Sunday, December 20, 2015
Bernie Sanders Falls Behind in a Race Centered on Security
In his opening remarks at the Democratic presidential debate on Saturday, Senator Bernie Sanders railed against “establishment politics and establishment economics” and then the nation’s “rigged economy.” He moved on to the “corrupt” campaign finance system, then the “planetary crisis of climate change.” Only after that did he say he wanted to destroy the Islamic State.
It was a litany of priorities that made good sense when Mr. Sanders announced his presidential bid in April. But after the terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, Calif., he made fighting terrorism sound like an afterthought.
These are challenging times for Mr. Sanders as the chief opponent toHillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination. His progressive political message, so popular with liberals for much of 2015, now seems lost in a fog of fear. Americans are more anxious about terrorism than income inequality. They want the government to target the Islamic State more than Wall Street executives and health insurers. All of this plays to Mrs. Clinton’s strengths — not only as a hawkish former secretary of state but also as a savvy politician who follows the public mood. After months of pivoting to the left on domestic issues to compete with Mr. Sanders for her party’s base, she is now talking about security and safety far more than Mr. Sanders — and solidifying her lead in opinion polls.
At Saturday’s debate, Mr. Sanders struggled to undercut Mrs. Clinton. He pointed out aspects of her record, including her relationships to Wall Street executives and her years at the State Department, in relatively respectful fashion rather than seizing on them to strongly question her judgment. He apologized to her for a breach by his campaign of her voter data, and he complimented her on being a transformative first lady. In his treatment of Mrs. Clinton, Mr. Sanders was more gentleman than giant killer.
“Hillary is now in the driver’s seat in a way she has never been before,” said Arnie Arnesen, a New Hampshire liberal and talk radio host who admires Mr. Sanders but is uncommitted in the race. “It’s Bernie’s turn to pivot.”
“I don’t know if he can,” she added, “or whether his base will approve. They love him for the man he is, not the leader he needs to become.”
Most candidates evolve: Barack Obama and George W. Bush became better at communicating and campaigning during their first presidential races, and their agendas developed overarching themes. Mr. Sanders, by contrast, was repeating old talking points on Saturday night — like breaking up big banks and increasing taxes on the rich — without convincingly saying how he would achieve those goals or presenting them in powerful new language. As the debate demonstrated, he has yet to grow from a movement messiah into a national candidate whom many people can imagine as president.
Mr. Sanders has few options at this point. Barring a scandal or another extraordinary event that consumes Mrs. Clinton, his only way to beat her starts with a lightning strike: winning the first-in-the-nation Iowa caucuses on Feb. 1 and then the New Hampshire primary on Feb. 9. Such victories would instantly raise questions about Mrs. Clinton’s strength and electability and provide political momentum, fund-raising energy and far greater visibility for Mr. Sanders in the next major contests, in states like South Carolina, Colorado and Texas, where he is not well known.
But Mrs. Clinton has been ahead in Iowa for three months, while Mr. Sanders has a slight lead in New Hampshire polls. Mrs. Clinton held a lead in Iowa in 2007, too, before losing there to Mr. Obama. But he had far more endorsements from state leaders and a sharper line of attack against Mrs. Clinton (over the Iraq war) than Mr. Sanders has. Mrs. Clinton is vulnerable this time around on her ties to Wall Street, and there is also an opening for a candidate to run to the left of her on national security issues.
But Mr. Sanders, who has ruled out negative campaigning, has not done anything memorable on either front. When he did challenge her on Saturday, accusing her twice of being “too into regime change” to topple dictators and enemies, he did it as respectfully as possible — after which Mrs. Clinton hit him hard both times for voting to oust Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi, the former Libyan leader. Mr. Sanders could have brought up the attacks in Benghazi, Libya, that occurred on Mrs. Clinton’s watch as secretary of state, but instead he all but surrendered, saying that Mrs. Clinton was “right” that dealing with dictators was a “complicated issue.”
On Wall Street, meanwhile, he said that corporate chief executives “may like” Mrs. Clinton as president but would not like him — a contrast that could have been made more sharply.
Mr. Sanders has many strengths, but moxie is not one of them. He speaks the language of a high-minded policy wonk, not a street fighter. Gutsy aggressiveness has been so lacking in his campaign that it was one reason the news media paid so much attention on Friday when his advisers went to court against Democratic National Committee officials after they punished the Sanders campaign over a data breach.
The bold move showed that the Sanders team could throw a punch — including against the Clinton campaign, which Sanders aides suggested had also breached data. Yet Mr. Sanders himself backed off the issue at Saturday’s debate, apologizing to Mrs. Clinton for the breach. Just as he refused to attack her at the first Democratic debate over her private email server as secretary of state, he showed on Saturday that he would rather repeat his policy priorities than shake up the race by trying to score political points by challenging Mrs. Clinton.
At one point in the debate, Mr. Sanders agreed that Americans were “fearful and anxious” about the security issues that Mrs. Clinton has focused on.
“But you know what else they’re anxious about?” he asked. “They’re anxious about the fact that they are working incredibly long hours, they’re worried about their kids, and they’re seeing all the new income and wealth, virtually all of it, going to the top 1 percent. And they’re looking around them, and they’re looking at Washington and they’re saying: ‘The rich are getting much richer. I’m getting poorer. What are you going to do about it?’ ”
Mr. Sanders seems willing to rise or fall on his message about a rigged American economy, even if 2016 is looking more and more like a national security election.