Sanders: The Best Thing to Happen to Clinton?

The senator has jolted the former secretary of state out of her bubble.

Who knew that Henry Kissinger would become an issue in the Democratic race for the presidency? Last night it became a defining moment between Bernie Sanders’s utopianism and—dare I say it?—Clinton’s realism. Sanders harrumphed that “I am proud to say that Henry Kissinger is not my friend. I will not take advice from Henry Kissinger.” Presumably this did not come as a deep disappointment to Kissinger. Sanders went on to blame Kissinger for Pol Pot’s depredations in Cambodia, a line popularized by William Shawcross in his 1979 book Sideshow, which alleged that “Cambodia was not a mistake; it was a crime.” A somewhat surprised Clinton—she must have wondered why they were relitigating the Vietnam War in 2016, other than that the exchange offered further proof of Sanders’s New Left heritage—responded that “his opening up China and his ongoing relationships with the leaders of China is an incredibly useful relationship for the United States of America."

The question about Sanders, if he’s unwilling to accept advice from Kissinger, is pretty simple: who, if anyone, is he talking to? As David Ignatius points out in the Washington Post today, Sanders is a black hole when it comes to foreign policy. It might take the foreign policy equivalent of the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory that just detected the waves that Einstein predicted to discover what Sanders would do as commander in chief.  

Clinton, by contrast, wrapped herself in the mantle of President Obama. The discerning Cathleen Decker of the Los Angeles Times notes that Clinton invoked Obama’s name twenty-one times last night, using him as what Decker calls a kind of “character witness” to appeal to the younger voters that Obama attracted during his own runs. Clinton acted as though Sanders is regularly defaming Obama. She declared,

“In the past he has called him weak. He has called him a disappointment. He wrote a forward for a book that basically argued voters should have buyers' remorse when it comes to President Obama's leadership and legacy. I don't think he gets the credit he deserves for being a president.”

Sanders called it a “low blow” to say he was anti-Obama, but a more effective response might have been to point out that a few months ago she was distancing herself in foreign policy from the president she had served. Now it’s clear that she is becoming umbilically linked with him.

It’s probably a misnomer to say that Hillary Clinton is running for the Democratic nomination. She’s limping to it. But she began to adopt a more aggressive stance toward her rival last night. The Sandernista revolution has always been based upon the conceit that he can offer up lofty progressive dreams without attending to the niggling details of how they would be accomplished. He offers a new deal without saying what the deal is: “In my view,” said Sanders, “the government of a democratic society has a moral responsibility to play a vital role in making sure all of our people have a decent standard of living.”

By contrast, Clinton focused on the specifics of Scanderscare, or the lack of them. She piously declared, “Based on every analysis that I can find by people who are sympathetic to the goal, the numbers don’t add up, and many people will actually be worse off than they are right now.” She was one step removed from calling him a tax-and-spend liberal.

When confronted with realities that he disdains, Sanders’s dominant mode of discourse is to splutter indignantly. “Secretary Clinton, you’re not in the White House yet,” he announced. True. But she’s been there, which is her greatest strength—and weakness. The primaries in Nevada and South Carolina will reveal whether or not she can leverage her past experience or whether she’s passed her sell-by date.

For all his heckling of her, it may turn out that Sanders is the best thing that happened to Clinton. He’s jolted her out of the bubble she inhabited as secretary of state. If last night’s debate is any indication, she’s starting to up her game.

Jacob Heilbrunn is editor of the National Interest.

Image: Flickr/Gage Skidmore.