As the 2016 presidential election barrels toward the Democratic and Republican conventions, former Obama staffers Jon Favreau and Dan Pfeiffer break down the weekly developments on both sides in the Channel 33 podcast Keepin’ It 1600. Last week, they examined whether Bernie Sanders made a tactical mistake in questioning Hillary Clinton’s qualifications for the presidency. After reading the transcript below, listen to the full episode on iTunes, SoundCloud, or Stitcher. This excerpt has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Jon Favreau: So Bernie wins Wisconsin. He gives this speech that I thought was one of his better speeches. And he doesn’t attack Hillary almost at all on the speech. At the very end he said, “Oh, she’s getting a little nervous, but we’re going to win this thing,” and all that. Fine. But he gives a very inspiring speech. Maybe Bernie Sanders is thinking to himself, “OK, I’m not going to overtake her in pledged delegates, I don’t want to tear the party apart, I’m obviously — I’ve said before that I’m going to support her if she’s the nominee because she’d be better than any of these Republican candidates on their worst day.” [That] was his quote. He wants to get his message out, and he wants to keep running, and he wants to run until the end. He’s got a movement. So I’m thinking, OK, great, he’s finally figured this out.
And then the next day, there’s this whole “qualified, not qualified” fight that pops up. The whole thing started when Hillary was on Morning Joe — was that what happened?
Dan Pfeiffer: Yes — first mistake.
J.F.: She’s on Morning Joe, and they ask her about Bernie Sanders’s interview with the New York Daily News, which did not go super well. He was back-and-forth on a bunch of different issues around Wall Street and how you break up the banks. They asked Hillary [something like], “Do you think he’s qualified?” And she said, “Well, he clearly hasn’t done his homework on these Wall Street issues, even though that’s what he’s been talking about the whole campaign.” She doesn’t say anything about “qualified, not qualified,” anything else. The Washington Post runs the story and says that Clinton challenges Sanders on his qualifications for president. Someone in the Sanders campaign — Bernie, I don’t know, other people running the campaign — see the headline, and then Bernie goes out in a speech and says all these reasons why Hillary Clinton is not qualified to be president. “You’re not qualified to be president … you know, if you supported the war in Iraq, you’re not qualified. If you support TPP,” which is something that many Democrats, as well as the president of the United States, support, “you are not qualified to be president of the United States.” And I’m just like, where is this coming from? It doesn’t seem like a smart move to me. What did you think about it?
D.P.: Right. I have so many thoughts on this. First — here’s how I think this happens: People are, at this point in the campaign, they are tired, they’re stressed, they’re pissed off …
J.F.: We’ve been there.
D.P.: The Sanders people are pissed off because they’re not winning; the Clinton people are pissed off because it’s not over. They had a giant party in the campaign headquarters captured on several social media platforms a few weeks ago, and here they are still slogging through dealing with Bernie Sanders — and people are pissed. So I’m sure, you know, a hardcore Jeff Weaver, Tad Devine — someone — showed Bernie Sanders that headline. “Go out there. Get after her.” Right? And they did it, and I think it’s a mistake on so many levels. Put aside what it means for party unity with the effect on the general election. One, it’s very off-brand for Bernie Sanders to [launch] sort of traditional, hackish attacks, right?
J.F.: This is what I’m saying. It’s not whether this is right or wrong or “Did he cross a line or not?” Which I think you can argue that he did, but it wasn’t politically smart for him to do that.
D.P.: Right. Even if it was totally on-brand, there are all kinds of arguments you can make against Hillary Clinton, in a primary or general election, that would work with voters. One of them that will absolutely not work? That Hillary Clinton, former first lady, former New York senator, former secretary of state, is not qualified for the presidency. No one would believe that. Attacks have to ring true. They have to fit with some preexisting belief within the electorate, and this one is absurd. So now he’s going to spend the next few days — it was all over the news today, every time his staffers went out, he did a press conference — all he’s going to do is get asked about this. Instead of carrying any momentum coming out of Wisconsin that he needs to take into New York, because if he has any chance — and I think there’s no chance — he has to shock the world in New York. And so, in the run-up to that election, he’s debating the veracity, merits, wisdom of his attack. … Bernie Sanders, every day for a year and a half now, has made a very — I think what is a much more damaging and malicious argument against Hillary. Which is that she’s corrupt. He says that she takes money from Wall Street, and therefore can’t solve the problems of Wall Street. Which is essentially accusing her of being bribed out of helping the middle class. That, to me, is a more — a much more dangerous attack. It’s one that’s probably more believable in the sort of antiestablishment moment we’re in.
J.F.: I think you’re always in the safe zone when your attacks are comparative, right? Like when you say, “I’m more qualified than you for this job.” Or, “Because you took money from Wall Street, I’m going to be better at attacking the special interests than you are.” You don’t say that the person is unable to do those things, or is going to be unqualified to be president, but you just say that you’re better. That’s why you’re running for office. I think what he said originally in this race, which is, “On her worst day, Hillary Clinton would be a better president than Ted Cruz or Donald Trump or any of those guys,” he has to remember that. That’s the zone that you want to be in.
This piece originally appeared on the Ringer Facebook page on April 11, 2016.