racist. But what I will say is that Hillary Clinton can obviously dish it out as well as take it—and that, at least to this voter, it is precisely Clinton’s toughness, her heroic indomitability, from Whitewater to her husband’s public infidelity to having to see her historic campaign to become the first woman in the White House derailed by Barack Obama’s own claim to history, that is her most genuinely attractive and appealing characteristic. If I have to hold my nose for Hillary in November, that’s what I’ll be thinking about—that and the Supreme Court.
New York does funny things to presidential campaigns. For one thing there’s the tabloid press, viciously jabbing and feinting and seizing any hesitation as a sign of weakness. I know, I was one of them. Then there’s the city’s perpetually warring tribes, each expecting a display of fealty and favoritism, and all of them ready to turn in a second on any outsider who puts a foot wrong while sprinting through the minefield. The temptation to “go there” is overwhelming. But it should be resisted. And not just so whoever wins in July isn’t fatally damaged before she—or he—gets to Philadelphia. In 1988 I watched Al Gore follow Marty Peretz’s advice to take the gloves off in New York—and destroy his campaign.
The truth is, either Democrat would be infinitely preferable to Trump or Cruz. And both have claims to history: Hillary would be the first woman president, and Bernie would be the first Jew—which in New York isn’t exactly chopped liver. So maybe they ought to move that Brooklyn debate to Madison Square Garden. Because somebody needs to tell both candidates: No biting, no gouging, and no more hitting below the belt.