As the Democratic nomination horse-race comes to an end in just over a week, Sen. Bernie Sanders is running behind by several lengths’ worth of delegates, so it is unlikely he will win. Hoping to eke out a victory in California that still wouldn’t be enough to overcome the gap, Sanders, his campaign, and his surrogates have all argued that he deserves the nomination anyway because of his “electability.”
That is, Sanders polls slightly better against Donald Trump, and has better favorability ratings, because the right wing opposition media industry has not spent the last 25 years teaching people to despise him.
Yet this argument is naive, say critics, precisely because Sanders has never faced a real opposition campaign in his entire political career. Sure, Sanders has won competitive races, and even faced negative advertisements. But no Richard Mellon Scaife has ever funded a dark money group to sensationalize his past, attack his character, and turn public opinion against him at a national level for years at a time.
So far, the Democratic Party race has been characterized by a lack of real oppo spending or media, either. While there have been a few negative comments and attendant controversy — the “not qualified” episode springs to mind — Clinton and Sanders have largely refrained from personal attacks.
It’s also worth noting that Karl Rove and his ilk have heretofore held their fire on Sanders in hopes that he would spoil Clinton’s nomination, a strategy which would change the very instant Sanders became the nominee.
So here’s a thought experiment: suppose the situation is reversed, that Sanders rather than Clinton stands to clinch the nomination shortly after polls close in New Jersey next Tuesday evening.
Let us skip lightly over the stuff which would happen right away: Trump attacking his personal life, such as his child born out of wedlock, his employment history, and the times he lived without electricity; endless Fox News and talk radio red-baiting about his adoration of Eugene V. Debs, Fidel Castro, and Daniel Ortega; his Marxist views on rape and teenage sex and children touching each other; fearmongering over his tax plans and health care ideas, with comparisons to Michael Dukakis and Walter Mondale; the latent anti-Semitism of conservative hatemongers like Ann Coulter and Milo Yiannopoulos, etc.
Instead of taking a broad view, let’s focus on one specific theme that would quickly develop and continue into the White House with the sole object of reducing his popularity: the demonization of Jane O’Meara Sanders. Here is how her character would come under attack.
We recently learned that Ms. Sanders left Burlington College in such bad financial shape that they are now closing their doors forever. Comfortable in her commanding position, Clinton has not made anything at all of this story, while the media is far more interested in tearing Clinton down than vetting Sanders. As far as the details of this story goes, I’ll just say that I have seen some very ineffective college presidents in my time and I still find this fiasco astonishing. Anyway, despite showing up in her first-page Google results, the news has made relatively few news ripples, but my point is that right wing hedge fund billionaires would not pull their punches like that if Sanders was winning his nomination race. Not hardly.
Whitewater, the real estate ‘scandal’ which eventually resolved into disclosure of Bill Clinton’s dalliances with Monica Lewinski, is a perfect template for what would happen to Sanders, and more particularly to Jane.
Which billionaires would fund these efforts is a pointless question, for there are so many who might. Between now and November, the hapless Ms. Sanders would become the subject of constant ‘questions’ about her role in the demise of Burlington College and the bank loans which amassed so much debt. These ‘questions’ would feed the narrative of an ambitious spendthrift, buttressing the attacks on her husband’s policy proposals as ‘tax-and-spend socialism’ etc, while her family gets denounced as hypocrites for their personal wealth and lack of financial transparency. Moreover, this scandal would be conflated with every new scandal, real or imagined, in the Sanders camp.
Shameless, Rush Limbaugh would declare her failure to provide more than one year’s family tax records “deeply-suspicious” while excusing Donald Trump’s refusal to provide any tax records at all as perfectly rational. That’s just one wingnut bloviator; I’ll leave the rest of them to your imagination. Simply remember that this will not be a fair or sane process, and there will be no referees to speak of.
Also, I’m not saying these attacks would necessarily defeat the Sanders campaign. On the contrary, Sanders could probably still beat Trump, but that’s hardly the point. By the time he took the oath of office in January, the attrition of the campaign would increase public disfavor with him to some degree. Just as much as his supporters love him, millions of Americans would be taught to hate him. The same is true for Jane. American politics have been characterized by this process ever since the election of Bill Clinton in 1992.
It bears mentioning that a general election is a very different climate from a primary season. Tens of millions of voters pay no attention to politics until after the conventions; many only take interest when debates begin. Some people only become interested in politics, or radicalized enough to care, after election results they dislike. At every point, the Sanderses would thus encounter their very first significant right wing oppo campaigns at the exact moments when they are first being introduced to people who know nothing about them. Like it or not, this would have some effect on their favorability numbers.
And the hits don’t stop for Inauguration Day. If anything, the attacks redouble whenever Republicans lose. Rather than dissipate, themes developed in the campaign would be enlarged during a Sanders presidency.
We’ve already seen this ugly template twice in my lifetime with Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. Before any sort of ‘honeymoon period’ has even begun, the usual suspects transform every halting event or faux pas into a crisis. The inevitable growing pains of a new White House become fodder for hot takes, hyperbolic speculation, and politicized investigation in a 24/7 cycle of personal destruction. Hostile biographies appear on bestseller lists. Trivialities become actual federal cases. Permanent, dedicated staff in Washington, DC are established in full-time jobs ‘taking on’ the ‘reckless’ administration by hook or by crook before the new Democratic president is done taking the oath of office. Websites spawn any number of clickbaiting conspiracy theories, polluting the internet until hoaxes seep into mainstream politics. It all feeds the GOP’s appetite for obstructionism.
Why? Because that’s what they do. Nearly half of all Republican voters actually believe President Obama is not an American. That is not an accident, it is a summation of how strong the most deranging influences on the right are.
During a Sanders nomination and presidency, you can bet your family farm that the Republican Party and conservative media would become totally obsessed with the fate of Burlington College, and that whole new conspiracy theories would emerge to form a new mythology of Jane the Witch. House Republicans will almost certainly still resist a President Sanders by way of their gerrymandered House majority; the formula is familiar by now: hold hearings, berate the First Lady for her $200,000 ‘golden parachute,’ then let their media figures fling criminal accusations with glee, demonizing her all the while as a greedy, secretive self-dealer.
By the end of her first year, Jane Sanders would tearfully apologize to Clinton that she “just didn’t understand how bad it really is.”
At that point, she she would have become the new Hillary Clinton. You know the labels by now: “Untrustworthy.” “Crooked.” “Vindictive.” It would be unfair and stupid and misogynist stuff, but there you are.