There’s nothing we Democrats like better than a fight — with each other.
Even now, when we face a threat analogous to a giant asteroid hurtling towards Earth, our response is to form a circular firing squad.
As we see with the current Bernie-Elizabeth battle. It has hurt both of them while helping Trump, by providing new themes for his attack ads:
“Bernie Sanders hates women!”
“Elizabeth Warren loves fat cats!”
Neither of these charges — originating, remember, with Democrats — is remotely likely to be true. But what does Trump care?
Truth is for chumps, not Trumps.
Am I arguing that the Democratic primary candidates shouldn’t criticize each other? Of course not. The point of a primary is debate.
But attacking the character of a candidate from your own party is both destructive and strategically stupid:
- The odds are, and never more so than now with such a crowded field, that you are not going to be the nominee. If you damage the person who is, you are hurting your side’s cause in the general election.
- You’re damaging your own cause, too. If and when you eventually have to praise the candidate you’re now attacking, your personal brand will take on a heavy admixture of “just another political hack.” (Hi there, Lindsey Graham.)
- And although the conventional wisdom says candidates must show their “toughness” like this, that advice comes from consultants who should have learned better after losing so many elections. Democrats have a natural electoral advantage against a Republican Party that mostly serves the rich by exploiting the anger of rural whites. And yet, going back to the 1960’s, Democrats have managed to lose more than they win.
Yes, toughness can be good. But it falls flat when there’s too much show in the showing. Then the attacker looks the opposite of tough: fearful, reactive, and led — by circumstances, staff, and polls — instead of leading.
That’s the impression left by Elizabeth Warren’s charge that Bernie told her a woman is unlikely to be elected President.
It’s also the impression left by Bernie supporters, with what looks like his tacit approval, when they claim that the formerly Republican Warren is secretly in the pocket of the plutocrats she now goes after.
Neither claim is credible, and both do more harm than good, to both candidates, to Democrats overall, and, in this election, to democracy itself, which is under attack by the worst president in history — the giant asteroid.
Lately, we hear there’s a truce between the Sanders and Warren factions. A hopeful sign?
Nope. The point of the truce appears to be to enable both camps to train their fire on moderates like Biden and Buttigieg — or Steyer, Bloomberg, Klobuchar, or Yang, if and when any of those surges in the polls.
Again, should there be a vigorous debate of policy? Yes, yes, yes. But to claim, for example, that Joe Biden is against Social Security, as we hear now from the Sanders campaign?
Destructive and strategically stupid.
In citing Sanders and Warren, I don’t mean to suggest that it’s only progressives who join the circular firing squad. In this primary, moderates like Kamala Harris, Eric Swalwell, and even the usually Buddha-like Cory Booker resorted to friendly fire, before dropping out of the race. In the 2008 primary, Hillary Clinton (whose 2016 campaign I did some work for), engaged in some shameful attacks on fellow moderate Barack Obama (both of whose campaigns I worked for).
If the circular firing squad had somehow produced a record of success, volunteering for it might make some sense. But ask Hillary, Kamala, Eric, Cory, and the rest how well it worked for them. Then compare the records of happier warriors like Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, Obama, and, in the current cycle, Biden, who have kept their eyes on the true prize.
Unlike with a real firing squad, no one is forced to serve on a political one. The candidates, and we their supporters, can simply decline the invitation to participate in mutually assured destruction.
Is it too much to ask?
UPDATE, Jan. 21, 2020: Just in the two days since this was posted we’ve seen two more volleys by the circular firing squad:
- The Bernie Sanders campaign circulated an op-ed accusing Joe Biden of “corruption.” So if Biden becomes the nominee, as is entirely likely, the Trump campaign will be able to quote Bernie saying he’s corrupt. And Bernie (to be precise, his campaign) said it just before the impeachment trial, during which Trump will try to make the same claim. This was, as I argue above, destructive and strategically stupid. I’m glad to see Bernie has since apologized.
- Hillary Clinton was quoted as saying “nobody likes” Bernie Sanders and that she couldn’t commit to endorsing him if he becomes the nominee. If he does, Trump will quote her saying Bernie “got nothing done” in Congress and that he’s “all baloney.” Hillary’s comments were destructive and stupid, too. I’m only sort of glad to see that Hillary has only sort of backpedaled.