Bad things tend to happen to those who oppose the Clintons.
It’s now known that many of the vilest slurs hurled against Barack Obama during his first presidential run — including crazed allegations he was born in Kenya or a closet Muslim who secretly wore weird Muslim clothes — had their origins in the Hillary 2008 campaign. Neither Senator Clinton nor her immediate proxies cast such aspersions directly, of course — that would be unbecoming of a leader of such imperious airs. No, the rumors began, as rumors often do, via the chain letters, blog comments, and idle gossip of free-agent “supporters,” who were just innocuously repeating second-hand truths as they understood them. The technique was what political scientists call the “whisper campaign;” nasty underground innuendo against a candidate that mysteriously emerges at precisely the time her opponent needs it most.
Today Senator Bernard Sanders of Vermont, who promises to bring Scandinavian-style “democratic socialism” to America, seeks to replay the role of 2008 Obama and offer a more aggressively “left” alternative to Hillary Clinton, reputed centrist. But leftism is a vast bundle of priorities, and few politicians can effectively embody them all. Because Sanders’ focus has always been primarily economic — his crowd-pleasing speeches mostly center around corporate greed and income inequality — he’s left himself vulnerable on the front becoming steadily more dominant in America’s left-wing conversation — social justice and identity group sensitivity.
On July 18 Senator Sanders was interrupted during a speech by self-appointed representatives of the Black Lives Matter set, and his irritated, slightly befuddled reaction — which included tone-deaf bragging about spending “50 years of my life fighting for civil rights and dignity” — exposed unfamiliarity with the rituals of humble privilege-checking now expected of white progressives. Columns in progressive outlets were written about his campaign’s “race problem,” and memes began to sprout about his suspiciously “all-white” audiences and supporters. And didn’t he come from Vermont, the whitest state in the country?
Similar suspicions have been conspicuously whipped up over Sander’s supposed closet life as a “gun nut,” in the words of one Slate columnist, a reputation that helps solidify his caricature as a hickish creature from the backwoods of lily-white New England. Sanders, of course, can barely even be called a gun moderate by any standard beyond the far left’s; there are numerous rural-state Democrats to his right on this issue, and he’s received a D- from the NRA and an F from Gun Owners of America for consistently backing the vast majority of firearm control bills brought before Congress. Yet what Sanders calls the “mythology” of his Second Amendment record has managed to become a settled piece of online conventional wisdom just the same.
Other slurs have been darker still. Mother Jones somehow stumbled across a cringeworthy 43-year old essay Sanders wrote in his hippie days in which he mused about what he assumed were typical female sexual fantasies (“being raped by 3 men simultaneously”) in order to make some dated and obscure point about gender relations. This, said his enemies, was proof the old geezer was on the wrong side of “Rape Culture.” Then there was the truly bizarre rumor that the Jewish senator was some manner of secret Israeli double-agent, an allegation infamously flouted on NPR by a host who claimed to just be repeating something she’d heard online.
Hillary has reason to fear Sanders; initially assumed to be little more than a Kucinich-like fringe figure providing token opposition to her coronation, his poll numbers have now risen to the point where victories in a couple of early primary states seem plausible, if not likely. As Clinton’s press becomes near-uniformly negative thanks to ongoing troubles with her ominously missing emails, which beg questions of credibility on everything from the business ethics of her family’s charity to Benghazi to who is or isn’t in her inner court of advisors, the case for a “cleaner” Democratic candidate in 2016 gets ever stronger.
What Bernie (and for that matter, O’Malley, Chaffee, or Biden) will never have, however, is an appeal that can be couched in the trendy narratives of identity group victimization and triumph. Hillary’s importance as a glass-ceiling breaker must never be forgotten, and if that requires a nasty underground campaign pushing slanderous stereotypes of of her white male opponents, so be it.
For want of the First Woman President, much can be lost.