The squabble between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders over who is and is not qualified to be president is one of the more maddening developments in the Democratic primary race so far. Yet, it is exactly the kind of drama, which establishment news media outlets crave.
For “CBS Evening News,” longtime news anchor Charlie Rose asked Sanders on April 7 if the race had devolved into “tit-for-tat,” and if that is what the campaign “ought to be about.” Sanders said no. Rose followed up with the question, “Do you believe Hillary Clinton is unqualified to be president?”
There is no good answer to that follow-up question. If Sanders says yes, he prolongs the squabble, which the Clinton campaign cast as a personal attack on Clinton’s character. If Sanders says no, he contradicts his previous comments that taking money from corporate super PACs, taking $15 million from Wall Street, and voting for the Iraq War are acts, which should disqualify a person from becoming president.
Sanders possibly understood the dilemma because his first reply was, “Well, does Secretary Clinton believe I am unqualified to be president?” To which, Rose admonished Sanders for not simply saying Clinton has a “first-rate resume in terms of a life in public service,” and “she’s one of the most qualified people to run.”
Rose continued to press, and Sanders said, “We should be debating the issues facing the American people. All I am saying is if people are going to attack us, if they’re going to distort our record, as has been the case time and time again, we’re going to respond.”
The concern trolling from Rose, however, did not end. He claimed people are saying the Democratic race is sounding more like the primary race between Republicans. The reason he said this is because Sanders suggested Clinton should apologize for Iraq War deaths. He pulled this out of context, and it fell on Sanders to inform or remind viewers this was in response the Clinton campaign’s attack, where she suggested he was somehow responsible and needed to apologize for the horrific Sandy Hook shooting.
Let’s not forget that invading Iraq was a disastrous product of political pragmatism on the part of Democrats. It resulted in the deaths of over 100,000 Iraqi civilians. It set the stage for the rise of the Islamic State and other extremist groups. However, as is the case with most U.S. establishment media personalities, who refuse to reckon with what the U.S. government did, Rose backed Sanders into a corner and asked Sanders if he would suggest other politicians in Congress were responsible for Iraqi deaths.
Amidst Rose’s berating of Sanders, he returned to what he sees as the negative nature of the campaign. “Do I hear you saying tonight that I’m embarrassed by these personal attacks that are taking place, and all I have done is respond to attacks but I’m embarrassed and they are giving a tone to this campaign that I don’t like, I don’t like that I have to participate in it and I wish it would stop on both sides?” And Sanders said, “Yep, I like it.”
This is another point in the interview, where it should have moved to actual substantive issues that matter to citizens. Rose kept his performance going, and eventually said, “That’s not a reason, I promise you, to say you’re saying it because they attack me.”
The interview ended with the establishment media’s favorite question about whether Sanders will support Clinton as the Democratic presidential nominee, even though the race is far from over and it remains an entirely premature question.
For what it’s worth, on April 7, Clinton told PBS’ “NewsHour” she did not know why Sanders was questioning her qualifications, saying, “let’s keep our eyes on what’s really at stake in this election.”
If one thinks the squabble over “qualifications” was over, it was not. NBC News’ “Today Show” asked Sanders about it (in fact, it was the first question during a “town hall” with voters). He said, “Of course,” she is qualified, but within a context, which NBC News and other establishment media outlets finds insignificant. So, here’s the full exchange:
SAVANNAH GUTHRIE: I wanted to ask you about this dust-up that’s gone on over the last couple of days. You thought she had called you unqualified, that she had used that word, to be president, and, therefore, you repaid the favor by saying she was not qualified. Given what you now know about what she actually said, do you think she is qualified to be president?
BERNIE SANDERS: Well, what I now know is that after we have won six out of the last seven caucuses and primaries and in national polls, couple of them, we are now in the lead, the Clinton campaign has changed its tone, and I think they were pretty public about it. And that is when we come here to New York, they’re going to be a lot more negative, and that’s what you’re seeing from their surrogates and from the tone of their campaign. And so, when The Washington Post has a headline that Clinton campaign thinks that Sanders campaign isn’t qualified, we responded. But look—
GUTHRIE: Did you overreact because you thought she said something more than she did?
BERNIE SANDERS: Here’s the truth. I’ve known Hillary Clinton for twenty-five years. I respect Hillary Clinton. We were colleagues in the Senate, and on her worst day, she would be an infinitely better president than either of the Republican candidates.
GUTHRIE: She’s qualified?
SANDERS: Of course, but the point is, I would hope that we get away from these attacks, which by the way the media likes very much, and start focusing—and maybe we can do that today, on the real issues that impact the American people. [Loud cheers from audience.]
MATT LAUER: Do you worry though, Senator Sanders, that as this campaign goes on and on that the damage is being done or damage is being done to whichever of you does becomes the eventual nominee?
SANDERS: No, again, that’s media stuff. Here’s the real stuff. People out here want to know why they’re working longer hours for lower wages. Kids want to know why they’re graduating college fifty or seventy thousand dollars in debt. People want to know why we have so much income and wealth inequality…
Now that it’s clear how the media fueled this squabble, another correction needs to be made to the entire narrative around it. The Sanders campaign did not start this.
Hillary Clinton’s campaign and its network of super PACs, surrogates, and operatives like David Brock, understand how the establishment news media works, and more importantly, how the twenty-four-hour news cycle functions, very well. They have far more resources and friends in corporate news offices than Sanders. This is why editorial board meetings with Sanders, like the one with the New York Daily News, tend to have a rather ill-disposition to them.
The Clinton campaign had someone (it is unclear who did it) whisper to CNN after Sanders won Wisconsin that the Clinton campaign was done playing nice. A decisive victory in New York, especially given Sanders’ momentum, is essential, and so this “adviser” with the campaign said they had a plan to “disqualify” and “defeat” Sanders. Clinton conducted morning interviews, where she not only suggested Sanders was unqualified but that he was not a real Democrat who voters could trust to be president.
That is where the timeline should begin, however, the establishment news media prefer to hold Sanders responsible. It does not matter that Clinton has a pattern of spreading dishonest attacks and rumors through her campaign. The media lets Clinton demand Sanders “tone down” his campaign if he wants a New York debate and accepts that Sanders is responsible for “negativity” in the race because he continues to highlight how his record is different from Clinton’s record and it resonates with voters.
Sanders read the Washington Post headline and reacted. The Clinton campaign recognized the establishment news media would be all over Sanders. All the campaign had to do is ride the wave of outrage from supporters and pundits, who twisted this into some kind of sexist attack on Clinton, like a woman could never be qualified to be president, which is far, far, far from what he said. The campaign also recognized that after 24 hours they should pivot back to focus on the Republican presidential candidates. It would make it difficult for Sanders to respond, make it seem like the campaign was taking the high road, and make it appear the campaign never wanted to have this back-and-forth on qualifications in the first place.
Finally, it successfully shifted the media away from focusing on Sanders’ momentum to attempting to pin him down on the audacity he had to suggest Clinton may have committed acts that disqualify her. It is exactly what the Clinton campaign needed. It disorients voters. It reminds voters why they despise American politics. It puts voters in a spot, where they decide to stick with the politicians they know, even if they do not trust them anymore. The campaign tactic momentarily extinguishes the welcome idealism of the Sanders campaign and abusively drives voters into the arms of Clinton.
There will be more twenty-four hour news cycles like this one, and Clinton will continue to use this good cop, bad cop routine. The establishment news media will reward the Clinton campaign every time with the narrative it desires.