Too Tame for This Campaign

Eight years ago, the Democratic caucus handed Hillary Clinton what was probably the most bitter defeat of her political life when the party base nominated not her — although she was considered a shoo-in nominee for president — but a young African-American senator named Barack Obama. Last night ended for Clinton not with a defeat but with a disappointment nonetheless. Instead of exorcising the demons of 2008 with a resounding Clinton victory, the caucus ended this time in a tie between her and 74-year-old socialist Sen. Bernie Sanders.

Anyone betting on that six months ago would have been laughed at by the candidate’s entire staff. Again, things didn’t go the way the Democratic favorite had hoped. Much like Republicans Donald Trump and Ted Cruz, Sanders, an independent senator from Vermont, embodies people’s dissatisfaction with the status quo in Washington. The outsider has tapped into the prevailing public mood and successfully appeals to the anger and idealism of younger voters, demanding course changes that favor the middle class and the less affluent.

So Sanders proposes, for example, a comprehensive government health insurance program that prohibits private insurance companies from participating, while Hillary defends the mixed-product Obamacare model. While the opposition party need not avoid offending Obama, Hillary is beholden to and defends him. According to surveys, Sanders has a wide lead over the favorite in New Hampshire, the site of next week’s election. If he wins there after his strong showing in Iowa, nervousness in the Clinton camp will increase noticeably.

Memories of the chaotic 1968 and 1972 primaries might be awakened when mainstream Democratic contenders are attacked from the left. Those intraparty disputes helped Republican Richard Nixon win two election victories. It’s not that serious for Hillary Clinton yet; after the draw in Iowa, she could still absorb a loss to Sanders in New Hampshire. She’s strong in the southern states where primary season begins shortly and where she can count on the support of African-American voters.

Sanders’ challenge has already left a noticeable mark: Anyone listening to Hillary Clinton recently will have noticed a new liberal populism in her message. She attacked the pharmaceutical industry and banks, criticizing social inequality. Her staff believes Sanders is forcing her to improve her campaign. In addition, Bill Clinton isn’t playing as major a role in it as he did in 2008, when he was sometimes more of a hindrance than a help to her.

This could be, but Team Clinton can’t be all that thrilled when the overwhelming favorite doesn’t win big in the first contest among Democrats. Or perhaps because compared to Sanders she is seen as a conservative representative of the status quo and therefore a familiar equation easily pigeon-holed. In an election year such as this, those aren’t trophies an American politician wants to show off.

For Bernie Sanders, the election outcome in Iowa showed that he can depend on that part of the Democratic Party for whom Hillary Clinton is too tame. If he continues to pose a threat to her over a longer haul then — at least in the eyes of establishment Democrats — she runs the risk of turning too far left to be electable in November.

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