Dems worry Sanders-Clinton rhetoric risks White House win

Greg Nash/Cameron Lancaster

Democratic senators are growing alarmed about the tough rhetoric coming from the Democratic presidential primary — particularly after Sen. Bernie Sanders said Wednesday that Hillary Clinton is not qualified to be president.

They fear hard feelings over the fight could linger and hurt the party’s chances of capturing the White House in November.

{mosads}A poll released earlier this week found that one-quarter of Sanders supporters say they will likely not support Clinton in the fall.

Democratic lawmakers, who support Clinton overwhelmingly, see Sanders as having little chance of capturing a majority of delegates to win the nomination.

They say he should keep that in mind if he decides to stay in the race and should soften his tone, warning he may otherwise drag her down unnecessarily.

“I’m very concerned about the tone. I think it’s inordinately destructive, and I think it shouldn’t happen,” said Sen. Dianne Feinstein (Calif.), one of the chamber’s most respected senior Democrats. “I think this kind of disparagement doesn’t do Sen. Sanders any good and doesn’t do Sen. Clinton any good and doesn’t do the Democratic Party any good.”

Feinstein said Sanders’s comments are all the more worrisome because he has a very narrow path to winning the nomination.

“He should certainly reconsider where this is apt to end up and [should] want to be included in the solution rather than being the genesis of a huge problem,” she added.

Feinstein has endorsed Clinton, as has most of the Senate Democratic caucus.

Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) said he is also disturbed.

“I don’t think it’s constructive for our candidates to be suggesting that either lack the qualifications to serve as president,” he said.

“So far, the presidential campaign on the Democratic side has been marked by unusual civility and generally a policy-focused tone. It’s my hope they will restore that,” he said.

Coons initially supported Vice President Biden but switched to Clinton when Biden opted not to run.

Many Senate Democrats see Clinton as the most qualified and having the best chance of winning the White House, which is why they were galled at Sanders’s harsh attack on Wednesday.

Clinton’s broad support among elected Democratic officials has given her a commanding lead among the party’s superdelegates. Nearly 500 of them support Clinton, while only 31 support Sanders, according to an Associated Press tally.

Speaking at a rally in Philadelphia, Sanders claimed that Clinton was not fit to serve as president because a super-PAC supporting her has accepted millions of dollars in contributions from Wall Street and because she voted in 2002 to invade Iraq.

Both lines of attack are effective with liberals, who see Wall Street’s wealth and influence as a major source of economic inequality and still haven’t forgiven Clinton for sanctioning what turned out to be one of the most disastrous foreign policy decisions in U.S. history.    

For Republicans, the fireworks between Clinton and Sanders have been a welcome distraction from the bitterly personal battles in their own primary.

“It’s nice to see what they’re doing to even up what’s happening on our side,” said one GOP senator, who requested anonymity.

A McClatchy-Marist poll released Wednesday found that one-quarter of Sanders’s supporters wouldn’t back Clinton in the general election.

Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), the dean of the Senate Democratic women and a Clinton backer, said Sanders’s claim “is absolutely wrong.”

“What I’m disturbed about is not only the accusation but Bernie himself. Bernie is not being Bernie. It’s somewhat surprising and it’s somewhat dispiriting. I hope he’s not drinking the Kool-Aid of campaign consultants trying to make him into something else than the way he started,” she said.

Sanders took the high road early in the campaign, vowing to eschew negative tactics. But his resolve has been tested as the campaign has become much more competitive than pundits initially projected and Clinton’s surrogates have tried repeatedly to tarnish him.  

Clinton, too, has let her frustrations show as the campaign has dragged on. She snapped at a recent Greenpeace activist who asked her about contributions from people who work for oil and gas companies, complaining, “I am so sick of the Sanders campaign lying about me.”

She has also questioned whether Sanders is even a real Democrat.

“I think he himself doesn’t consider himself to be a Democrat,” she said on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.”

The stakes are high heading into the New York primary on April 19, when 291 delegates will be up for grabs. Both candidates have a special claim to the state: Sanders was born in Brooklyn, while Clinton represented the state for eight years in the Senate.

Sanders’s campaign manager, Jeff Weaver, doubled down on Thursday by accusing her team of running a “smear campaign” and defending his boss’s pushback as justified.

“There’s been a lot of innuendo and unfair attacks, but they’ve really started to step them up, and as Sen. Sanders just said, he’s not going to take it,” he said on MSNBC. 

Sanders made his controversial comments after Clinton, who served as first lady and secretary of State in addition to her Senate service, refused to answer direct questions about whether her rival is qualified to serve as president.

Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.), another Clinton supporter, said both sides should back away from scorched-earth tactics.

“It’s really important that everybody take a pause, everybody calm down,” she said. “At this point in campaigns, people get tired, they say things they don’t mean to, emotions get raw.”

She hopes things will calm down once the candidates have a couple good nights of sleep.

“I don’t think it would behoove us to have this level of heat for two or three months,” said Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), a Clinton supporter.

He said just how damaging the escalating tensions between Clinton and Sanders will be depends on how long they last.

“It depends on whether it continues in this fashion,” he said. “We have to understand campaigns are battles and that tensions run high. We have to leave a little room for hope and reconciliation. There’s plenty of room still.”

Other Clinton backers, however, downplayed the harsh campaign rhetoric as nothing compared to the tone of the Republican presidential primary, which has been characterized by personal insults.

“The tone on the Democratic side is always going to look rosy and cheery to the tone on the Republican side,” said Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.). “Everything is relative in the world so I don’t worry too much about it because I think most people are paying attention to the increasing name calling on the Republican side.”

Tags Barbara Mikulski Bernie Sanders Chris Coons Chris Murphy Dianne Feinstein Heidi Heitkamp Hillary Clinton

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