Hillary, don't go negative on Bernie

Story highlights

  • Sally Kohn: It would be a mistake for Clinton to ramp up attacks on Sanders
  • She will need to woo Sanders' supporters if she becomes the party's nominee, says Kohn

Sally Kohn is an activist, columnist and television commentator. Follow her on Twitter: @sallykohn. The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers.

(CNN)CNN's Jeff Zeleny reports that after a string of primary losses to Bernie Sanders, "the Clinton campaign is going to dramatically increase its assault on Sanders in the coming days." This would be a giant mistake.

Going forward, the Democratic Party — including its two presidential primary candidates — must balance two priorities. First, it must engage in the spirited and small-d democratic debate about the issues and perspectives that concern center-left voters and play out how those views will be reflected in Democratic politics going forward. This can and must be a spirited but respectful debate, and I actually think it has been for much of the campaign.
    Yes, at times Sanders has jabbed Hillary Clinton for her speaking fees from big banks and Clinton has critiqued Sanders for being unrealistic, but for the most part the Democratic debates and contest in general have been substantive and respectful, marred by none of the gutter-sniping childish behavior and personal nastiness that has typified the Republican side.
    Meanwhile, both Clinton and Sanders have been made better in the process, in terms of strengthening their campaigning skills and getting more media coverage than either would have without a challenger, but also strengthening their positions to reflect the will of the voters.
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    Clinton has embraced more populist economic proposals, such as opposing the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, and Sanders has retooled his positions on gun control to better align with the Democratic base.
    Unlike the Republican primary, in which the candidates have competed to take more and more extremist positions and alienate themselves from various factions of their party and certainly the American public, the Democrats' primary fight has largely been a model of vibrant democracy and shows why the party earns its name.
    At the same time, Clinton and Sanders' other priority must be to unite their supporters in anticipation of a general election against Donald Trump or Ted Cruz or whomever the Republicans choose to run. A GOP victory in November will undoubtedly portend disaster for the nation as a whole and especially for any voter who cares about equality and fairness and basic human rights.
    To underestimate the threat posed by a President Trump or Cruz to the essential values and functioning of the American project is to have one's head firmly planted in the sand. This is an election in which a not insubstantial portion of the American electorate wants to ban Muslims, round up and deport immigrants and revoke basic equal protection laws for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people. This election matters.
    And whatever our important policy disagreements, I can hope that Sanders supporters and Clinton supporters alike can agree that either Clinton or Sanders would make an infinitely better president than Trump or Cruz, or anyone else for that matter. Both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders must remind their supporters of this, clearly and resoundingly, as often as possible.
    Now I understand the impulse of the Clinton camp to start hammering Sanders. But should she become the nominee — and please note, America, Hillary Clinton is NOT the Democratic nominee at this point — Clinton will very much need Sanders supporters to win the general election, not only for their votes but because the younger voters Sanders has engaged tend to make up the ranks of enthusiastic foot soldiers who do the hard slogging work of political campaigns on the ground.
    Clinton doesn't want to alienate these voters. If she's the nominee, she needs to woo them. Best to start now.
    Some argue Clinton should attack Sanders because Sanders has attacked Clinton. Aside from the petty "they started it"-ness that mirrors the petulance of the GOP side, I don't think this is true. Sanders has critiqued Clinton's positions but it's been well within the fair game of a respectful primary and he has actively refused to engage in the sort of personal attacks and smears that the right wing keeps trying to drudge up and tempt him with (such as the FBI investigation of Clinton's email arrangement as secretary of state.)
    When Sanders does seem to snipe about Clinton's positions, it doesn't play well. Frankly, even though I lean to Sanders, I think he comes off as condescending and rude at those points -- which he sort of manages to get away with because he's a curmudgeonly old white guy, but Clinton won't get the same pass.
    That's not to say Clinton should give Sanders a pass. But she can challenge Sanders without attacking him and alienating his supporters. The way to do that is by not insulting Sanders' views — and thus his supporters' views — but instead by saying: "Yes, Sen. Sanders and I disagree on some issues but we agree on more than we don't and I absolutely share his idealism. Yet we've all seen how incredibly hostile the political environment is even when President Obama introduces the most modest of reforms. I know Democrats want a president who shares their idealism, who will fight for their idealism, and has the hard skills and experience to actually get things done. Don't just vote for your idealism. Vote for turning your idealism into results."