Bernie Sanders prides himself on not going negative in his political campaigns (whether it’s true that he never does, I do not know). So it wasn’t entirely surprising that he did not attack Hillary Clinton over her emails.
The surprising thing, I thought at the time, was that Sanders made such a flamboyant point of not attacking Hillary. On reflection, though, I suppose that once he decided not to attack, it made sense to make a big show of it.
What about Martin O’Malley, though? Why did he back off on this issue during the debate.
I thought at the time that O’Malley behaved as he did because he wants to be part of a Clinton administration. This still seems like a good explanation.
But now I’m wondering whether O’Malley (and maybe Sanders too) tested this issue with focus groups. When the two leading challengers both adopt the same counter-intuitive approach, it’s generally reasonable to suspect that voter research is in the picture.
It’s plausible, moreover, to think that attacking Hillary on her emails tested badly with registered Democrats at this juncture. Most Democrats know deep down that Hillary has a genuine potential problem here. But they also believe that attacks on her regarding emails are the province of Republicans who are out to get her.
The email scandal isn’t going away. The drip-drip of the news will probably continue to plague Clinton. Her performance as a witness before Gowdy’s committee might (or might not) hurt her, as well. Thus, O’Malley and Sanders may have concluded — based on intuition, voter research, or both — that piling on in front of a national audience of mostly Democrats was both unnecessary and too risky under the circumstances.
Charles Krauthammer believes that by not piling on, Sanders has handed the nomination to Hillary, barring her being indicted. A realistic path to the nomination for Sanders probably does depend on the email scandal, but I’m not convinced (1) that Sanders can forge that path by attacking Clinton on the subject at this point and (2) that Sanders has shut off this path by being flamboyantly gracious in an October debate.
Sanders needs to win at least one of the two early contests (Iowa and New Hampshire) and maybe both to remain viable. Accomplishing this probably doesn’t depend on emails. If Sanders lost ground on either or both of these fronts during the debate, it was more because of guns and Hillary’s solid performance than because of emails.
If Sanders is still alive after Iowa and New Hampshire, he will probably need Clinton email difficulties to remain competitive moving forward. But he can neither create these difficulties nor take them off the table; nor, if the difficulties become more serious, will he need to drive them home.
Having said all of this, I still wonder whether Sanders made the right call on Tuesday. Had he taken a polite but critical approach, he could have put Clinton on the defensive and perhaps forced an error. Hillary’s relief when Sanders went into his rant against discussing emails was palpable and, perhaps, telling.
As for O’Malley, whatever voter research may have told him, he probably made the wrong call unless he’s already thrown in the towel and is simply running for a cabinet post.