Is Bernie Sanders taking the low road?

Story highlights

  • Issac Bailey says Bernie Sanders signals he's getting into the muck of political combat
  • Bailey: Why is it OK for him to adopt pro-gun industry stances representing Vermont?
  • But not OK for Clinton to cultivate Wall Street ties when she was a senator from New York?

Issac Bailey has been a journalist in South Carolina for two decades and was most recently the primary columnist for The Sun News in Myrtle Beach. He was a 2014 Harvard University Nieman fellow. Twitter: @ijbailey The views expressed are his own.

(CNN)A few weeks ago, "Saturday Night Live" produced a hilarious skit showing Hillary Clinton morphing into Bernie Sanders, in light of the fact that Sanders' challenge has pulled her further to the political left.

After Sanders took the leap Wednesday night to deem Clinton "unqualified" for the presidency, it's time that "SNL" reprise that bit, but this time showing the reverse -- because Sanders 2016 has become the mirror image of Clinton 2008.
    Issac Bailey
    "I don't believe that she is qualified if she is ... through her super PAC, taking tens of millions of dollars in special interest funds," he said before a large crowd at Temple University.
    "I don't think that you are qualified if you get $15 million from Wall Street through your super PAC," he went on. "I don't think you are qualified if you have voted for the disastrous war in Iraq. I don't think you are qualified if you've supported virtually every disastrous trade agreement, which has cost us millions of decent-paying jobs."
    In this one speech, Sanders forfeited the supposed high road and went on the kind of full-frontal negative attack he has long claimed he was above.
    It's the kind of thing that frequently happens in our democracy, stretching back to the bitterly fought contests that involved the Founding Fathers and their successors.
    You don't attain the highest office in the world by playing patty-cake or only calling upon the American public's better angels. That was true in 1984 despite Ronald Reagan's talk of morning in America, and in 1992 when Bill Clinton emerged as a man from Hope playing the saxophone for Arsenio Hall, and even in 2008 as Barack Obama eloquently spoke of hope and change.
    Hillary Clinton, who has been in the political trenches for the past few decades -- and has the scars to show for it -- has been upfront about that reality, which is why she has called for pragmatism and spoken of the virtues of incremental change even in the face of a challenger and populace demanding the aspirational, if not impossible.
    Sanders' attack doesn't make him a hypocrite; it simply reveals him to be a politician willing to muck it up if that's the only way to acquire more power and influence, just like every politician before him.
    Our system is designed to be difficult. It is more iron sharpens iron than pillow fight. It's cute to call for a more civil political discourse. But when you sincerely believe the republic is at stake if your view isn't codified by an election and law, you tend to throw off the gloves the closer you get to the top.
    That's why Sanders has taken this new route. It wasn't because Clinton called Sanders unqualified, as he falsely claimed. She merely raised questions many others were asking after his performance before the New York Daily News editorial board. Because he is so close yet so desperately behind in the all-important earned delegate count -- no matter how many stories you hear about his "momentum" -- he has decided to do what Clinton did against Obama.
    Clinton began talking about Obama's supposed inability to attract enough "hard-working white Americans" to win against John McCain. She talked up his inexperience -- questioning his qualifications and readiness -- in that damning 3 a.m. phone call political ad. She began to highlight polls suggesting she'd have an easier time in a general election than Obama.
    Sanders is behind, and he's begun to do something similar, including holding out hope that superdelegates will give him the nomination even if Clinton amasses more earned ones than he does. And just as in 2008, when Clinton supporters threatened not to support Obama in the general election, Sanders supporters are doing so now, a veiled threat to sacrifice a probable Democratic win in November. But it will get harder to assert that his fans need to continue being coddled from our rough-and-tumble political process -- that Clinton should not risk alienating them for the fall -- as Sanders becomes the candidate he has long claimed he isn't.
    That's why it's the perfect time for the campaign to shift to New York, where the similarities between Clinton and Sanders can be highlighted in other ways. Sanders has defended his record of voting in favor of gun manufacturers, the loophole that made it possible for Dylann Roof to get a gun, and against gun violence research by claiming that Vermont is a rural state. Essentially, his track record on national gun control policy is less than ideal because he was representing the wants and needs of those who sent him to Washington.
    Why doesn't Sanders make the same space for Clinton? She was elected to the Senate from New York -- the home of Wall Street, the financial center of the world. Sanders doesn't have a strictly antagonistic relationship with gun manufacturers because of his state. Why is it so hard to see it would be equally absurd to expect a senator from New York not to have ties to Wall Street? If Sanders can successfully walk that fine ethical line, why can't Clinton?
    As the contest takes another turn, Clinton shouldn't be the only Democrat fielding questions about convenient, shifting positions.