Senate Democrats are unfazed by Sen. Bernie Sanders’ remark that former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is not qualified to serve as the nation’s chief executive.
To be sure, most of the Vermont independent’s colleagues – the bulk of whom are backing Clinton’s candidacy – think it is absurd to say a person who has served as first lady, a U.S. senator, and the nation’s chief diplomat is unqualified to be president. Sanders made the allegation at a Philadelphia rally on Wednesday.
Not one of half a dozen Senate Democrats interviewed for this piece agreed with Sanders’ assessment of their party’s front-runner.
“I think to say that Hillary Clinton is unqualified to be president is plainly and blatantly wrong and incorrect,” Connecticut Sen. Richard Blumenthal told Morning Consult, a line that is broadly representative of feelings throughout the Senate Democratic Caucus about Sanders’ comment.
Yet Senate Democrats, none of whom have endorsed Sanders to date, are not worried that the early April haranguing will inflict any lasting damage on Clinton. That’s partly because they don’t buy that Sanders actually believes the words coming out of his mouth.
“I’ve been with Bernie many times. I’ve heard him talk about Hillary in caucus meetings. He has always said good things about her,” Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia told Morning Consult. Kaine added that he hopes the liberal firebrand will “apologize” to Clinton. “I don’t even think that’s sincerely what he believes.”
“I think Sen. Sanders in his heart knows that Secretary Clinton is very well qualified to be president. That’s not even a question,” said Maryland Sen. Ben Cardin in an interview. “She has one of the most impressive backgrounds and experience that you would ever want for president of the United States.”
More importantly, as Senate Democrats were quick to point out, the back-and-forth between Clinton and Sanders during the past couple of days pales in comparison to the wholesale descent into political incivility that has characterized the race for the GOP presidential nomination.
“We are nowhere near the playground name-calling in the Republican primary. The vitriol and nonsense on the Republican side is a standard we could never reach,” said Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri. “So, I’m not real worried.”
Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) noted that the media would hardly bat an eye if one of the remaining GOP candidates for president called another “unqualified.”
“I don’t think everybody should get too bent out of shape,” he told reporters. “The word unqualified is not — Donald Trump would never use the word unqualified.”
In fact, many Democratic senators empathized with the chamber’s one and only self-described “Democratic-Socialist.”
“I’ve been in campaigns, and you’re tired and it’s tough, and there will always be some rough edges to competition,” said Kaine. “Its not completely surprising. It’s a tough campaign.”
As it becomes harder for Sanders to see a path to the nomination, it’s only natural for the language to escalate, Murphy said. “Inevitably that the rhetoric gets ratcheted up as you get closer to the end game,” he said. “These next few primaries are likely to be determinative, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that the rhetoric gets a little heated.”
Still, there’s at least one alternate theory for why the campaign’s hardest punches are being thrown now: Blumenthal joked that Clinton and Sanders might just be adding a bit of local flair to the humdrum of day-to-day campaigning.
“The next major primary is in New York, which is known for its frank and robust political environment,” he told Morning Consult with a grin. “It befits that place.”