The Democratic primary has, at least for now, become much more competitive than many, including me, expected. There are many possible explanations for this, but the simplest is that the longtime frontrunner Hillary Clinton is too conservative for a Democratic base that has moved leftward since the Clintons occupied the White House in the 1990s. Senator Bernie Sanders, who calls himself a democratic socialist, but is in many respects just a left wing Democrat, has exploited this. Not surprisingly, much of his support has come from younger and more liberal voters. drawn by his populist rhetoric, fiery speeches and gruff, affable and unpolished disposition.
In recent weeks, Mr. Sanders’ has pivoted somewhat, while his positions on economic issues remain unchanged, he has begun to frame the campaign as a battle between the Democratic establishment and a progressive alternative to that establishment. This is well trod territory for insurgent Democratic candidates who stress the need for campaign finance reform and contempt for the institutions and people who lead the Democratic Party. George McGovern successfully won a nomination through a similar appeal. In recent years, Jerry Brown in 1992 and Bill Bradley in 2000 came up short using this approach. Anybody who is old enough to remember that 1992 campaign cannot help but see the similarities between that campaign and this one as well as between Mr. Brown and Mr. Sanders. During the last Democratic debate, I half expected Mr. Sanders to announce Mr. Brown’s famous 1-800 number from the latter’s primary challenge to Bill Clinton.
Mr. Sanders’ attacks on the Democratic establishment have been powerful both because Ms. Clinton is so deeply embedded in that establishment and because her response, essentially that she is not part of the establishment because she is a woman, is one that resonates with almost nobody. The extent to which Ms. Clinton is tone deaf on this issue is striking as she appears to be recommitting herself to viewing herself as an outsider due to her gender. Most recently, she tried to bolster this perception by having another former Secretary of State and longtime permanent government type, Madeleine Albright, lecture younger women on why they should support Ms. Clinton. Ms. Albright, somewhat unhelpfully warned young female supporters of Mr. Sanders that there is a “special circle of hell” for women who do not help other women. It is difficult to see how talking down to young women, insulting their intelligence and threatening them with eternal damnation will move them from Mr. Sanders to Ms. Clinton.
There is, however, a better response to this attack for Ms. Clinton. Rather than seek to present herself, implausibly, as an outsider, she should remind voters that the Democratic establishment at least part of it, is led by people and institutions who are well respected and liked by most Democrats, including many Sanders supporters. When Senator Sanders attacks the Democratic establishment he is attacking Planned Parenthood, the Human Rights Campaign, SEIU, President Obama and other progressive institutions. It is also true that banks, Wall Street and powerful financial interests are part of the Democratic establishment, but by not defending the progressive parts of the Democratic establishment, Ms. Clinton allows herself to be tarred to strongly by the negative connotations of the Democratic establishment.
Mr. Sanders anti-establishment campaign is strikingly ahistorical, as he is asking voters to ignore the work that many progressives have done over the last four so decades to ensure that environmental and LGBT groups, other advocacy organizations and activist labor unions have seats at the Democratic establishment table. For the most part, the Democratic establishment against which Mr. Sanders is aiming his rhetoric hasn’t been around for a very long time. Although the Democratic Party still has some conservative actors, is not bold enough in taking on Wall Street and has failed to pass any radical legislation in recent years, the party of Barack Obama, Planned Parenthood, the Sierra Club, other similar organizations, and, indeed, Hillary Clinton is a long way from the Democrats of Dick Daley and Richard Russell that was around when Mr. Sanders first became involved politics almost half a century ago.
Mr. Sanders impressive popularity among younger Democrats is, in part, an outgrowth of this ahistoricism. For voters who have not been watching the Democratic Party for a long time, the anti-establishment attacks ring truer because they are less likely to see just how much more progressive institutions are part of that establishment than was the case a generation ago. Moreover, Mr. Sanders bold assertion that he is a democratic socialist is also more likely to ring true for younger voters who may not be aware the policies Mr. Sanders advocates are, in some cases, to the right of President Truman who was a strong backer of labor unions, opponent of the banks and supporter of universal health care, and even, in some cases, to the right of that noted socialist Richard Nixon who, while in the White House, advocated for a guaranteed minimum income for all Americans.
Calling the frontrunner the candidate of the establishment is standard fare in Democratic primaries. It is also frequently true, at it is this year. By trying to defend herself on the grounds that she is not part of the political establishment, Ms. Clinton is allowing Mr. Sanders to set the terms for the debate, while making an argument that is laughable to a large chunk of the primary electorate. It is not too late, however, for Ms. Clinton pivot and remind voters that in 2016, that same Democratic establishment that Mr. Sanders is attacking now, who, for most of the last eight years, even his voters have liked and defended.
Lincoln Mitchell is national political correspondent at the Observer. Follow him on Twitter @LincolnMitchell.