Red-Baiting Sanders May Not Be a Wise Approach for Clinton Surrogates

It would appear that the gloves are indeed off in the Democratic primary. As so often happens when candidates start to sharpen their knives, the surrogates are the first to test various lines of attack. Sanders surrogates have foolishly brought up the Clinton email brouhaha, for instance, and now it appears that at least one Clinton surrogate is now red-baiting Sanders.

In the middle of an intensifying fight with Hillary Clinton over the Vermont senator and native Brooklynite’s suggestion that she is unqualified to be president, Representative Hakeem Jeffries, the Brooklyn congressman and Clinton supporter, released a statement on Thursday calling Mr. Sanders a “gun-loving socialist with zero foreign policy experience.”

The problem here is that the voters who hate socialism are the ones who are already in Clinton’s corner. The ones she will need to win over to quell Sanders’ momentum or whose support she will need to secure after winning the nomination don’t necessarily find the word “socialist” to be much of an insult. In fact, a majority of Democrats say that socialism has been benign force:

Nearly six-in-ten Democratic primary voters believe socialism has a ‘positive impact on society,’ according to polling conducted this month for the right-leaning issue advocacy group American Action Network and provided to POLITICO.

Perhaps more importantly, socialism is very popular among Democratic voters under 45:

And among people 45 and under — a group that has helped power Sanders’ primary performances — the ideology is preferred to capitalism by a margin of 46 percent to 19 percent.

Nor is that the first poll to show the positive view of the word socialism. a YouGov poll posted similar results. Some of this is directly due to the embrace of the term by the Sanders campaign, but in fact 18-29 year old voters have been shown to favor socialism even going back to 2011.

As to the charge that Sanders is a “new Democrat,” that line may have some effect on the long-time Democratic rank-and-file. But again, older registered Democrats are largely in the Clinton camp already. Younger voters of all political stripes have a low regard for registering to vote with political parties, and often consider themselves independents even if their actual voting habits are highly partisan. And the charge that Sanders is a recent Democrat will obviously fall flat with actual independents of all ages, who have also swung heavily to Sanders even as Clinton has dominated among registered Dems.

Beyond the direct electoral impact of these charges, they are also bad for the long-term health of the Democratic Party. The nominal frontrunner should not be pivoting to center by insulting the dearly-held ideology of much of the party’s base and the very voters it will need at the margins to come to the polls in November. Nor should it under any circumstance be insulting newcomers to the party from the left who might have felt the Democratic Party was too corporate or centrist before, but with Sanders’ campaign now feel they might have a legitimate ideological home as a Democrat.

It might be that the Clinton camp is turning to these attacks out of frustration, or it might be just an undisciplined surrogate spouting off. The most troubling implication would be that Clinton might be losing hold of some of her core Democratic supporters and looking to bring them back into the fold.

In any case, Clinton can easily win the nomination without resorting to red-baiting. It’s unnecessary and counterproductive both to her own campaign, and to the party’s long-term interests.

David Atkins

David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.