Thank You, Bernie: How Painting Hillary Clinton as a Moderate Plays Into Her General Election Strategy

Having a progressive candidate run for president is nothing new.  

In fact, this trend perfectly aligns with recent history.  For the past three contested Democratic primary elections, the most liberal Democratic senator has gone on to become the party's presidential nominee.  It started in 2004 with Massachusetts senator John Kerry, who was rated the most liberal member of the Senate in 2003.  This torch was then passed to Illinois senator Barack Obama, who was rated the most liberal member of the Senate in 2007.  And now we have Vermont senator Bernie Sanders, who is the most liberal member of the Senate in 2015.  It has now become accepted to have a progressive candidate lead the party's ticket and it is this acceptance that Bernie Sanders hope to parlay into the 2016 Democratic nomination for president.  

The problem for Sanders is that both the Kerry and Obama campaigns were geared toward a sitting Republican president whereas Sanders' campaign is following a Democratic president.  In 2004, Kerry was squarely running against the Bush administration and its policies.  In 2008, Obama was running not only against John McCain but also the policies of the Bush administration that had recently set the country into economic despair.  Both Kerry and Obama had the clear objective in mind that the majority of Democratic candidates embrace:  Run to the left during the primary election and shift toward the center for the general election.  It was done with the idea in mind to win the hearts of your party first in the spring and then win the minds of the undecideds and independents come November.  

So it should come as no surprise that Bernie Sanders is painting himself as a "true progressive" by following the same pattern as both Kerry and Obama.  It's why he has laid out his ambitious agenda, a Santa's wishlist of progressive policies, if you will:  Universal health care, free public colleges and universities, legalized marijuana, and the list goes on.  There's a reason why millennials are seemingly flocking to the Sanders camp:  Because it reads just like the list that they would create themselves if they were running for president.  Sanders is hoping and banking on the fact that even though these policies have zero chance of passage in our current political climate that he will have earned the support of enough idealistic dreamers in the progressive movement to wrap up the Democratic nomination and take on whoever emerges from the Republican three-ringed circus in the general election.  

However, much like many things associated with the Sanders campaign, this strategy is simply half-baked.  

I guess we should have come to expect this from Sanders' campaign manager, Tad Devine, who worked to successfully not elect Michael Dukakis, Al Gore, and John Kerry.  Devine, who many many consider a Washington insider and part of The Establishment (but that's neither here nor there), and his team have chosen not only to portray Sanders as a true progressive, but have recently chosen to attack Hillary Clinton for being what they perceive to be as a "moderate".  Clinton has shot back and has chosen to defend her progressive credentials based on her record over the past forty years.  She has gone to defend her work for The Children's Defense Fund, her work in Arkansas, her work as First Lady, her work as senator, and her work as Secretary of State.  In essence, the Sanders team has now made this primary about who has achieved more as an indicator of who is the "true progressive."  

Rookie mistake, Bernie.

So of course the well-oiled Clinton campaign jumped all over it.  Clinton herself called out Sanders on Thursday night's debate for apparently anointing himself as the "gatekeeper for who's progressive and who's not."  She cited several instances where progressive champions would not be considered progressive enough according to Sanders' narrow definition of what a progressive is and should be.  Among this list were President Obama because he took money from Wall Street, Joe Biden because he supported Keystone, New Hampshire senator Jeanne Shaheen because she supports the trade pact, and the late Senator Paul Wellstone because he voted for DOMA.  She even countered that it wasn't particularly "progressive" of Sanders to vote against the Brady bill five times and give immunity to the gun manufacturers.  Clinton's message:  There is so such thing as a "perfect progressive."  

And it is this message that will destroy this line of attack by the Sanders campaign.  

Because it's one thing to tout your own progressive credentials but it's another one entirely to say that you must be an absolute progressive to govern effectively.  This bogus argument has certainly failed when it comes to the Obama presidency.  Sanders has made no secret that he does not view Barack Obama as a true progressive.  On the Wednesday evening debate on CNN Sanders went on record by confirming he feels Obama has not lived up to the ideals of the progressive movement.  This comes nearly a week after liberal radio host Bill Press' book titled Buyer's Remose:  How Obama Let Progressives Down hit shelves and included an endorsement by Sanders himself.  While the Clinton campaign has lauded the Obama legacy and has vowed to continue it, the Sanders campaign has chosen to distance itself from one of the most remarkable presidencies in modern history.  

Not a good look.  

Worst of all, it's one that makes zero sense in a general election.  Let's think about that:  Should Bernie Sanders actually win the Democratic nomination he will be running against not only the Republican candidate but also the figurehead of his own party.  That will surely work wonders for the massive coalition that Barack Obama and his team have managed to assemble over the course of eight years.  Plus, the Republican attack ads write themselves.  Not only will it be the go-to mantra that "Sanders is too extreme" but it will also include "Sanders works to undermine allies" and will go so far as to say that "Even Bernie Sanders wants to end Obamacare."  For someone who has never faced an onslaught of Koch-infused attack ads, it would be something that Sanders and his team would simply be unprepared to face. 

Throughout many months on the campaign trail, each candidate will inevitably make promises.  In fact, politifact.com has counted more than 500 promises that President Barack Obama made over the course of his two long and drawn-out campaigns.  Inevitably, some of these promises will have to be broken due to other administrative priorities, budget issues, feasibility, or political opposition.  However, at this very moment, President Obama has managed to keep 70% of his promises to the American people.  This was done through patience, pragmatism, and prudence.  This was done with only two years out of seven having both a Democratically-controlled House and a Democratically-controlled Senate.  This was done slowly moving forward inch-by-inch to create and implement policies that will last for generations to come.  

And this was done in a way that wasn't "progressive" enough for Bernie Sanders.  

The whole idea of being the "truest progressive" speaks volumes of Bernie Sanders' political ideology.  It really is his way or the highway.  He sees the political world in absolutes and doesn't realize you can simultaneously be both a moderate and progressive.  In fact, not only can you be but you need to be those two things to be a viable general election candidate.  The two aren't mutually exclusive as Bernie Sanders would have you believe.  There's a reason why Hillary Clinton leads Bernie Sanders by a count of 466-2 in the ongoing endorsement tracker found at the website fivethirtyeight.com.  That reason is that current members of government - senators, representatives, and governors - know that you need to be able to govern from the center-left, something that Bernie Sanders has no experience doing.  You need to govern as President Obama has in a way that makes you too liberal to conservatives and too conservatives to liberals.  

By claiming that both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama aren't true progressives, the Sanders campaign is essentially putting them on equal footing.  For the millions of us who consider ourselves as part of the Obama Coalition, there couldn't be a better endorsement for Hillary Clinton.  The thing to remember is that Hillary Clinton already knows the Republican playbook.  She knows that Karl Rove and friends will try and portray her negatively in the general election.  And so she knows that if she were to run on an unrealistically progressive platform in the primary, Republicans would hammer her for being "shifty" if she were to switch her views when it came time for the general election.  Rather than give them that opportunity, Hillary Clinton is running right where she'll be in the general election:  As a moderate progressive.    

Of course it is this stance that has led to howls from the emo left that Hillary Clinton is not a "true progressive."  It's what the Sanders camp wants you to believe.  But unlike Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton is approaching this political campaign as a marathon, not a sprint.  She's already thinking about the general election.  She's building up the same diverse coalition that helped elect Barack Obama, not once but twice.  She knows that swing states like Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Florida are made up of a large percentage of centrist and moderate Democrats who won't buy the whole pie-in-the-sky political promises that Bernie Sanders is selling.  Clinton knows that staying the course most likely won't win her New Hampshire in February but it may very well win her New Hampshire in November.

And that's why Bernie and his team have grossly miscalculated their latest attack.  The country is not made up of 50 Iowas and New Hampshires.  Progressivism varies from region-to-region, from state-to-state, even from town-to-town.  It may seem not seem that "progressive" to support the death penalty but the fact of the matter is Hillary Clinton's views on the subject match that of 61% of Americans.  To win a general election, you need to have views that are aligned with as much of the electorate as possible.  We still live in a country where more people identify as moderates (34%) than liberal (24%) according to the most recent Gallup poll on the topic.  By reaffirming Hillary Clinton's left-center views and painting her as the more moderate of the two Democratic candidates for president, the Sanders campaign has not only put Hilary Clinton in an ideal position to win the more representative Democratic primaries but has also put her in an ideal position to win the general election. 

I'm going to go out on a limb and say this isn't what Tad Devine initially had in mind.



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