Sanders vs. Clinton gets personal. Why now?

Hillary Clinton has made disparaging remarks about Bernie Sanders’s knowledge of policy. Senator Sanders's retort: Accepting special-interest money is a disqualifier. 

Brendan McDermid/Reuters
Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton rides the New York City Subway with Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz, left, in the Bronx borough of New York, April 7.

It’s finally happened – the Democratic presidential race is getting personal. Bernie Sanders and Hillary Rodham Clinton this week have both questioned whether the other is fit to occupy the Oval Office.

OK, “personal” is relative here. This hasn’t reached GOP-level stuff. Demeaning nicknames and physical references aren’t (yet) involved. So there’s that to be grateful for.

The cycle started on Wednesday when Mrs. Clinton made disparaging remarks about Senator Sanders’s knowledge of policy, including his signature issue of Wall Street reform. She said that recent Sanders remarks showed that he didn’t understand the law regarding big banks, or the way to get things done in Washington.

“Well, I think he hadn’t done his homework and he’d been talking for more than a year about doing things that he obviously hadn’t really studied or understood, and that does raise a lot of questions,” Clinton said in an appearance on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe."

Clinton did not say she felt Sanders was unqualified to be president, strictly speaking. But some headline writers described her words that way, and Sanders took offense.

At a Wednesday night rally in Philadelphia the Vermont senator said that Clinton has been describing him as not qualified and that he had something to say in response.

“I don’t believe that she is qualified if she is, through her super PAC, taking tens of millions of dollars in special interest money,” said Sanders.

Warming to the theme, he added that “I don’t think you are qualified if you have voted for the disastrous war in Iraq. I don’t think you are qualified if you’ve supported virtually every disastrous trade agreement which has cost us millions of decent paying jobs.”

Ouch. At least he didn’t say she was low-energy.

Why is this bubbling up now? After all, Sanders has prided himself on eschewing personal attacks. For the most part, he’s done that.

The map might be one explanation. The Democratic race travels to New York for its primary on April 19. Then Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland, and Pennsylvania follow on April 26. Clinton’s the favorite in all those states.

Bernie’s just off a string of winning seven of the last eight Democratic caucus/primaries. Yet he still trails Clinton by more than 200 pledged delegates, not to mention hundreds more unpledged “superdelegates.” He’s got to make up even more ground, and soon, if he’s to have any chance at all.

And he needs blowout wins, not just victories. As we wrote last month, the Democratic primary votes aren’t winner-take-all. They award delegates proportionately.

So Sanders is facing a situation where he needs to beat Clinton big in states where she’s currently leading in the polls. How can he do that? Only by in essence blowing things up, according to Washington Post political blogger Chris Cillizza.

“For Sanders to have any plausible case to be the party’s nominee, he needs to disrupt the race in a fundamental way,” opines Mr. Cillizza today.

But if he tries this does he risk ripping the party apart? Could the newly personal sniping split Democrats to the point where President Trump/Cruz becomes a reality?

No, probably not. The personal tension in the Democratic race was much worse in 2008. (Remember when Barack Obama said Clinton was “likable enough?”)

At this point in the 2008 contest, only 59 percent of Clinton supporters said they’d vote for Mr. Obama in the general election if he won the nomination, according to Gallup numbers. Yet Obama ended up winning 90 percent of Democrats that November. In the end, parties coalesce.

That general election campaigns reinforce the tendency of Americans to rally to their partisan flags is a tenet of political science. The Democratic race is following usual patterns, so there’s no reason to think that won’t hold this time.

The Republicans? That’s another story. Donald Trump is an anomaly, and may produce anomalous results.

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