Ever since the 2016 presidential campaign began, it had been widely assumed that the Democrat race would be quickly decided. From the outset, Hillary Clinton was the prohibitive favorite. Her presence in the race scared off any serious competitors. When Vice President Joe Biden announced in October that he would not enter the race, it was widely assumed that Clinton’s nomination, which eluded her in 2008, was a fait accompli.
Not anymore. To everyone’s surprise, Vermont’s Senator Bernie Sanders has eliminated Clinton’s once substantial lead in the first two voting states, Iowa and New Hampshire, and threatens to extend the campaign for the Democrat nomination far longer than anyone expected. While most still view Sanders’ prospects for ultimately winning the nomination as highly unlikely, it is no longer considered to be impossible. That is making the Clinton campaign very nervous, especially in light of her unexpected defeat in the race with Barack Obama for the same nomination in 2008.
At the Democrat debate Sunday night, two weeks before the Iowa caucuses, Hillary Clinton assumed the role of the panicked frontrunner who realizes that she has complacently sat on her lead for too long. The latest polls in Iowa show that Clinton is in imminent danger of being overtaken by her underdog opponent whose campaign has developed momentum driven by a grass-roots insurgency. In the unlikely form of Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, progressive Democrat activists have found a champion who is not asking them to accept pragmatic compromises with the liberal Democrat establishment which Clinton is defending. Instead, they are responding to Sanders’ call for a political revolution which would go far beyond the liberal policies which Obama has put in place over his two terms in office.
For two hours, Clinton and Sanders traded arguments over guns, health care, Wall Street and taxes. But at heart, those issues were examples of a fundamental disagreement about how much to embrace the policies and record of the Obama administration and whether to focus on protecting them, or using them as a base upon which to build an even more radically progressive policy agenda for the country.
A GROWING SENSE OF URGENCY
The debate reflected the growing sense of urgency in the campaign as Sanders closed to within range of Clinton in Iowa, where she once held a commanding lead, and jumped ahead of her in New Hampshire, which holds its primary on February 9, just 8 days after the Iowa caucuses. Both Clinton and Sanders talked over one and past one another, and Sanders would often raise his voice to a shout in response to Clinton’s sharp attacks on his voting record and policy proposals. Both of them largely ignored the third candidate in the debate, former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley, who is languishing in the polls with just 2 percent support. He repeatedly tried to interrupt the arguments between Sanders nor Clinton, but neither was willing to pay much attention to what he was saying.
Clinton, who is struggling to hold her slim lead over Sanders in Iowa, challenged the details of Sanders’ agenda, and tried to identify herself with Obama’s record and accomplishments, which she said would be endangered by Sanders’ proposals. Clinton also attacked Sanders’ voting record, particularly on the issue of gun control, which is not popular in his home state of Vermont.
Sanders responded by trying to shift the focus to the big picture. He characterized Clinton as a willing agent of Wall Street, the big banks and corporate America, and accused pharmaceutical and private health insurance companies of manipulating the political system by paying off liberal politicians. Sanders argues that Clinton is therefore incapable of standing up against the efforts of these greedy corporations to exploit the American middle class, which is being squeezed by a combination of low wages and rising health care and drug costs.
CLINTON’S NEW STRATEGY
Clinton has abandoned her previous strategy of ignoring Sanders as a serious competitor and appealing directly to the progressive activists who set the policy agenda of the Democrat party. Instead, Clinton has now cast herself as the guardian of Obama’s presidential legacy, for which she is claiming part of the credit.
The shift is a tacit admission that Clinton can no longer count on her own credentials as a candidate, due in large part to the long-term damage to her reputation from her e-mail scandal. As the polls show, most American voters no longer view Clinton as honest and trustworthy. She is even losing her appeal to her core constituency, the female vote. Polls show that most younger women view Clinton as just another establishment politician rather than the role model which she had been to many of their mothers a generation ago.
Belatedly realizing that Sanders represents a real threat to her nomination, Clinton’s campaign has now adopted a dual strategy. First, it is pulling out all of the stops to hold on to her lead in the tightening race in Iowa, which she cannot afford to lose.
In an effort to stop Sanders’ growing momentum in Iowa, Clinton is trying to raise doubts about where Sanders stands on key progressive issues. She has also expressed doubt that Sanders can lead a political revolution to wrest control of the government from the pervasive influence of Wall Street, the big banks and corporations.
Clinton is also trying to reposition herself as the candidate of continuity through her newly voiced support for President Obama’s political agenda and legacy. She does have differences with Obama, particularly on foreign policy, but in the debate, Clinton repeatedly emphasized her desire to extend and build on what Obama has done in domestic policy as his successor in the White House.
SANDERS CALLS FOR BREAKING UP THE BANKS
Sanders condemned the Obama-supported financial reforms in the Dodd-Frank bill as a failure because they failed to break up the big banks which had to be bailed out during the 2008 financial crisis to prevent the collapse of the banking system. Sanders noted that “three out of the four largest banks today [are] bigger than they were when we bailed them out because they were too big to fail.” To remedy the situation, Sanders calls for a 21st century version of the Glass-Steagall legislation, which would force the “break up of these huge financial institutions [because] they have too much financial power over our entire economy.”
Sanders cited Goldman Sachs as an example of the corruption in the system that has allowed big banks to unduly influence government policy. “Goldman Sachs has given this country two secretaries of treasury, one on the Republicans, one under Democrats. The leader of Goldman Sachs is a billionaire who comes to Congress and tells us we should cut Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid.
EXPOSING CLINTON’S GOLDMAN SACHS CONNECTION
Turning to his opponent on the debate stage, Sanders said, “Secretary Clinton you’ve received over $600,000 in speaking fees from Goldman Sachs in one year.”
He also said he “finds it very strange” that Goldman Sachs recently paid “$5 billion in fines for breaking the law, [yet] not one of their executives is prosecuted.”
Making the contrast with Clinton even clearer, without mentioning her by name, Sanders added, “Well, the first difference is I don’t take money from big banks. I don’t get personal speaking fees from Goldman Sachs.”
Defending her independence from the influence of Wall Street, Clinton said, “I can tell you that the hedge fund billionaires are running ads against me right now… I’m the one they don’t want.”
DEBATE OVER THE FUTURE OF OBAMACARE
The political and philosophical differences between Clinton and Sanders became most apparent during a very sharp exchange over the best way to make health care available to the most Americans.
Sanders has called for a “Medicare-for-all” program, a single-payer system similar to the Canadian model for socialized medicine, to replace Obamacare. Clinton warned that what Sanders has proposed amounts to starting over and would plunge the country into a new and highly contentious fight over health care just as Obamacare is taking hold.
Sanders was challenged by one of the NBC debate moderators about how he would pay for his expansion of health coverage. He responded that while his plan would raise taxes on American middle class to help pay for “Medicare for all,” most middle class families would still save money overall because his plan would eliminate their monthly premium payments for private health insurance.
Clinton responded with a spirited defense of Obamacare for expanding health care coverage to 19 million Americans, ending the exclusion for pre-existing conditions, extending coverage for young people living in their parents’ home, and for providing “a path to universal health care. We have accomplished so much already. I do not to want see the Republicans repeal it, and I don’t to want see us start over again with a contentious debate. I want us to defend and build on the Affordable Care Act and improve it.”
Sanders denied Clinton’s charge that he wants to tear up Obamacare. He noted that when he served on the committee which wrote the Obamacare law, his input helped to make it “a better piece of legislation. I voted for it, but right now, what we have to deal with is the fact that 29 million people still have no health insurance. We are paying the highest prices in the world for prescription drugs; getting ripped off. And here’s the important point, we are spending far more per person on health care than the people of any other country.”
When Sanders was pressed on why the single-payer health care system he supports hasn’t succeeded in the US before, he brought the discussion back to his basic view that the American political system is broken because of the influence of the wealthy. “What this is really about is not the rational way to go forward,” Sanders said. “It is whether we have the guts to stand up to the private insurance companies and all their money, and the pharmaceutical industry. That’s what this debate should be about.”
PAYING FOR SANDERS’ AMBITIOUS AGENDA
Sanders wants to go much further. During the debate, he eagerly agreed with a question citing his calls for an expensive agenda of new and expanded government benefits, such as a raise in the Federal Minimum Wage to $15 an hour, and an expansion of Social Security benefits.
“Your right. . . Yes, I do. I plead guilty.” Sanders said.
“I want to rebuild our crumbling infrastructure, create 13 million jobs. . . I want every kid in this country who has the ability, to be able to go to a public college, or university, tuition free. And, by the way, I want to substantially lower student debt interest rates in this country as well.
“How do I pay for it?
“I pay for it through a tax on Wall Street speculation. This country, and the middle class, bailed out Wall Street. Now, it is Wall Street’s time to help the middle class.”
He also proposed “doing away with the absurd loophole that now allows major profitable corporations to stash their money [offshore] and not in some years, pay a nickel in taxes.”
Clinton managed to score some points early in the debate on the gun control issue by highlighting Sanders’ recent change of position, reversing his support for a measure which would exempt gun store owners of liability for the misuse by their customers of the guns they sell.
Sanders often became emotional during the debate, but he firmly declined an invitation from the moderators to make any comment on allegations about the personal conduct of Mrs. Clinton’s husband, dismissing the subject as irrelevant to the substance of the campaign.
CAN A SOCIALIST WIN THE NOMINATION?
If these proposals sound radical, it is because Bernie Sanders proudly calls himself a “democrat socialist” and serves in the US Senate as an Independent rather than as a member of the Democrat party.
When the campaign began, many dismissed Sanders as a serious presidential candidate because of his radical ideology, which uses the welfare states of Europe instead of entrepreneurial American private enterprise as his ideal economic model.
Nevertheless, Sanders has found a large and enthusiastic audience for his agenda inside a Democratic Party which has embraced his critique of the American political system for being dominated by the rich and the elites.
In addition, Sanders’ embrace of socialism is not nearly as much of a political impediment as it might have been during the Cold War era. Then, socialism was widely seen by the American people as synonymous with the communist threat to their freedom. Twenty five years after the fall of the Soviet Union, that is no longer the case.
The latest of the highly respected Selzer & Co. polls of likely Democrat caucus goers in Iowa disclosed that 43% would describe themselves as “socialists” and 44% called themselves “anti-Wall Street” as opposed to only 38% who identified themselves as “capitalists.” Furthermore, this shift in attitudes is not unique to Iowa. A national poll taken in November of Democrat primary voters found that 56% had a “positive view of socialism.”
This is more evidence of a broader move of the Democrat party as a whole to the left in recent years, which is just as significant as the conservative takeover of the GOP. As a result, Sanders’ radical socialist views are much closer to the Democrat consensus than they would have been just 15 years ago, when Bill and Hillary Clinton left the White House. It also helps to explain why Sanders has found so much enthusiastic Democrat support for his proposals to use the power of the federal government to raise wages, rebuild the country’s infrastructure, break up the big banks and add new entitlements, regardless of the cost.
TOO CLOSE TO CALL
The Sunday night debate was the last to take place before the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary. Between now and then, it will be largely up to the Clinton and Sanders campaign organizations and their ability to help undecided Democrats make up their minds and show up at the polls and caucuses to cast their votes.
At the moment, the races between Clinton and Sanders in both states are too close to call. Clinton’s formidable political organization and party establishment support gives her a slight advantage in Iowa, while the longtime familiarity of Sanders to New Hampshire voters, who represents nearby Vermont, gives him a slight advantage there. The X-factor in both races is the greater enthusiasm for Sanders, especially among young voters. If that translates into a stronger than expected turnout of young voters at the polls and caucuses, then Sanders is likely to win. Sanders also holds a psychological advantage as the come-from-behind underdog, especially in Iowa.
HAS CLINTON LEARNED THE LESSONS OF 2008?
Clinton has been through this before. In the 2008 Iowa caucuses, she finished a disappointing third, behind Barack Obama who benefitted from an unexpected surge in turnout. Even though Clinton regrouped and scored a quick comeback in New Hampshire, her campaign never managed to regain its momentum or recover from its mistakes. She was overconfident and failed to put together a winning strategy against Obama in the later primaries.
The staff of the 2016 Clinton campaign insists that it has learned the lesson of her bitter 2008 Iowa loss and is strategically designed to maximize her delegate count across the state on caucus night. But the Sanders campaign has countered with a strong effort to translate its strong enthusiasm among young party activists into enhanced turnout at the caucuses.
The added momentum from a Sanders victory in Iowa would further boost his chances of winning New Hampshire. A Sanders victory in both states would have a dramatic national impact, and likely guarantee a longer battle between Sanders and Clinton than anyone expected. It could also stimulate a fresh round of second-guessing among Democrat party leaders over how long to stick with Clinton, especially if she can’t quickly dispose of the challenge by beating Sanders soundly in the subsequent primary states.
CLINTON’S SOUTH CAROLINA FIREWALL
The Clinton’s team continues to feel confident about the next two states to vote, Nevada and South Carolina. Her advisers see the primary in South Carolina, with its large population of black Democrat voters, as a political firewall, where Clinton would have the best chance to halt Sanders’ momentum.
That is based upon the assumption that Mrs. Clinton would receive overwhelming support from South Carolina blacks, because of the lingering popularity of her husband.
Many also believe that Clinton’s recent policy shift, portraying herself as the guardian of Obama’s presidential legacy, will win her more support in South Carolina’s black community. The Sanders campaign is also well aware of this strategy, and is working hard to make Sanders better known and more appealing to black voters.
While Clinton clearly holds a strong advantage in South Carolina, it is not clear how much closer the race would become if Sanders sweeps Iowa and New Hampshire first.
Nevada could also be close. Clinton won the popular vote in the caucuses eight years ago against Obama but not the delegate count.
After the contests in the first four states, Super Tuesday sets up well for Clinton, with a group of contests in the South, where blacks will make up a significant portion of the electorates.
LOOKING DOWN THE ROAD
The state of the Clinton campaign operation in the later primary states is more problematic. Until very recently, it has been pouring the lion’s share of its resources into Iowa, in the belief that a clear victory there over Sanders would lead to the rapid elimination of his candidacy.
Now that the race has tightened in Iowa, and a Sanders victory there seems more possible, the Clinton campaign has begun actively gearing up for primaries across the country running through April and into May, setting an initial budget of about $50 million for the nationwide effort.
Last June, at a Clinton campaign kickoff function in New York City, it boasted the presence of paid campaign workers in all 50 states. Since then, most of those workers were fired or re-assigned. Now that campaign infrastructure has to be rebuilt. In the meantime, the Clinton campaign is relying almost entirely on union volunteers and organizations such as Planned Parenthood which have endorsed her in many states.
Surprisingly, the Sanders campaign is better organized, at this point, with professional staff in place for all 11 states that will vote through Super Tuesday at the beginning of March. According to Sanders’ campaign manager, Jeff Weaver, it is ready to grind out the campaign, state by state and delegate by delegate.
In another surprise, Clinton and Sanders are roughly equal in their fundraising. The Sanders campaign raised $33 million in the fourth quarter of 2015, just $4 million less than Clinton. But the big difference is that most of the Sanders donations came from small contributions, which means that his campaign can go back to the same donors to ask for more money several times before reaching the limit of $2,700 for contributions from any individual.
Clinton strategists also talk about her organizational advantages if the campaign gets drawn out. These include her strong support among the party’s leaders, who make up several hundred convention superdelegates, and among black and Latino voters.
But everyone in the Clinton campaign still remembers the 2008 campaign. They are just hoping that Sanders will not prove to be as successful as Obama was in motivating the party’s base.
That is all well into the future. Right now, the immediate focus is entirely on the first contests in Iowa and New Hampshire. They will be decided by the relative strength of each candidate’s campaign skills, and the effectiveness of their ground operations in the two states. Ultimately, the choice between them will be made by the Democrat voters, as it should be, for the first time in this surprisingly close campaign.
The Washington Post contributed to this article.