FIRST STRIKE

Hillary Clinton Can’t Go Nuclear on Bernie Sanders…Yet

After a tie in Iowa, it’d be tempting for Hillary to go after Bernie with guns blazing. Tempting, and wrong.

02.03.16 6:00 AM ET

Hillary Clinton aides once dismissed supporters of Bernie Sanders as “Sandernistas,” a mocking reference that conveyed their view of what early on they expected would be a marginal candidacy at best. But Sanders’s strong showing in the Iowa caucuses, coming to within two-tenths of a percentage point of Clinton, is essentially a tie. So now Team Hillary faces a decision: Do they go nuclear on the “Sandernistas,” assaulting Bernie with opposition research and negative ads? Or do they try for an approach that’s a bit less scorched earth?

Clinton is in the difficult position of needing to defeat Sanders without alienating his supporters, which the Iowa results suggest could be as much as half the Democratic electorate. Holding fire against an opponent is not something that comes naturally to the Clintons. “Leave no attack unanswered” is the mantra that carried Bill Clinton to the White House, and Hillary’s campaign is based on the premise that she’s had everything thrown against her and she’s still standing.

The real danger Clinton faces isn’t from Sanders, it’s from Team Hillary itself. If they go after Sanders the way they went after Barack Obama in 2008, it would be a massive, self-inflicted wound that could cost her the election, especially if the Republicans nominate a next-generation candidate like Marco Rubio. She can’t win in November without the Sandernistas.

In an email before the results were in, David Axelrod, who headed the Obama team in ’08, said: “Win or lose, I would continue to drive the distinction between a pragmatic progressive and a well-intentioned gadfly, but I wouldn't savage a candidate who has won the affection, if not the support of a majority of Democrats.”

The temptation is to destroy Sanders as the Great Pretender, a backbencher in Congress for 26 years who is selling a bill of goods about a Revolution that won’t happen. But killing a dream is messy work, and with millennial voters turning out 9-to-1 for Sanders in Iowa, Clinton would put at risk the coalition she needs in the general election.

“I think she has to stay calm through this,” pollster Mark Penn, a veteran of past Clinton campaigns, wrote in an email. “She has made the case that he is not electable and that his proposals are pie in the sky—no reason for her to go beyond those arguments when she really needs to just pump up enthusiasm for her with a diverse Democratic electorate that really likes her.”

Counter to Sanders’s assertion that his strong showing in Iowa demonstrates his electability, Iowa is the mirror image of his home state of Vermont—liberal, rural and white. Nearly half (47%) in a Des Moines Register poll identified with the term socialist.

After the New Hampshire primaries—where polls show Sanders way ahead—the next two stops for the Democrats, Nevada and South Carolina, are much more diverse. If the Clintons are smart, they’ll keep their powder dry and wait for the firewall to hold. Most likely, South Carolina and Nevada will be Hillary’s. In any case, time is on her side.

Campaign surrogates may step up their attacks on Sanders, but no one contacted for this article on or off the record thinks Clinton should go any further than she has in making the pragmatist-versus-fantasy electability argument. The biggest wild card is the outside pro-Clinton group, Correct the Record, founded by David Brock, a conservative turned liberal, and a connoisseur of the finer aspects of opposition research. As one New Hampshire Democrat put it, “He’s a snake, but he’s our snake now.”

When asked whether Brock would hold his fire in the face of the challenge from Sanders, Axelrod replied, “That’s like asking a duck not to quack.”

Peter Daou, CEO of Blue Star Media, a digital media company that Brock recently acquired, thinks anyone who believes Sanders will be competitive in a general election “is living in a fantasy world.”  

“When the conservative machine cranks up and kicks into high gear, Bernie will be eviscerated, turned into an aging cartoon Commie, a flip-flopping America-hater, a 60s holdover writing bizarre essays about free sex and child rape fantasies, a non-Democrat Democrat whose embrace of the NRA undermines his claims to purity, a politician who voted against the Amber Alert system, a draft dodger, and a man who thinks women’s rights are a distraction,” Daou wrote in a post for Blue Star Media.

Democrats believe that’s what Sanders would face from the GOP should he get the nomination. Believing it and saying it, however, are two very different things. Sanders’s supporters get riled up when challenged, and the blunt attacks that Daou’s dossier suggests would be overkill, the equivalent of taking out a mosquito with a nuclear weapon.

Despite the Iowa tie—and despite a likely Sanders win in New Hampshire—the danger he poses to Clinton’s nomination is, for the moment, minimal. Sanders isn’t revealing anything about her that hasn’t been widely known for years (coziness with Wall Street, sense of entitlement, shiftiness on facts and positions). The email scandal looms, with the results of a continuing FBI investigation expected any time during the primaries. The nervousness about whether she can go the distance should start to melt away as she grinds out victories, however narrow and uninspiring, over an unelectable opponent.

Iowa was never a friendly place for Clinton, and she survived, thanks to a strong organization that could keep Sanders at bay. It was a close call. If the caucuses had been held on Jan. 3when the college kids were still on winter break, the way they were in ’08, Sanders would have rolled up bigger numbers and Clinton would have lost the tiny toehold she claimed in Iowa.

The razor-thin outcome revealed her vulnerabilities. The age skew is dramatic, says Axelrod, and the “empathy gap,” reflected in Sanders’s edge on the question of “who cares about people like me” is concerning for a party that is running on rebuilding the middle class. Even so, Sanders is not Clinton’s problem. He’s part of the solution, if she doesn’t get rattled, and can see her way to believe that.