Hillary Clinton vs. Bernie Sanders: The Good Fight

Hillary and Bernie have waged campaigns full of vision, ideas and promise — and have shown us the best in American politics

Compared to the GOP race, the heated contest of ideas between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders feels almost jarring in its decency and intelligence.
Hillary Clinton vs. Bernie Sanders: The Good Fight

Hillary Clinton's Super Tuesday speech, delivered before a gathering of supporters in Miami, was a more polished version of a speech I'd heard her give three days earlier in Columbia, South Carolina. The Columbia rally took place at an indoor volleyball court at the University of South Carolina. The floor of the gymnasium had been covered with a blue tarp, possibly to protect the wood, but also maybe to hide the name of the team, the Gamecocks, and its mascot, a giant red cockfighting rooster, complete with sharpened spurs on its legs.

By this point in the Democratic primary season, Clinton was exuding a new confidence onstage. Her opponent, the Vermont senator Bernie Sanders, had proved unexpectedly formidable, thanks to the resonance of his populist economic message. But Clinton, who has acknowledged she's not a "natural" campaigner, sharpened her message and delivery after early stumbles. While Sanders had been dominating when it came to one portion of the Obama coalition, young people, Clinton had done even better with another, African-Americans, to such a degree that the math was starting to look ugly for Sanders. She would win South Carolina and the Southern Super Tuesday states – Tennessee, Arkansas, Texas, Alabama, Georgia and Virginia – by massive, ridiculous margins, leaving her with a considerable lead. For Sanders to bounce back, he'd have to start racking up some game-changing numbers of his own. (The following week, Sanders squeaked out a win in Michigan in a wild upset, but continued to trail significantly in delegates.)

The one big advantage Sanders retained was financial: The campaign had just announced it had taken in $42.7 million in February, more than Clinton for the second month in a row – and this with no help from Super PACs. Ninety-eight percent of the money was raised online from small donors, most of whom were nowhere near the maximum personal-donation limit of $2,700, and so could continue to support the Sanders insurgency all the way through the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia. To that end, even if Sanders fell short on delegates, there was no real incentive for him to drop out.

While the Republican primary descended into puerile name-calling, racism and open flirtations with fascism, the heated contest of ideas between Clinton and Sanders – policy-driven, free of personal insults and game-raising for both candidates – felt almost jarring, its decency and intelligence unfolding like an alternate universe. Even if Sanders does not prevail, he will have forced Clinton and the Democratic establishment to at least respond to a grassroots fury and disgust over the political elite and the financial interests controlling the debate. Suddenly, long-sought-after progressive dreams like single-payer health care and free tuition for public colleges had re-entered the political conversation.

By Super Tuesday, Clinton was already looking ahead to the general election, telling reporters at a coffee shop in Minneapolis that she was troubled by the "bigotry and bullying" she'd been hearing from Republican candidates and was disappointed that Donald Trump "did not disavow what appears to be support from David Duke and the Ku Klux Klan." That night in her victory speech, Clinton circled back to the GOP front-runner, noting that "we need more love and kindness in America."

Still, the question for nervous Democrats, should Trump and Clinton win their respective nominations, becomes: Can a message of love and kindness, as delivered by one of the most polarizing figures in modern political history, suffice? And will the young people exercised by Sanders' own message of revolutionary change be willing to follow a hawkish moderate who voted for the Iraq War and has taken millions of dollars from the very Wall Street banks their candidate has been tirelessly denouncing from Day One?

To the last question, as one Democratic Party insider told me, "White millennials are the most pro-diversity of any group of whites. They may grow up to be assholes later, who knows. But the most motivating thing to get people to vote is fear, not love. And if Trump can't scare the fuck out of people, I don't know what can. So I have a hard time believing they'll sit home if Hillary is the nominee."

The morning after Super Tuesday, as many pundits were writing Sanders' obituary, his campaign held a press briefing in Burlington. "We had a fantastic night," campaign manager Jeff Weaver insisted, acknowledging that "we shot for five [states] and got 4.9." Sanders had won Vermont, Colorado, Oklahoma and Minnesota and lost Massachusetts by the thinnest of margins. "We did not target 11 states yesterday," Tad Devine, a senior adviser to the campaign, explained, describing Super Tuesday as "the single best day" for Clinton on the campaign calendar in terms of geography and demographics.

"These arguments about the delegate math, I have to say, as someone who spent a lot of time in the Eighties working on this topic, I view the analysis as being, frankly, shallow, and representing not a real understanding about how the modern nominating process works," Devine said. "I know there's a lot of number crunchers who think they know how this process works and conclude the race is over. I would suggest understanding the dynamics of a modern presidential campaign requires more skills than arithmetic."

Devine went on to sketch out a Sanders path to victory, pointing out how the geographic diversity of the senator's Super Tuesday wins proved they could rack up a string of wins as the primary season moved out of the South and into friendlier territory. At one point, he even suggested that pledged delegates – that is, the delegates won at the voting booth – might switch to Sanders if Clinton stumbled badly, an oddly undemocratic pitch from a campaign focused on the rights of the little guy.

Still, Sanders had been underestimated from the very beginning. Last April, the day before he announced his campaign, Washington Post White House correspondent Chris Cillizza wrote flatly, "He is not going to win." Columbia Journalism Review would go on to note that Sanders' candidacy had been ignored by the mainstream media "as nearly as they could a sitting U.S. senator who entered the presidential race."

In May, when Sanders visited Iowa for the first time as a candidate, everything began to change. At his inaugural event, at a small Catholic college in Davenport, 700 people showed up, the largest crowd in Iowa drawn by any candidate from either party at that point. Organizers scrambled to make more room, sliding open one of the retractable walls of the meeting hall and asking younger people to give up their seats to the elderly. One young man wore a John Deere T-shirt; another, a shirt that read no more drug war.

Over the next few days, I followed the campaign and listened as Sanders laid out his agenda (which, as pronounced by the senator, rhymed with "transgender"). Throughout, he stayed relentlessly on message, calling for a political revolution that would push America in the direction of Democratic socialism. And everywhere he went, he drew record-breaking audiences, working an almost religious appeal over his followers. Two days before the Iowa caucus, he packed a standing-room crowd into a University of Iowa sports facility; the rally concluded with Sanders, Cornel West and members of Vampire Weekend, Dirty Projectors and Foster the People all singing along to Woody Guthrie's "This Land Is Your Land."

"This is the first time I've really been in the mix with a campaign," Vampire Weekend singer Ezra Koenig told me backstage. Koenig didn't use the word "authenticity," but he pointed, again and again, to the decades-long consistency of Sanders' message. "Go back and watch his old speeches on YouTube," he said. "It's amazing. The one in '91 he gave during the Gulf War gave me chills. In retrospect, it's like he's unveiling a prophecy. Or when [during a congressional hearing] he yelled at Alan Greenspan – Ayn Rand's ex-boyfriend! It's 2003, the economy is quote-unquote 'good,' and Greenspan comes to Congress to brag, thinking it's going to be a softball. And Bernie just rips into him, five years before the collapse."

"They're not going for the okey-doke," West told me later, describing Sanders' young supporters. Added the Republican pollster Frank Luntz, who attended a half-dozen Sanders events in Iowa and New Hampshire, "I've been doing this for 20 years now, and there's something special about the Sanders voter. You can see it in their eyes: They believe they're onto something, and that the rest of America will discover it in time. This is not Don Quixote to them. They think they can change the political process."

Even before Super Tuesday, Luntz considered Clinton the likely nominee. But he also told me about a recent poll he'd conducted with Snapchat, in which, among 18-to-26-year-olds, Sanders was more popular than Barack Obama. "He has really taken that generation by storm," Luntz says. "He is everything they have been waiting for. He's not political, he's more focused on policy. Whereas Clinton plays politics the way it was played 20 years ago when her husband was president."

Clinton's team was certainly sent into panic mode by the way in which Sanders managed to degrade her 40-plus-point lead in Iowa to a virtual tie and then proceeded to win New Hampshire handily, by 22 points. On a chartered flight from Des Moines to Manchester, New Hampshire, Sanders briefly wandered back into the press area with Weaver to deliver more bad news for Clinton. Pandemonium broke out as the candidate appeared: reporters hurtling themselves over seats and standing on armrests, thrusting tape recorders and cameras past one another's bodies.

"What happens after Iowa?" Sanders asked rhetorically. Then he answered his own question: "We're in it for the long haul. We'll win some states, we'll lose some states. We're going to the convention."

Not long after the Sanders team's Super Tuesday post-mortem, Clinton campaign manager Robby Mook released a memo saying, essentially: Keep dreaming. "We have no doubt that as long as Sen. Sanders remains in the primary, he will continue to win elections along the way, but it will make little difference to Hillary's pledged delegate lead," Mook wrote, adding that "over the upcoming weeks, we intend to steadily add to Hillary Clinton's already sizable lead, and as we do, it will become harder and harder mathematically for Sen. Sanders to ever catch up."

To date, Clinton's campaign has been largely walled-off from the press. When she spoke to the traveling press corps on Super Tuesday, it was the first time she'd done so since early December. Sanders, meanwhile, flies on the same chartered plane as the reporters who cover his campaign (unlike Clinton) and holds fairly regular press gaggles. All campaigns are stage-managed, of course, but Clinton's could feel particularly heavy-handed, especially in the early primary and caucus states, as she struggled to contain the Sanders threat and the conspicuous enthusiasm deficits at her rallies. In Des Moines, I watched as staffers directed audience members in a half-empty high school basketball arena to fill out the bleachers directly behind Clinton's podium; a few days later, in Hampton, New Hampshire, she plaintively reminded the sparse crowd, this time assembled in a high school cafeteria, to "choose with your heart and your mind."

All that said, while it's true that Clinton's crowds have been smaller (and older) than Sanders', her appearances are far from passionless affairs. Even before her South Carolina victory, there was a palpable energy in those rooms – the prospect of finally having a female president is undeniably exciting, and being in the presence of large groups of women, many close to Clinton's age, as they react to this possibility and cheer along to teen-pop girl-power anthems like Katy Perry's "Roar," feels like its own kind of revolution.

Sanders supporters counter by pointing to Clinton's coziness with monied interests, but former Rep. Barney Frank, a Clinton backer who attended her Des Moines rally, flatly dismisses such concerns. "Having a Super PAC, taking contributions from Wall Street – I think that's a very unfair criticism of Barack Obama," Frank notes sarcastically. "The president had a Super PAC and took more money than any Democrat ever had. I have spoken at Goldman Sachs. I told Hillary Clinton I had a problem with her speaking fees: They're bigger than mine!"

It's momentarily shocking to hear Frank doubling down on Clinton's own glib response, in one Democratic debate, to questions about being paid $600,000-plus by Goldman Sachs for three speeches. ("That's what they offered," she replied.) He goes on, of course, to make the same rejoinder to critics as Clinton: Look at our records, and show me any instances in which this money influenced our votes. That defense, too, however tin-eared and unsatisfying, highlights the irritation of many establishment Democrats, accustomed to considering themselves on the side of the angels and now stung by the Sanders crusade.

Neera Tanden, the president of the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank and advocacy group, has a long history with the Clintons. In the Nineties, she worked in the Clinton White House, both as a domestic-policy adviser to the president and as senior policy adviser to the first lady. She was the deputy campaign manager for Hillary Clinton's 2000 Senate campaign in New York and the policy director of her 2008 presidential campaign.

"I was not at all surprised by the success of Sanders," says Tanden, who is now an outside adviser to Clinton's campaign. "The oddity of the race is how much Democratic voters also strongly support President Obama. They like what he's done, but they want more. On both sides, because of the Great Recession, the Republican assault on government and the virtual standstill in Washington, people have lost faith in traditional answers. Political rollouts and solutions don't have the power they had in previous cycles. People are interested in more disruptive change."

Still, Tanden, who has also worked in the Obama White House on crafting the Affordable Care Act, finds it a "great irony" that Clinton is now considered suspect by parts of the progressive left. "As someone who worked for her in the Nineties, I can tell you that everyone on Bill Clinton's White House staff, and everyone on the outside, thought of Hillary as the liberal champion," Tanden says. "Liberal activists went to her to lobby. And the president's more centrist staff was scared of her." Tanden pauses for a moment, then continues, "I have to say, I think some of this is weirdly sexist. We assume she has the same views as Bill Clinton when it hurts her, and we assume she has different views when that hurts her."

Some of Clinton's supporters also bristle at the idea that Sanders' campaign has been helpful for the party, that the race has pulled Clinton to the left and made her a stronger general-election candidate. "What I'm concerned about is that by denigrating what we've been able to accomplish," Frank says, "along with an inadequate recognition of the real differences between the parties, a number of people could become convinced that what Obama accomplished wasn't worth it."

Frank co-authored the Dodd-Frank financial-reform bill passed in the wake of the 2007-2008 financial collapse, and he takes particular umbrage at Sanders' critiques of the inadequacy of such efforts to rein in the banks. "This mantra, 'Congress doesn't regulate Wall Street, Wall Street regulates Congress,' well, that says Elizabeth Warren's Consumer Protection Bureau doesn't mean anything," Frank says. "Or the Volcker Rule – Congress passed that! I'm just worried that Sanders is reinforcing an inaccurate perception, one that justifies young people only voting on the rare occasion when they have a, quote, 'revolution.' I'm hoping the death of Scalia – I'm not one of those who mourn him – might change that."

One of the ways in which Clinton has been looking ahead to the general election, and the need to unite the party, has been her willingness to absorb many of Sanders' proposals into her own platform. After weeks of denouncing his "Medicare-for-all" health care plan as unworkable, for example, Clinton said she'd favor the state health exchanges having greater leeway to experiment with a public option.

In the view of the Democratic pollster Peter Hart, Clinton's biggest challenge is that "voters think she's competent, but they're less convinced on compassion, and they're downright skeptical when it comes to integrity." To that end, Hart believes that in the general election, a more centrist GOP candidate like John Kasich or House Speaker Paul Ryan – whose name has been bandied about as part of an 11th-hour "Stop Trump!" scenario, should there be a brokered GOP convention – could become a "major threat" to Clinton. As for Trump, while Sanders and his supporters have long pointed to polls in which Sanders outperforms Clinton in theoretical head-to-head matchups with the Republican front-runner, Hart gives "no credence" to those numbers. "Some of those same polls also have Ben Carson ahead or dead even with Hillary Clinton," he says. "That's why I have a reluctance to look at early polls where you have an unknown" – someone like Sanders or Carson – "against a known, polarizing figure."

However, the economist Robert Reich, who served as secretary of labor under President Bill Clinton and who has known Hillary since she was 19, when she was the president of her freshman class at Wellesley, comes to a different conclusion, which is part of the reason why he's endorsed Sanders. "How do you explain that somebody as narcissistic, vulgar and bigoted as Trump would be winning by the margins he's winning?" Reich asks. "Well, the only way to explain it is he's touching a responsive chord in America, because people are so fed up with politics as usual. It's been building for 30 years now, and we're at a stage where we're almost having an open rebellion. Trump can channel the anger and talk in ways that people can understand – in terms of his half-assed ideas, they are half-assed, but they are bold.

"So if she gets the nomination and is opposed by a populist candidate like Trump – and hopefully she doesn't wait until she gets the nomination to do this – she's got to credibly join this rebellion. Right now, she's seen as part of the establishment, and not as part of a movement to reclaim our economy and restore our democracy."

The political class, after months of writing off Trump and being proved wrong again and again, has developed an almost superstitious fear of the man, as if he must have a shriveled monkey's paw secreted in one of his pockets that's giving him special powers. But Tanden thinks that "the best analogy to this race is one that Hillary has actually already run": her 2000 Senate campaign against another brash New Yorker beloved by his supporters for going off-script, Rudy Giuliani. "He and Trump are similar, and the way to deal with him was to make clear what he was doing. Our campaign got to a place where we were mocking him, and it really worked."

Giuliani eventually dropped out of the race after his marriage fell apart and he received a diagnosis of prostate cancer (and Clinton went on to easily dispatch his replacement, Rick Lazio). Before that, according to The New York Times, Clinton "had found her way to handle the gibes thrown at her by the confrontational mayor. Rather than engage him, Mrs. Clinton became the foot-tapping, arms-folded sighing mother of a forever misbehaving teenager, a strategy intended as much to infantilize Mr. Giuliani as to provoke him.

"'I can't be responding every time the mayor gets angry,' Mrs. Clinton said, smiling as she campaigned in upstate New York a few days before Christmas 1999. 'Because that's all I would do.'"

The other big part of Clinton's primary pitch has been oriented around policy – namely, that Sanders' proposals, however appealing to the progressive left, were unrealistic overpromises, built on shaky math and the fantastic assumption that any of his radical agenda would make it past a Republican Congress.

There are some problems with this argument. For one thing, if we do assume that Congress will remain in the hands of a Republican Party that has obstructed President Obama at every turn – the Senate might flip, but thanks to gerrymandered districts, the House of Representatives most likely remains out of reach to Democrats, even in a scenario in which Trump is a catastrophic nominee who drags down the entire ticket – very little of any Democrat's agenda has much chance of passage. "Nothing is possible in the present climate, let's be clear," Reich insists.

Assuming Clinton is elected, Reich says, her own most ambitious proposals – he gives, as an example, paid family and medical leave – stand "no chance in hell [of passage] under the current circumstances. The only way anything good is going to happen is if large numbers of people outside Washington are mobilized to get things done." This, of course, is Sanders' prescription – the notion, which even he admits is a moonshot, that the sort of grassroots electoral wave necessary to make a Democratic Socialist president could be sustained beyond November and force Congress to act. But thus far, this argument has been seriously undermined by the facts. While the unruly GOP primary has attracted record-breaking numbers of voters, turnout has dropped significantly among Democrats. "The theory of Sanders' case, that he'll bring all these new people into the process, has already been disproven," argues Tanden. "We're just not there in terms of turnout."

Frank, who agrees with a number of Sanders' positions, has campaigned for him in the past ("I did a fundraiser for him once in Burlington, which is very far from anyplace I'd like to be, not being a Canadian") and says he's often mistaken for the senator ("We're both Jewish guys around same age with New York accents. If I thought someone with his general profile could be elected president, I would be running myself!"), nonetheless finds Sanders' notion that his presidency would entirely change Washington naive. "The idea that we're going to have a revolution and do things like single-payer would mean higher taxes across the board," Frank says. "I was with him [in the House] when we were voting to raise taxes under the Clinton administration. That passed by basically one vote in each house! He makes it seem like it was a failure and that if he was there [in charge], more would have happened. I wish people were behind him, but that's not the case. If they had been, then why, as a senator and representative for 25 years, wasn't more done?"

Still, there's a reason that the moral force of Sanders' arguments has taken hold as a counterpoint to the roiling jingoism of the Trump base, much of which is also rooted in economic insecurity. The real disconnect between middle- and working-class Americans and the political elite comes out in such discussions of the economy: Despite job numbers that have been improving on paper, the median family income, adjusted for inflation, is lower than it was in 2000, and all manner of indexes that measure economic security are "historically low," according to Reich, who says the level of concentrated income at the top equals that of the Gilded Age. "The establishment of both parties has no idea what is actually happening," he says. "People are tired of politicians selling them a bill of goods. I've never seen such anger, and I've been in and around this political environment for a long time. And establishment parties are still explaining the caucus and primary votes by saying Hillary Clinton has a trust problem and Jeb Bush never connected with voters. They're not talking about what's really going on."

Reich points to the bipartisan establishment support for free-trade pacts like NAFTA and the Trans-Pacific Partnership as an example. "Trade policies have helped people at the top and taken out the middle rungs of the job ladder and pushed millions into the personal-service sector, where they're getting paid very little," Reich says. "When the median wage started to stagnate, the first thing a lot of families did is, the wives and mothers went into the workforce," Reich goes on. "When wages continued to decline, the second thing they did was work longer hours. Then, when that coping mechanism was exhausted, the third thing was to go deep into debt, many people using home loans as collateral. And when that bubble burst, people woke up to what was happening, and you begin to get, starting with the bank bailouts, a surge of anger, the Tea Party on one side and Occupy on the other. And it doesn't stop, because the political establishment doesn't recognize it for what it is. They think it's left versus right!"

At the rally in South Carolina, Clinton appeared buoyant when she took the stage. She wore a white and gray raw-tweed blazer, and her voice sounded slightly hoarse. Yet within moments, she had pivoted to the general election, taking aim at the Republican front-runner who, that same weekend, would re-tweet a Benito Mussolini quote. "Despite what you hear, we don't need to make America great again," Clinton said, exuding force and confidence. "America has never stopped being great!"

In the crowd, Sherry Williams, a 61-year-old librarian, told me she'd been following Clinton's career for the past 20 years and admired how Clinton has "weathered all that she has, and only gets stronger." Williams is one of the African-American voters Clinton had counted upon to save her, but Williams' loyalty didn't strike me as unconditional. She'd listened to Sanders' message – "My oldest daughter is for him, actually," she told me – and said she liked his "big ideas. But what he's proposing, I just don't think he could get it done."

Nearby, a guy wearing a floppy, wide-brimmed fishing hat who looked like one of the Allman Brothers echoed Williams' views. "I admire Bernie Sanders – I agree with 90 percent of what he says – but the prospect of Donald Trump being the next president is terrifying," the man, a former rock & roll sound engineer named Tony Yarborough, told me. "I just think Hillary is the most competent person in the race."

In her Super Tuesday victory speech, Clinton rolled out a revised version of her Trump jab, delivering the line slightly differently, in a quiet voice, with a sad, puzzled expression on her face. "We know we have work to do, but that work is not to make America great again," she said, sounding hurt as to why anyone would ever suggest otherwise. "America never stopped being great. We have to make America whole."

About 30 minutes later, just up the coast in Palm Beach, Trump appeared before his own supporters. Some Democrats have watched his rise with glee, seeing a Trump nomination as an easy victory in the fall. But not long into his speech, Trump demonstrated again his uncanny ability to puncture the soft spots beneath any opponent's armor. "Make America whole again?" he asked with a smirk, effortlessly making the phrase sound ridiculous, as if Clinton had proposed a jobs plan involving vision boards and healing crystals. "What is that all about?"

That said, the incredible stakes manifested by the spectre of a President Trump have started making even Clinton's platitudes ("I know it sometimes seems a little odd for someone running for president, these days, in this time, to say we need more love and kindness in America. But I'm telling you, from the bottom of my heart, we do") sound like necessary truths.

The primary fight with Sanders has also certainly transformed Clinton into a much stronger candidate: She's more relaxed, and there's a deeper focus and urgency in her message. According to a story in The New York Times, Team Clinton has been preparing to bloody Trump with the help of "two prominent surrogates": the Big Dog himself, Bill Clinton, who "would not hold back on the stump" in order to blunt Trump's "ability to sway the news cycle," and President Obama, "who has told allies he would gleefully portray Mr. Trump as incapable of handling the duties of the Oval Office."

Will that be enough, in these days of revolt? "The key is, how does she handle Phase Two and Phase Three of this campaign?" Hart, the Democratic pollster, says. He isn't as worried about the schism that's been playing out in the primary. "It's different from other years, where there would be irreparable damage for a long time," he says. "I'm not of the belief that everyone who voted for Bernie looks at Hillary and says, 'There's the enemy.' This is a situation where I think, by the time the Democrats go to the polls, the differences will be joined."