Hillary Rodham Clinton’s campaign is grappling with a pressing and difficult question: How can she contrast herself to Bernie Sanders in next week’s Democratic presidential debate and beyond, without employing the sort of attacks that could boomerang to harm her?
For months, Clinton has gingerly approached Sanders, the Vermont senator who has routinely drawn tens of thousands of Democrats to his rallies and who is rivaling her in polls of Iowa and New Hampshire voters. She has seldom mentioned his name, let alone criticized him.
But while Vice President Joe Biden may be a looming threat, Sanders poses more immediate concerns to Clinton and her aides.
Many Democrats believe Sanders, an independent who calls himself a democratic socialist, will prove too far left-leaning to capture the nomination, despite his popularity at this stage of the contest. But the growing chance that he could win either Iowa or New Hampshire, or both, has raised the stakes for the Oct. 13 debate in Las Vegas.
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Over the next week, Clinton and her aides will look for the best way to explain to viewers why she is a better choice than her nearest rival without sounding condescending to Sanders, or dismissive of his views, so she does not risk alienating his growing army of fervent supporters.
“I’ve seen every attack people have thrown at him, and none of them have worked,” cautioned Howard Dean, the former governor of Vermont, who supports Clinton.
Not all of them have exactly been subtle. In 2004, the Republican challenging him for his House seat sought to deride him as a political oddball. “Crazy Bernie,” an advertisement called him, “a holder from the Woodstock days of reefer and flowers.” But Vermont voters did not seem to mind the description.
Attacking Sanders’ character or lampooning his self-description as a “democratic socialist,” Dean suggested, will only “make him stronger, especially with his base – and we need his base.”
Clinton is unlikely to belittle Sanders. But her debate preparations have touched on, among other things, how Sanders would accomplish some of his ambitious proposals if he were elected president, according to three people briefed on the private discussions. (Sanders’ spending plans – free public college tuition, a $1 trillion infrastructure program and a single-payer health care system – would be financed with a variety of tax increases; both would be nonstarters under a Republican-controlled Congress.)
The practice sessions are also covering a number of issues in which Clinton’s positions or her record are at odds with Sanders, including on gun control, said the three people who were briefed.
Led by Ron Klain, a former Biden aide, and Karen Dunn, a litigator, the debate preparations have featured Clinton’s longtime lawyer, Robert Barnett, in the role of Sanders and her policy adviser Jake Sullivan playing Martin O'Malley, the former Maryland governor. Barnett and aides to Clinton declined to comment, and Sullivan could not be reached.
For Clinton, debating Sanders poses a challenge reminiscent of the more troublesome one she faced in 2008, when Sen. Barack Obama’s criticisms of her were widely characterized as fair, but Clinton’s efforts to counter them and defend herself often were not.
Already, a “super PAC” aligned with Clinton’s campaign showed the risks that can come if an unsuccessful attack on Sanders blows back. As The Huffington Post reported, the super PAC Correct the Record, in a document that was intended to be off the record, drew a connection between Sanders and Hugo Chávez, the socialist president of Venezuela who died in 2013, because Sanders supported a deal to bring low-cost Venezuelan oil to New England. Sanders, calling it “the same-old, same-old negative politics,” seized on the report and raised more than $1 million in two days.
Beyond the debate, neither Clinton nor Sanders has ruled out resorting to negative advertisements in the months ahead, although both have insisted they would prefer to avoid it.
“I know Bernie,” Clinton said on “Face the Nation” on CBS recently. “I respect his enthusiastic and intense advocacy of his ideas. That’s what I want this campaign to be about.”
Sanders, meanwhile, has been drawing his own implicit contrasts with Clinton for months – which, without naming her, leave little to the imagination. “If you think establishment politics and establishment economics is the answer to our problems, fine, there are good candidates out there,” he told David Axelrod, the former adviser to Obama, in a podcast recently, repeating a familiar formulation pregnant with faint praise.
Whether next week’s debate veers off from faint praise into out-and-out hostility will, in many ways, set the tone for the Democratic battle until February’s Iowa caucuses.
For Clinton, the challenge may be to outdo Sanders at his own game, rather than to embarrass him, Axelrod suggested in an interview.
“Looking forward, it seems far better to co-opt the spirit of Bernie’s message than to attack him,” he said. “Better to be a champion for fairness and opportunity, and tackle the issue of how to raise wages in a country where they have effectively flatlined for decades, than to kneecap a guy who is relatively popular and is running a positive campaign.”