There are four people whom Hillary Clinton devotes good-sized chunks of her new book What Happened to criticizing. Three of them are Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin, and James Comey.
The other one is Bernie Sanders.
Clinton critiques Sanders in the book by name on many different issues, and she sometimes even goes out of her way to do it, reviving disputes from the campaign and portraying Sanders overall as hypocritical, disloyal, and unserious. (Though she does occasionally praise him for having some good ideas.)
She attempts to cast some blame on Sanders for her defeat last fall, saying that during the primaries he resorted to “innuendo and impugning my character” in a way that caused “lasting damage,” and that he stayed in the race too long.
Then she reiterates some of her own critiques of Sanders from the primary, calling him insufficiently committed to gun control and reproductive rights, and claiming his policy proposals aren’t “realistic.”
Finally, she says his theory for how to win over working-class white voters doesn’t make sense, and argues that he’s far too negative toward the Democratic Party: “I am proud to be a Democrat and I wish Bernie were, too.”
At a time when much of the Democratic establishment has been working hard to make Sanders and his supporters feel included and represented in the party, Clinton has chosen to take the opposite approach. No unity or kumbaya for her — Clinton is making it very clear to all her supporters that she does not have a particularly high opinion of her old rival, and that she has no intention of papering over her differences with him from the 2016 primary.
The book has been promoted as a candid tell-all in which, now that Clinton is finally out of politics for good, she will at last tell us she truly thinks. “I’ve often felt I had to be careful in public,” she writes in the introduction. “Now I’m letting my guard down.”
But it’s quite clear that Clinton isn’t retreating to a comfortable retirement — she spends part of the book’s last chapter promoting a new political action organization she started this year. At the very least, Clinton is using this book to position herself as a leading voice in the political arena for years to come.
And it suggests she will keep using that voice to criticize Sanders and his rising influence.
Clinton argues that Sanders hurt her general election chances
Near the end of the book, Clinton puts the lion’s share of the blame for her defeat on then-FBI Director James Comey’s late intervention, arguing that she was set to win before that happened. She puts secondary blame on Russian interference, and earlier in the book she admits some of her own strategic mistakes.
But she also claims Bernie Sanders did two specific things that hurt her.
First of all, Clinton complains that Sanders disparaged her character with “innuendo” about her being corrupt and in hock to Wall Street and financial interests — and that these attacks stuck. She writes:
Bernie routinely portrayed me as a corrupt corporatist who couldn’t be trusted. His clear implication was that because I accepted campaign donations from people on Wall Street—just as President Obama had done—I was “bought and paid for.”
...Because we agreed on so much, Bernie couldn’t make an argument against me in this area on policy, so he had to resort to innuendo and impugning my character... His attacks caused lasting damage, making it harder to unify progressives in the general election and paving the way for Trump’s “Crooked Hillary” campaign. I don’t know if that bothered Bernie or not.
Secondly, she complains that Sanders stayed in the primary race long after it was clear he would lose and complains he waited too long to endorse her.
“Ultimately, none of this [her disadvantage in caucus states] mattered much after I built up a large delegate lead in March. What did matter, and had a lasting impact, was that Bernie’s presence in the race meant that I had less space and credibility to run the kind of feisty progressive campaign that had helped me win Ohio and Pennsylvania in 2008. ...
...The delegate math hadn’t been in question since March, but Bernie had hung on to the bitter end, drawing blood wherever he could along the way. I somewhat understood why he did it; after all, I stayed in the race for as long as I could in 2008. But that race was much closer, and I endorsed Barack right after the last primary. On this day in New York, Bernie was still more than a month away from endorsing me.
These specific critiques don’t strike me as convincing, because much of Sanders’s behavior seems to be within normal boundaries for a tough primary and is indeed quite similar to what Clinton herself did in her 2008 run. (She critiqued Barack Obama’s ties to a slumlord donor and questioned whether he was ready to be president. She also stayed in the race through the last primary even though Obama had a clear delegate advantage, though she waited a few days to endorse him rather than over a month as Sanders did for her.)
Whatever damage Sanders did to Clinton’s chances seems unlikely to have resulted from these specific tactical choices, but more plausibly to stem from the fundamental nature of his appeal and candidacy compared to hers. He purported to offer a more idealistic and pure form of politics that his supporters found very appealing, which made traditional Democratic politics seem underwhelming in comparison. (Plus, she really did give those Wall Street speeches, and Donald Trump was going to use that against her no matter what Sanders said.)
Clinton says Sanders is insufficiently progressive on gun control and reproductive rights
Clinton doesn’t stop with documenting how she believes Sanders contributed to her defeat. In separate chapters devoted to women and gun violence, she goes out of her way to bash Sanders by resurrecting critiques she made of him during the primaries — with the intention of painting him as a hypocrite and impugning his own progressive credentials.
First, in a chapter called “On Being a Woman in Politics,” Clinton writes:
I was dismayed when Bernie Sanders dismissed Planned Parenthood as just another part of “the establishment” when they endorsed me over him. Few organizations are as intimately connected to the day-to-day lives of Americans from all classes and backgrounds as Planned Parenthood, and few are under more persistent attack. I’m not sure what’s “establishment” about that, and I don’t know why someone running to be the Democratic nominee for President would say so.
After the election, Bernie suggested that Democrats should be open to nominating and supporting candidates who are anti-choice. Other topics, such as economic justice, are sacrosanct, but apparently women’s health is not.
Then, in a chapter about gun violence, Clinton again dredges up primary disputes to portray Sanders as a phony who does the NRA’s bidding:
Bernie Sanders, who loved to talk about how “true progressives” never bow to political realities or powerful interests, had long bowed to the political reality of his rural state of Vermont and supported the NRA’s key priorities, including voting against the Brady Bill five times in the 1990s. In 2005, he voted for that special immunity law that protects gun makers and sellers from being sued when their weapons are used in deadly attacks.
The NRA said the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act was the most important gun-related legislation in more than twenty years. Then-Senator Barack Obama and I had voted against it. I couldn’t believe Bernie continued to support the law ten years later when he ran for President. I hammered him on the issue every chance I got... As I told the crowd, it was like he was reading straight from the NRA’s talking points. After months of pressure from activists and victims’ families, Bernie finally said he would reconsider his vote.
Whether or not you view these criticisms as sincere — given Clinton’s own posturing on gun control in 2008, that part comes off as at least a little disingenuous — they show Clinton is returning to arguments she used during the primary. Back then, she portrayed herself as a stronger progressive on social issues than Sanders, and argued that he was unreliable and too willing to compromise them away. This was of course partly a response to Sanders’s own rhetorical strategy on economic issues, as Clinton writes:
It was beyond frustrating that Bernie acted as if he had a monopoly on political purity and that he had set himself up as the sole arbiter of what it meant to be progressive, despite giving short shrift to important issues such as immigration, reproductive rights, racial justice, and gun safety. I believed we could and should fight both for more equal economic opportunities and greater social justice. They go hand in hand, and it’s wrong to sacrifice the latter in the name of the former.
Perhaps Clinton’s intends her return to these points here as a salvo in an ideological debate over the Democratic Party’s future. Or perhaps Clinton’s main purpose is just to criticize Sanders in particular. Or perhaps the 2016 primary in fact never ended after all.
Clinton says Sanders made absurdly unrealistic policy proposals during the primary
Clinton continues her critique of Sanders by arguing that while she and her team spent time and took care balancing practical and political feasibility on her various proposals, he treated policy with far less seriousness:
Bernie and I had a spirited contest of ideas, which was invigorating, but I nonetheless found campaigning against him to be profoundly frustrating. He didn’t seem to mind if his math didn’t add up or if his plans had no prayer of passing Congress and becoming law... No matter how bold and progressive my policy proposals were — and they were significantly bolder and more progressive than anything President Obama or I had proposed in 2008 — Bernie would come out with something even bigger, loftier, and leftier, regardless of whether it was realistic or not. That left me to play the unenviable role of spoilsport schoolmarm, pointing out that there was no way Bernie could keep his promises or deliver real results.
Jake Sullivan, my top policy advisor, told me it reminded him of a scene from the 1998 movie There’s Something About Mary. A deranged hitchhiker says he’s come up with a brilliant plan. Instead of the famous “eight-minute abs” exercise routine, he’s going to market “seven-minute abs.” It’s the same, just quicker. Then the driver, played by Ben Stiller, says, “Well, why not six-minute abs?” That’s what it was like in policy debates with Bernie. We would propose a bold infrastructure investment plan or an ambitious new apprenticeship program for young people, and then Bernie would announce basically the same thing, but bigger. On issue after issue, it was like he kept proposing four-minute abs, or even no-minute abs. Magic abs!
Clinton goes on to offer the somewhat more generous explanation that Sanders viewed policy as “a tool for mobilization” rather than “a road map for governing.” She also says he “deserves credit for understanding the political power of big, bold ideas,” and praises him for coming together with her to work on a college affordability plan and “the most progressive Democratic platform in memory.”
Clinton says Sanders’s plan to win over working-class white voters is bad, and reminds readers that he’s not actually a Democrat
Then, in what may be Clinton’s most straightforward entry into the Democratic Party’s debate over its future, she expresses some serious doubt about one electoral theory popular among Sanders and the left — that Democrats can win back working-class white voters by becoming economic populists. She writes:
Some supporters of Bernie Sanders have argued that if I had veered further left and run a more populist campaign we would have done better in the Rust Belt. I don’t believe it. Russ Feingold ran a passionately populist campaign for Senate in Wisconsin and lost by much more than I did, while a champion of free trade, Senator Rob Portman, outperformed Trump in Ohio. Scott Walker, the right-wing Governor of Wisconsin, has won elections there by busting unions and catering to the resentments of conservative rural voters, not by denouncing trade deals and corporations.
After a section in which Clinton describes how some West Virginia Trump supporters welcomed coal CEO Don Blankenship, who had been convicted of violating mine safety standards, to a protest against her, she continues in this vein:
Some on the left, including Bernie Sanders, argue that working-class whites have turned away from Democrats because the party became beholden to Wall Street donors and lost touch with its populist roots. It’s hard to believe that voters who embrace Don Blankenship are looking for progressive economics.
After all, by nearly every measure, the Democratic Party has moved to the left over the past fifteen years, not to the right. Mitt Romney was certainly not more populist than Barack Obama when he demolished him in West Virginia. And Republicans are unabashedly allied with powerful corporate interests, including the coal companies trying to take away health care and pensions from retired miners. Yet they keep winning elections.
Now, Clinton could merely be expressing her opinion here. She could be trying to rebut the “Bernie would’ve won” argument. Or she could be staking out her position in a debate over the Democratic Party’s future that she intends to participate in.
Whatever the case, she also makes sure to remind her readers of one point: that, while Bernie Sanders might have some good ideas, he technically isn’t a Democrat at all:
[Sanders] certainly shared my horror at the thought of Donald Trump becoming President, and I appreciated that he campaigned for me in the general election. But he isn’t a Democrat—that’s not a smear, that’s what he says. He didn’t get into the race to make sure a Democrat won the White House, he got in to disrupt the Democratic Party.
He was right that Democrats needed to strengthen our focus on working families and that there’s always a danger of spending too much time courting donors because of our insane campaign finance system. He also engaged a lot of young people in the political process for the first time, which is extremely important.
But I think he was fundamentally wrong about the Democratic Party—the party that brought us Social Security under Roosevelt; Medicare and Medicaid under Johnson; peace between Israel and Egypt under Carter; broad-based prosperity and a balanced budget under Clinton; and rescued the auto industry, passed health care reform, and imposed tough new rules on Wall Street under Obama. I am proud to be a Democrat and I wish Bernie were, too.
Clinton is partly defending herself
After many heated primaries, we tend to see a lot of happy talk and hand-holding, as former rivals come together against their common opponents. in the other party. And to an extent we did see that between Clinton and Sanders during the general election of last year — until Clinton’s stunning loss reopened those fissures.
Sanders has been blunt about his criticisms of the Clinton campaign and the Democratic Party since her defeat. “You can't simply go around to wealthy people's homes raising money and expect to win elections," he said in January. “Some people think the people who voted for Trump are racists, sexist and homophobes, just deplorable folks. I don’t agree,” he said in April. (Clinton, however, defends her deplorables comment in the book, writing, “Too many of Trump’s core supporters do hold views that I find — there’s no other word for it — deplorable.”
And for the most part, Democratic leaders have eagerly sought to keep him and his supporters in the party’s big tent. Minority Leader Chuck Schumer added Sanders to his Senate leadership team. Tom Perez defeated Sanders supporter Keith Ellison in a race for DNC chair, but named him deputy chair. More broadly, because of the party’s currently dismal electoral state, many of its members have been open to arguments from Sanders about what they might be doing wrong. Some have even argued that Sanders is currently the Democrats’ frontrunner in the 2020 presidential race.
Now, with this book, Clinton is weighing in, in part to defend herself and in part to express her own opinions. But it’s notable that she’s chosen to do so with a lengthy, unsparing, multi-pronged critique of Sanders. She clearly wants to let all her readers and supporters know that, no, she still doesn’t hold a particularly high opinion of him and his approach to politics. She’s not ready to cede the debate over Democrats’ future to him just yet.