Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonGOP political operatives indicted over illegal campaign contribution from Russian national in 2016 Clinton lawyer's indictment reveals 'bag of tricks' Attorney charged in Durham investigation pleads not guilty MORE’s White House campaign is going negative against her left-wing rival Bernie SandersBernie SandersPelosi says House members would not vote on spending bill topline higher than Senate's Groups push lawmakers to use defense bill to end support for Saudis in Yemen civil war Congress must address the looming debt crisis MORE — and a lot of unaligned Democrats think that’s a bad idea.
Her husband, former President Clinton, is leading the charge, hitting Sanders supporters as sexist on Sunday while accusing the Vermont senator of muddying facts.
The attacks come as Hillary Clinton faces a defeat — perhaps a heavy one — in the New Hampshire primary on Tuesday, according to opinion polls.
Clinton barely defeated Sanders in last week’s Iowa caucuses, and Monday brought rumblings of a possible staff shake-up.
The shift by the Clinton team to a more aggressive footing evoked memories for some of her 2008 campaign against Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaBill Maher, Isiah Thomas score over the NFL's playing of 'Black national anthem' Democrats confront 'Rubik's cube on steroids' White House debates vaccines for air travel MORE, when Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonVirginia governor's race enters new phase as early voting begins Business coalition aims to provide jobs to Afghan refugees Biden nominates ex-State Department official as Export-Import Bank leader MORE and other surrogates mounted attacks that were widely seen as counter-productive.
Clinton supporters worry that history might be repeating itself, and that the former president’s attacks could boomerang on his wife by turning off large swathes of the Democratic electorate.
“I know what’s happening: He is just pissed off,” said Democratic strategist Brad Bannon. “He hears the attacks. He saw how close things were in Iowa and he thinks they’re 20 points or whatever down in New Hampshire, so he blows up.
“When he speaks reasonably and in the true Clinton style, he is very effective,” Bannon added. “But when he goes crazy because he’s pissed off about the thing, that hurts her.”
Bill Clinton’s aggressiveness, those in the orbit of the Clintons say, is rooted in at least two factors.
First of all, the former president has believed for some time that the campaign has not been vigorous enough in countering Sanders’s populist rhetoric.
Secondly, Bill Clinton was conspicuously unhappy with the Iowa result, allies maintain — despite the campaign’s desire to put a brave face on the outcome and Hillary Clinton’s remark on caucus night that she was breathing a sigh of relief.
One ally said Bill Clinton was “peeved”; another, more colorfully, described his mood as “rip shit.”
Iowa gave added sharpness to the 42nd president’s existing frustrations.
“He’s had enough of this,” one supporter said.
All the same, even some Clintonites have found his tone perplexing.
“It doesn’t feel strategic. It feels reactionary,” another ally said. “Angry Bill is kind of fun but when he’s looking older and older, not so much. I don’t understand it. In the end, show me anyone who believes [Sanders] gets the nomination, so why not keep his supporters happy for the general?”
Another former aide who worked for Clinton during her 2008 bid said Bill Clinton “should have let others be the attack dog while he promotes Hillary.”
Bannon also condemned attacks in recent days from two Clinton surrogates — former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and feminist icon Gloria Steinem — that criticized young women for backing Sanders instead of Clinton.
The former said there was “a special place in hell” for women who did not support other women, while the latter implied young female supporters of Sanders were getting involved with his campaign to attract men.
“Ridiculous, absolutely ridiculous,” Bannon scoffed.
The Clinton campaign itself has been issuing anti-Sanders news releases at a rapid clip, assailing the Independent senator for taking part in Democratic Party fundraising activities, for having a purportedly weak grasp of foreign policy and for receiving support from a super-PAC affiliated with a labor union and a 501(c)(4) associated with an environmental group.
Skepticism about the effectiveness of the claims is widespread.
“Do I think it’s a smart strategy? No,” said one exasperated Democratic strategist who declined to be named. “Sanders isn’t the problem. The problem is her message or lack thereof, not Sanders. It’s not that Democrats are suddenly eager to nominate a 74-year-old socialist because they have nothing better to do. They are gravitating to him because he has a message.
“You can attack that, or attack the messenger, but it ain’t going to work.”
That view finds support even among some Clinton loyalists.
“She needs a strategist, a David Axelrod, someone whose job is messaging and keeping the candidate on message,” said one longtime aide. “I think it’s been a major flaw so far. It remains to be seen if she’ll actually fix it.”
One way of healing that vulnerability, at least in theory, would be the kind of impending staff shake-up that was first reported by Politico on Monday. Hillary Clinton reacted to that story with a classic non-denial denial, telling MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow that “I have no idea what they’re talking about,” only to add that “of course” the campaign would look at “what worked? What can we do better? What do we have to do new and different that we have to pull out?”
The Clinton campaign’s aggressiveness does have some defenders.
Among hardcore supporters, the belief remains that earlier, harder-edged attacks on Obama in 2008 could have stifled his campaign’s momentum before it became unstoppable.
They think it would be an unforgivable act of political negligence to make the same mistake twice.
“You can’t let attacks go unresponded to for very long in politics generally, lest they begin to do damage,” one longtime Clinton aide said. “Being tough is part of who Hillary is, and part of being tough is standing up to those who are coming after you, on both the Democratic and Republican sides.”
Jim Manley, a former aide to Senate Minority Leader Harry ReidHarry Mason ReidDemocrats say Biden must get more involved in budget fight Biden looks to climate to sell economic agenda Justice Breyer issues warning on remaking Supreme Court: 'What goes around comes around' MORE (D-Nev.) agreed — so long as the attacks did not get too muddy.
“If the Clinton camp is trying to define Sanders, I think it’s wise and smart,” he said. “I hope they don’t personalize it too much.”
The Sanders campaign doesn’t see it that way, of course. Late Monday afternoon, campaign manager Jeff Weaver released a statement that called it “very disturbing” that “as the Clinton campaign struggles through Iowa and New Hampshire, they have become increasingly negative and dishonest.”