Opinion

Hillary Clinton and the awful risk of winning ugly

Why is she so aggressively antagonizing the Bernie Sanders fans she'll need to vote for her in November?

Despite building a base of support larger than Donald Trump's, Bernie Sanders still lags far behind Hillary Clinton in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination. Since November, Clinton has held on to a steady lead of 20 to 30 points, and Sanders shows little sign of breaking out beyond 30 percent or so of Democratic voters nationwide.

Clinton is dominating Sanders. Her victory over the Vermont socialist is all but assured. All she needs to do is keep coasting along, allowing Donald Trump to continue making the media fixate over how much of a fascist he is, and cruise to an easy victory.

That's what makes her recent campaign strategy so baffling.

Instead of laying low and playing it cool, Clinton is running as though the race were very close, tax-baiting Sanders with Republican talking points, and allowing a proxy to blow up a huge fight with the Sanders campaign over a data breach. It's a mystifying and risky way to run a campaign.

Let's run the tape. On policy, the Clinton campaign has been consistently tax-baiting Sanders over his support for single-payer healthcare and other moderate social-democratic programs. This not only plays into Republican narratives that taxes are always a simple decrease in income (rather than payment for valuable and desperately needed programs), but also boxes Clinton herself in on taxes. A promise of no tax increases means she cannot support Kirsten Gillibrand's paid leave proposal.

Clinton's stance also basically rules out badly needed increases in Social Security. At an Iowa townhall this month, Clinton spoke about the solvency of Social Security, and while she initially disavowed benefit cuts, she eventually ended up endorsing the possibility of raising the retirement age. Speaking about how it's harder for some workers to keep working to age 70, she said: "If we could figure out how to do it, I would be open to hearing about it, I've just never heard anybody tell me how we could do it."

In context, Clinton repeatedly states she is against benefit cuts, but it's a mark of the legacy of New Democrat triangulation that she can't even seem to talk about why they are a bad idea without tacitly endorsing them. And though she vaguely endorses the possibility of raising the payroll tax cap, this would mean raising taxes on people well down into the upper-middle class, and would certainly be subject to the same kind of tax-baiting she is deploying against Sanders. She would be called, with some justification, a hypocrite.

More recently, Clinton surrogate and head of the Democratic National Committee Debbie Wasserman-Schultz allowed a minor flap over data security to blow up into a major fight between the Sanders campaign and the DNC. The DNC keeps a big file of data from each campaign, but keeps a firewall between them. Apparently, Sanders' data guru noticed that the firewall was down, and looked into a few Clinton voter lists and models inside the system. The DNC accused them of copying Clinton's critical information, and locked the entire campaign out of the system.

The Sanders team quickly fired the staffer responsible, and has since suspended two others. But the DNC initially refused to allow Team Sanders access to the system. The Sanders camp retaliated, arguing that the vendor responsible for the data system had already let the firewall lapse on several previous occasions, and that the staffer had only been attempting to document the lapse (however inappropriately). Moreover, much of that campaign data was created by the Sanders team itself at great time and expense. Such data is the lifeblood of a campaign — permanently locking them out would destroy them. The Sanders campaign even filed a lawsuit in federal court against the DNC before the DNC relented and restored Sanders' access.

Both the Sanders camp and the vendor (the president of which worked on Bill Clinton's campaign) bear some responsibility for the initial problem. But it's ludicrous that the DNC allowed it to get so out of hand.

Let us not be children here: Hillary Clinton is no stranger to bare-knuckle politics. Her 2008 campaign repeatedly stooped to outright race-baiting against Obama. In the grand scheme of politics, this data-breach story is small potatoes. Yet instead of trying to smooth over the dispute — as Sanders himself did for Clinton's email problem — her only response was to insist on a full accounting of her campaign data. Eventually Sanders did get his access back, but only hours before the first hearing on his lawsuit against the DNC.

Sanders' supporters were furious, and were clearly itching for a fight with the DNC. Corruption at the organization is notorious, and Wasserman-Schultz was a Clinton campaign co-chair in 2008. It beggars belief to imagine such ham-handed tactics from their court if Clinton's and Sanders' roles were reversed.

The issue was mostly defused during Saturday night's debate. Sanders apologized for the breach, and Clinton said she would like to move on. Yet the DNC never would have gone so far as suspending access, even temporarily, if Clinton did not tacitly approve. One call and it would have been reversed — doubly hard to miss at a debate which had obviously been scheduled at an atrocious time to prevent Clinton opponents from getting much attention.

In any case, Clinton is positioning herself for the general election. She therefore ought to worry about deflating the evident passion of Sanders supporters. Most of them will probably end up pulling the lever for her, but I can see it being very hard to donate, volunteer, or work for the Clinton campaign — and she will likely need dedicated volunteers and staffers a lot more than voters. She ought to be trying to stay on good terms with Sanders' fans, and thus would be well advised to make sure her near-certain win is as clean and gracious as possible.

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