So the last Sanders argument, like umpteen others, has come around to bite him.
He’s spent the last two weeks talking about the “momentum” he was going to have after winning California, but as the primaries draw to a close, the momentum is on Hillary Clinton’s side.
She exceeded expectations in California, with her victory called early Wednesday (what was up with those polls that had Bernie Sanders beating her among Latinos? They always smelled fishy to me). She demolished him in New Jersey, won New Mexico, and even pulled off a stunning (if small-potatoes) win in South Dakota, which came out of nowhere.
Speaking of nowhere, there’s nowhere for Bernie to go now. He ran an impressive race in many ways, and annoying in others, but he lasted a lot longer than almost anyone thought he would. But today the story isn’t him. It’s the nominee.
It’s a huge historical marker, as Clinton noted in her speech. “Thanks to you, we’ve reached a milestone, the first time in our nation’s history that a woman will be a major party’s nominee,” Clinton said. “Tonight’s victory is not about one person—it belongs to generations of women and men who struggled and sacrificed and made this moment possible.”
It’s also a huge personal moment for Clinton. For all the arrows, justified and not, she’s absorbed for the last quarter-century, she’s made it. She’s made history in a huge way. If you read biographies of her, you’ve read about the people who thought back when she was at Wellesley that maybe she had it in her to be America’s first woman president. It’s an expectation that has hovered over her for many years, and she’s now in a position to achieve it.
The Democratic Party has now nominated in succession the country’s first African American and its first woman. This is a great sign of progress, but more tellingly it’s a sign of what the two major parties have become over the course of the past 20 years. The Democrats are the party of multicultural America, while the Republicans have become in essence a white ethno-nationalist party. Yes, it has some nonwhites, but it’s a party whose raison d’etre is increasingly to save white America from the new hordes, a point made clearly by its collective decision to reject two Latino nominees and instead elevate the first openly racist major-party candidate since maybe Woodrow Wilson.
So now it’s (almost) officially Clinton vs. Trump, the question is, what will it look like? Big-time ugly. Trump, in his speech, said he’s giving a speech next Monday about the Clintons and corruption, signaling what his campaign is basically going to be about. And Clinton already showed us last week in that San Diego speech on Trump and foreign policy, and reminded us again in splashes Tuesday night, that her main argument is going to be that temperamentally and otherwise, Trump just doesn’t belong in the Oval Office. Every election, people like me say, “This is going to be the nastiest presidential election ever,” and, every time, it turns out to be true—each one has been a little nastier than the last. But this one is going to be hyper-space nasty.
The key challenge for Clinton is going to be one of tone and balance—she’ll need to find a way to trade punches with Trump without letting him get in her head and without reducing herself to his drooling level. This is what the other Republicans could never get right. Jeb Bush and Ted Cruz let Trump get inside their heads, toy with them the way Ali used to toy with the bums of the month he was fighting in 1963. Marco Rubio made the mistake of lowering himself to Trump’s level, trading insults. As I tweeted at the time, the two of them came off like Don Rickles and Joan Rivers. Rubio was good at it, but it wasn’t what people wanted out of him, and it certainly isn’t what voters want out of Clinton.
She found the sweet spot in that San Diego speech. She shredded his dignity but managed to maintain, and even augment, her own. Trump is going to be continually trying to take her down into the gutter from which he operates. She needs to stay out of it while staying on the attack. That won’t be an easy thing to do.
And in the near-term, she has an intra-party issue to attend to: How will she woo the Sanders voters? It’s mostly on Bernie, especially the way the air went out of the balloon Tuesday, to do the right thing. Maybe the fact that he requested a meeting with President Obama is a sign that he’s ready to. But it’s incumbent upon Clinton to handle this right, too, not for Sanders’s personal sake, but for the sake of his voters. She needs those voters in November, and they probably represent the future direction of the Democratic Party.
Clinton’s had a great couple of weeks—the terrific San Diego speech, the better-than-expected performance Tuesday night, and most importantly Trump’s self-immolation around Judge Curiel, which led to members of his own party calling him a racist. There’s no way she could have hoped for a better start to the general-election campaign. But she’s still barely ahead, and every week isn’t going to be like these last two.
Back when this was just getting started, I thought that yes, Clinton is going to win, which places a special burden on her to run a better race than she did in 2008 and not blow this. Given who she’s running against, that’s a lot truer now than it was when I first thought it.