The Sanders/Clinton Electability Argument

Back in June 2012, Eric Benson sat down with Michael Dukakis in anticipation for that year’s heated general election campaign. They discussed the role of negative political advertising, and when you’re talking on that topic with Michael Dukakis, you know that Willie Horton is going to come up.

BENSON: During the 1988 presidential election, a group backing George H.W. Bush launched an attack ad holding you responsible for the crimes of a Massachusetts inmate named Willie Horton who committed rape and assault after fleeing from a weekend prison furlough. When that ad hit, what were the conversations like between you and your staff?

DUKAKIS: We didn’t have them. I made a decision we weren’t going to respond. That was it. About two months later I woke up and realized I was getting killed with this stuff.

It’s refreshing to see a politician take responsibility for his own failings. But it’s more important to understand the kind of misguided reasoning and advice that put Dukakis in the wrong frame of mind.

BENSON: Why didn’t you respond right away?

DUKAKIS: Frankly it was my own damn fault. I’m not sure I can explain it to you at this point. Maybe I thought, Hey, this is the presidency, maybe we can avoid this kind of stuff. I thought the country was tired of the kind of polarization we’d had under Reagan. So I made the decision that I was not going to respond to the attacks, which turned out to be the biggest mistake of my political career. Earlier in the campaign, Mario Cuomo said to me, “Don’t pay attention to that stuff. Nobody’s going to believe it. Keep it positive.” We were campaigning together in Queens four days before the election, and he said, “That’s the worst advice I ever gave you.”

Also important, what did Dukakis learn from the experience?

BENSON: What advice do you wish you’d gotten?

DUKAKIS: You’ve got to be ready for the attacks, and you’ve got to have a carefully thought-up strategy to deal with them. In ’92, Clinton had a group of ten people that called themselves “the Defense Department.” All they did was deal with the Bush attack campaign, which if anything was tougher on Clinton than it was on me. But you didn’t have the impression that it was because the Clinton campaign was all over the attacks within seconds after they appeared.

Clinton’s Defense Department operated in a War Room down in Little Rock. Legend has it that Hillary Clinton came up with the military theme. In any case, it worked. And it made a complete convert out of Dukakis.

BENSON: So what would you say to people like Cory Booker who have denounced the president’s attack ads?

DUKAKIS:…Look, when Clinton ran for reelection, he was hammering Bob Dole early. You may or may not like that, but that’s what he did. And with all due respect to the folks of the Beltway, you’ve got to anticipate these attacks—and that includes the president of the United States. Obama’s got to make sure he doesn’t let happen to him what happened to me.

Now, I bring this history up because I think it might help us arbitrate a dispute in this morning’s Washington Post between The Nation’s Katrina vanden Heuvel and columnist Dana Milbank.

Milbank says that he adores Bernie Sanders and he agrees with him on many issues. He finds Hillary Clinton a “dreary,” “calculating and phony,” “cautious and uninspiring” candidate whose “reflexive secrecy causes a whiff of scandal to follow her everywhere.” But, despite this high opinion of Sanders and brutally low opinion of Clinton, Milbank argues that the Democrats would be clinically insane to nominate a guy who has referred to himself as a socialist.

Watching Sanders at Monday night’s Democratic presidential forum in Des Moines, I imagined how Trump — or another Republican nominee — would disembowel the relatively unknown Vermonter.

On the other side, Ms. vanden Heuvel’s column was part publicity for the fact that The Nation has endorsed a candidate in the primaries for only the third time in the magazine’s long history. In making the decision to get behind Bernie Sanders, they had, of course, considered the electability argument.

Put aside the irony of Clinton dismissing the electoral viability of someone she might lose to. Clinton has inevitable baggage of her own that raises doubts about her electoral prospects. And Clinton’s decision to present herself as the candidate of continuity in a time of change is problematic. In contrast, the positions Sanders champions — Medicare for All, cleaning up politics, curbing Wall Street, a less-interventionist foreign policy, rebuilding the United States, tuition-free college, fair taxes for the rich and corporations — are all extremely popular. Furthermore, Democrats have a natural electoral majority if they turn out. Even the Clinton campaign worries about her ability to rouse the young and people of color as Obama did. In contrast, Sanders has clearly electrified millennials with his message and integrity. A voter using his head rather than his heart might well be conflicted on the question of electability.

Part of the problem here is that vanden Heuvel is a much better writer than Dana Milbank but that doesn’t necessarily mean that she’s right about which candidate is more electable. It does mean that she marshals a more convincing argument. And, I think that if Democrats ever become convinced that vandal Huevel is correct that Sanders is the safer bet, it will be game over for Hillary Clinton for a second time.

What Milbank doesn’t mention is Bernie Sanders’s position on negative campaigning and negative advertising. Of course, you also have to be able to pay for that advertising.

So, on the one hand you have Sanders saying that he’s proud that he’s never run a negative ad in his entire political career and that he hopes that he won’t have to in this campaign, and on the other you have him eschewing a Super PAC and large donations that would give him ammunition he might need even he ultimately decided not to use it.

Yes, of course, you can talk about how this principled thinking is a key part of his appeal and a major contributor to why he’s electable. But you can just as plausibly say that it makes him look like a sitting Dukakis when the party has the founder of the War Room sitting right next to him.

Either way you come down, this is a valid part of the overall electability argument.

Also, I think Clinton can use some more enthusiastic backers than Dana Milbank.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly and the main blogger at Booman Tribune.