Regardless of what party you’re in or which candidate you support, it seems to me the presidential election comes down to one question: Which Democratic candidate can best withstand the GOP attack machine?
Regardless of whether Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, or John Kasich win the GOP nod, demographics and electoral college math suggest that Democrats are positioned to win in 2016 if their nominee can withstand the harshly negative general election campaign to come. There are two competing and somewhat equally plausible theories about that. In choosing a nominee, Democrats should envision each theory’s worst-case scenario and carefully game it out.
So let’s look at the two very precarious “nightmare” scenarios out there – be it Hillary Clinton’s negatives overwhelming her or Bernie Sanders being caricatured by the opposition.
The case against Hillary
It’s plausible that Clinton’s tenuous popularity could soften if her email problems turn into a criminal probe, Bill’s sexual history becomes an issue, or the negative zeitgeist about her “lying, corrupt” background metastasizes beyond the conservative right. There is no doubt that the email scandal and the Benghazi investigation have taken their toll on Hillary’s favorability ratings, especially among independent voters. Then there’s always the chance of a new shoe dropping someplace – the Clintons seem to have a never-ending closet full of them – that could increase the existing nagging doubts about Hillary, even in Democratic voters’ minds.
The likelihood, though, is that her email missteps as Secretary of State will not lead to criminal charges and her character issues will probably stabilize as Democrats coalesce around her. Remember, the right tried to paint Sen. Barack Obama as a drug-selling, terrorist befriending, Muslim Manchurian Candidate. It worked on their base but didn’t go much beyond there. Clinton has many faults as a candidate, but once you get beyond the conservative talk radio silliness, she’s clearly a smart, tough, knowledgable leader who is ready to be president on day one.
So yes, Hillary has a downside, and it shouldn’t be diminished. But most of what can hurt her has probably already been factored into the equation. Barring some new scandal, the Hillary who would emerge from the Democratic Convention as her party’s nominee would be much like the Hillary we saw right after her 11-hour testimony at last October’s Benghazi hearing: confident, energized and looking like a winner again.
The case against Bernie
It’s also plausible that Sanders’ socialist past will allow him to be defined by his opponents, because we already know that Americans do not like the idea of voting for a socialist. Oh, Sanders’ fans can try to parse it as a “Democratic Socialist” and talk about how social security and Medicare have elements of socialism in them. But for millions of less sophisticated voters, they will hear Democratic Socialist and think, “Oh, that must mean he’s a liberal who admits he’s a ‘socialist’. Two things I hate!”
(Sanders’ ardent supporters will vilify me for what I’m about to write. But it’s not me they have to worry about once their man gets the nomination. I’m just the messenger here.)
Yes, it’s true that the right has called Obama a socialist for years and he still got elected twice. But the difference is, Sanders is a socialist. In the 1960s he was a member of the Young People’s Socialist League (not “Democratic Socialist League”), took sides against Ronald Reagan by supporting our enemies in Nicaragua, and even hung Russian flags in his mayoral office. Yes, the mayor of an American city displayed red sickle and hammer Russian flags in his office. How’s that going to play in Ohio?
The right wing echo chamber will tie the words “socialist” and “communist” to him like white on rice. (Trump has already alluded to the communist thing.) It will be mentioned in every comment by every GOP office holder and conservative pundit. Then they’ll start to dig up dirt about his past.
And please don’t be naive enough to think Bernie has nothing to hide. Anyone who was a sixties radical, avoided military service as a “draft dodging” conscientious objector during the Vietnam War (that’ll play well with the veteran community), has a child out of wedlock, complimented Fidel Castro and Nicaragua strongman Daniel Ortega, and honeymooned in Russia must have plenty of little skeletons just waiting to come dancing out of his closet. After all, if that’s what I was able to dig up in a five minute Google search on my living room couch, imagine what Rove and his dark money SuperPac will dig up with a billion dollars worth of private eyes. In fact, Rove’s operatives probably already have the files waiting to go.
So now we have to ask, how will Sanders explain away those issues in a debate against Trump or Rubio? Imagine Rubio looking into camera and declaring, “My parents fled Cuba to get away from a socialist Marxist dictator. And now we’re going to elect a friend of Fidel Castro to the Presidency of the United States?!” And that’s just what Rubio might say! Now imagine how it would come out of Trump’s mouth.
On the upside, Sanders supporters say he will energize the Democratic base and turn out young voters in a way Clinton never can. To be fair, there may be truth in that claim, but we will need a lot more data before we are ready to bank the presidency and the Supreme Court on that point. Young voters are an historically unreliable demographic, and one has to wonder how their enthusiasm will hold up once the sheen on Sanders’ messianic image starts to rub off.
So which worst-case scenario is worse?
There’s a reason Karl Rove is trying to derail the Clinton campaign before she can be nominated, or why you rarely hear a GOP candidate badmouth Sanders. And just today, another conservative SuperPac started airing ads in Iowa secretly designed to help Sanders defeat Clinton. Why would arch conservatives do that? Because Republicans know exactly who they want to run against, and they are not just guessing. They see in Sanders another Michael Dukakis or George McGovern. Remember, in 2004 they were able to Swift Boat John Kerry, a decorated war hero. It doesn’t take much to imagine what they’d do to a draft dodging, big taxing, card-carrying socialist.
So let’s get real, Democrats. No one is gliding into the Oval Office on a smile and a promise. No amount of $27 individual contributions and feel good ads featuring Paul Simon songs are going to defang the Republican attack machine. They’ve made an art of defining people like Bernie Sanders. Look what they’ve already done to Clinton, who was once the most admired woman in America. And Sanders’ background offers a much larger bullseye for them to target.
I’m not saying that Sanders has no chance of being elected president. Just like the Super Bowl, anybody who gets into the game has a shot at winning. But when comparing his chances against Hillary Clinton’s, Bernie is an extreme long shot at best.
Are Democrats ready to bet the Supreme Court, Obamacare, the progress we’ve made on gay rights and workers’ rights, and another middle-east military quagmire on an extreme long shot? Because “buyers’ remorse” can feel awfully sad when reality collides with dreams.