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The Nation - March 2019

As the Democratic presidential field continues to grow, we are beginning to hear warnings about the primary turning into a “circular firing squad.” Self-appointed, high-minded political proctors have tried to lay down “rules for civility,” but these appeals should come with a warning label.

Many members of the civility police come from the beleaguered center-right of the party, and their calls for unity are often just forewarning progressives to lower their sights and curb their tongues. The chiding often comes with shots at Senator Bernie Sanders specifically or the left more generally.

The civility police assert that Trump will pounce on any weakness of the Democratic nominee that gets exposed in the primaries. Michael Tomasky argued that the “one terrible and unforgivable thing the Democratic contenders can do to one another” is to “expose that Achilles heel and worsen it.” “This is what Sanders did with respect to Clinton in 2016,” he claimed, by setting up “Trump’s ‘Crooked Hillary’ line of attack.”

Really? Donald Trump has a canny and ruthless instinct for the jugular. He didn’t need Sanders to prey on Clinton’s self-inflicted vulnerabilities. “Lock her up,” the infamous Trump rally chant, was about Hillary’s e-mails, an issue that Bernie explicitly dismissed out of hand. Trump has already labeled Senator Elizabeth Warren “Pocahontas,” and, sadly, got her to take the bait and take a DNA test. Tomasky is using the plea for civility as a threadbare excuse for recycling an embittered assault on Sanders.

“We should not eat our own,” cautioned David Brock, which is rich coming from a professional hatchet man servicing both sides of the aisle at different points in his career. In reality, the ones doing the eating are primarily centrist pundits using high minded postures to skewer Bernie. Sanders has been assailed by a former Clinton staffer for using private planes while stumping for Hillary in 2016. He’s been attacked for hiring David Sirota, a respected left-leaning journalist who got his start in Sanders’s House office twenty years ago. (Sirota was raked over last week for supposedly hiding his conflict of interest while at The Guardian, a claim that turned out to be simply false). Tomasky presumptuously issued a “personal plea” to Bernie to rein in his supporters, while saying nothing about the Clinton advisers publicly vowing to unleash their oppo research from 2016 on Sanders.

The civility police call for a debate over policy and ideas, not personal attacks, which is surely right. The question, however, is what is a personal attack? Biden insider and Washington lobbyist Ron Klain argued that “a debate about ideas is healthy, a debate about motives is not. The Democrats should hash out their differences in 2020 without slashing up one another—not casting aspersions on each other’s integrity, motivation or intentions.”

Clinton and her supporters consider Sanders’s repeated criticism of the hundreds of thousands she pocketed for speeches to Goldman Sachs and other banks an “aspersion” on her integrity. But the corruption of big-money politics and the unholy alliance with the financial sector is at the center of the failure of the establishment of both parties. Trump made the corruption of politicians—Republican and Democratic alike—the central theme of his campaign in 2016. The Democratic primary debate would be foolish to rule airing the issue out of bounds.

The pleas for civility are grounded on the fear, as Ed Kilgore puts it, that “Trump and his media allies will ruthlessly take advantage of any Democratic divisions.”

Of course they will. Amanda Marcotte and others then use this to recycle the argument that bitter Sanders fans cost Clinton the election in 2016. In fact, Sanders endorsed Clinton and stumped relentlessly for her. Some disaffected Sanders voters no doubt stayed home or voted for a third-party candidate or even for Trump, but they turned out far better for Clinton, as The Washington Post reported, than Clinton voters did for Obama in 2008 after their primary battle. The disaffected Clintonites didn’t stop Obama from winning. There are many reasons Clinton lost an election to the most unpopular candidate in history by 80,000 votes; Sanders was the least of them. ...
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