Senator Bernie Sanders is supposed to represent an existential threat to Hillary Clinton’s presidential prospects. But in the spin room at the Wynn Hotel after Tuesday night’s Democratic debate, her team had nothing but glowing things to say about the Vermont socialist.
“I thought [Sanders] was gracious,” said John Podesta, Clinton’s campaign manager. “I thought that he probably gave himself an assist, and he gave us an assist. He reflected where most Democratic voters are. I thought he was gracious, and I respect him for it.”
Podesta was referring to a moment about an hour into the debate, when CNN’s Anderson Cooper asked Clinton about her lingering private e-mail scandal. After the former secretary of state dismissed the issue as a partisan witch-hunt led by House Republicans, Cooper asked Sanders to respond.
“Let me say something that may not be great politics,” the senator said. “But I think the secretary is right, and that is that the American people are sick and tired of hearing about your damn e-mails!”
The room exploded into applause as Clinton, standing a few feet to Sanders left, broke into a wide grin. “Thank you, Bernie!” she said. “Me, too. Me, too.”
Sanders’s unexpected defense of his adversary takes serious political pressure off the Clinton campaign.
Sanders’s unexpected defense of his adversary takes serious political pressure off the Clinton campaign. In fact, some Democrats believe that the raucous response to the exchange could make it harder for Vice President Joe Biden to enter the race.
With more than six in ten voters seeing her as untrustworthy — the number has gone up as the e-mail scandal has continued to mushroom — many in the party’s elite are considering Biden as a plausible challenger to take on damaged front-runner. But it may be tougher for Biden to needle her on the issue if primary voters — including the progressives now backing Sanders — believe the scandal is much ado about nothing. Maryland governor Martin O’Malley realized as much: Though he’d attacked Clinton for the damage caused by her private e-mail server in the past, on Tuesday night he walked back his claim that the scandal was “defining the Democratic Party.”
Combined with House majority leader Kevin McCarthy’s gaffe on the Benghazi Committee, Sanders’s support might help put Clinton’s e-mail problem to rest, some Democrats believe. “[Sanders’s] moral high ground makes him a healer in this process,” civil-rights activist and former Democratic presidential candidate Jesse Jackson tells National Review. By showing “a willingness to expand the party, not divide it,” Jackson believes the Vermont senator made a potentially divisive Biden candidacy less likely.
#share#Clinton didn’t exactly return the favor, however. In fact, her debate performance was strongest when she was hitting Sanders, hard. Clinton slammed Sanders right out of the gate on gun control, accusing him of being soft on the firearms industry and opening him up to a brutal attack from O’Malley. And her defense of capitalism, combined with her claim that Democrats must “save capitalism from itself,” put the self-described socialist senator in a tight spot.
Still, most of Sanders’s surrogates seemed thrilled that their candidate had pulled his punches. “He had numerous shots tonight, numerous opportunities to take shots at Hillary Clinton, and he didn’t do it,” boasted Ed Schultz, a former MSNBC host supporting Sanders. Clinton’s flip-flop on the Trans-Pacific Partnership provided Sanders “a real opening to take Clinton apart,” Schultz said. “And Bernie didn’t do it, because the country knows where Bernie stands on the trade deal.”
“He had the best line of the night, clearly, his line on Hillary’s e-mails,” said Jeff Weaver, Sanders’s campaign manager. “Absolutely not planned. That was pure Bernie.” He seemed perplexed when reporters dubiously noted that his candidate’s strongest moment in the debate was a defense of his chief rival.
#related#Weaver may have a point. Though the line certainly helped Clinton, it also seemed to boost Sanders’s position in a party where he’s always been something of an outsider. Despite taking knocks from Clinton and O’Malley, the Vermont senator came out on top in post-debate focus groups held by Frank Luntz, Fusion, and CNN. And Google analytics revealed Sanders was the most searched-for candidate by far during the debate itself.
With Sanders winning rave reviews among Democrats and Clinton enjoying some much-needed political breathing room, both camps appear to view Tuesday night’s one-sided cease-fire as a win-win. Only time will tell how long it lasts.
— Brendan Bordelon is a political reporter for National Review.