Until Friday morning, Bernie Sanders was on the brink of allowing the civil, issues-focused campaign proudly fought by him and Hillary Clinton to be consumed by attacks and incivility.
But with two words, he took a giant step back.
When asked on NBC’s “Today” show Friday whether Mrs. Clinton was qualified to be president, he answered: “Of course.”
Ahead of the April 19 New York primary, the two Democratic candidates had gotten into an escalating, media-fuelled stoush. New York will be one of Senator Sanders’s last chances to reverse Clinton’s advantage in large and diverse states before the delegate math all but ends his hopes.
Linking Clinton to Wall Street and super political action committees, Sanders said this week that “I don’t believe that she is qualified” to be president. The media salivated. The comment “ratchets up the arms race considerably,” the Daily Beast reported.
Sanders was still on edge Friday. “We’ve got to fight back, and that’s what we’re trying to do,” he said at one point.
But he also said: “I’ve known Hillary Clinton for 25 years. I respect Hillary Clinton. We were colleagues in the Senate. And on her worst day, she will be – she would be – an infinitely better president than either of the Republican candidates.”
Sanders had a choice that could have dramatically reshaped the Democratic race. Weighing the rising stakes of the campaign and his own unexpected celebrity, Sanders could have pulled a “Trump” on the Democratic Party. He could have begun a scorched earth campaign in an attempt to tear down Clinton and win the nomination.
As a political independent and the perceived outsider in the Democratic race, he had the credentials to seriously consider it.
Why did he step back?
Partly, it was a sign that the Democratic Party continues to cohere in a way that the Republican Party no longer does. Republicans have become cannibalistic on the path to the convention this summer, and Democrats chided Sanders for flirting with that path.
“There are policy disagreements he may have with her on some things – let’s stick to those, let’s not say that the most qualified candidate for president is simply unqualified,” Sen. Claire McCaskill (D) of Missouri told The Washington Post.
Sanders has revealed that, for now, he still wants to be a team player.
Yet some political scientists suggest that the move has significance beyond the tactical. Not only does it align with the political persona that has allowed Sanders to build a remarkable grass-roots campaign, but it counters the trends that have made politics so unpalatable to so many Americans in recent years – and could have backfired on Sanders.
More and more Americans are choosing to identify as independents because they don’t want to be associated with the incivility and stubbornness that has come to characterize establishment politics, says Yanna Krupnikov, a political scientist at the State University of New York at Stony Brook and coauthor of the book, “Independent Politics.”
“People seem to really bristle at incivility and these strong instances of insurmountable disagreement in politics,” she says. “It pushes them away from politics, it pushes them away from their party.”
By backing down, Sanders has offered an answer to the question of whether he might turn to pandering to some of the harsher elements of his supporter base – the so-called “Bernie Bros.” While Sanders can criticize Clinton’s Wall Street connections, attacking her fitness for office was a step too far, writes Paul Krugman of The New York Times.
“The Sanders campaign has brought out a lot of idealism and energy that the progressive movement needs. It has also, however, brought out a streak of petulant self-righteousness among some supporters. Has it brought out that streak in the candidate, too?”
While Sanders faces a mathematically steep climb to the nomination with Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland, and Pennsylvania to follow the New York primary, his decision to back away from his fight with Clinton could help him, Professor Krupnikov suggests.
First, it takes away one potential problem with women voters.
“There’s a sort of strong literature and argument out there that women in general already feel less qualified to participate in politics and that’s why they don’t participate,” she says. “What happens when you tell possibly the most important political woman in America who’s running for president that even she is not qualified?”
More broadly, it plays to political independents.
“How nonestablishment is it for a politician to now step back and say now, ‘You know what, I shouldn’t have done that’?” Krupnikov says. “Most politicians never do this, so in fact, him admitting his error is incredibly helpful to his persona that he’s built up.”