On Sunday, former President Bill Clinton showed Bernie Sanders what happens when the big dog gets off the porch.
With Hillary Clinton in Flint, Michigan, to meet with the mayor about the city’s water crisis, the former president had the state to himself, and he gave the Vermont senator a piece of his mind. He mocked Sanders as unrooted from reality, joking, "When you're making a 'revolution,' you can't be too careful with the facts." Clinton referred to Sanders as "hermetically sealed." He called Bernie's supporters "sexist" and "profane" (a nod to the so-called "Bernie Bro" phenomenon) and reprised the mostly forgotten December scandal over Sanders' campaign accessing Clinton's voter data (for which Sanders apologized). "'I tried to loot information from the other guy's computer and I raised a million dollars out of it,'" Clinton said, offering his guess at what was going through Sanders' mind.
It was the most direct personal attack from either candidate's campaign this election cycle, two days before the primary. And by the next day, Bill Clinton appeared to have shaken the whole thing off. On Monday night in Hudson, joined by his daughter, Chelsea, a smattering of New Hampshire elected officials, Massachusetts Rep. Joseph Kennedy III, and Ted Danson (!), the former president offered a more subdued critique of the Vermont senator. Referring to his wife, he began his remarks by saying, "Sometimes when we're on a stage like this, I wish we weren't married, so I could say what I really want to say—and I don't mean that in a negative way." What he meant was that he had to self-censor his riffs for the good of the campaign. (Not that it has stopped him in the past.)
Instead, he offered an olive branch, or something like it, to the Sanders supporters he'd broadly characterized as "vicious" trolls on Sunday. "A lot of the young millennials think they'll never move out of their parents' house, never get a job that's worth having, never be able to change," Clinton said, before channeling a bit of Sanders' own stump speech. "If they want to start a small business they won't be able to get a loan. I get why a lot of people are mad. I get how frustrating it is, when most of the gains have gone to the top 1 percent, and 90 percent of them since I left office have gone to the top 10 percent. I get why people are upset when they hear the president tell the truth—the absolute truth—[that] we are the best-positioned country for the 21st-century, our economy is up over all the other big economies, but 84 percent of the people have not gotten a raise…I get it."
"The question is, what are you gonna do about it?" he continued. "And the one thing I really appreciate about New Hampshire is that here finally the dam broke in the polarization of the campaign and we actually began to be free to discuss who's got the better ideas."
Clinton, though, couldn't help getting taking another shot at Sanders' frequent invocations of the "establishment," suggesting that such a label unnecessarily tarred politicians who had put their careers on the line to vote for Obamacare, such as former Arkansas Sen. Mark Pryor. ("Establishment" is a nebulous term, but Pryor, the son of former Arkansas governor and senator David Pryor, surely fits most definitions of it.)
There's an interesting dynamic between Hillary Clinton and Sanders that, if you go to a few events, you can pick up on. When Clinton takes the stage, she's following a group of well-known Democratic politicians or activists—Al Franken, Jeanne Shaheen, Lena Dunham, Bubba. When Bernie takes the stage, often enough it's just Bernie. And that's fine; he's leading in New Hampshire, something practically no one saw coming last spring. But in a fight like the one the Democratic primary is careening toward if Sanders wins big on Tuesday, it's good to have someone in your corner who can draw some blood. And Bill Clinton sounds like he's relishing a fight.
You can't avoid campaign finance reform in the run-up to Tuesday's New Hampshire primary. It feels a little weird to type that, given the continuous series of setbacks reformers have suffered on that issue over the last decade, but it's true. Talk to anyone at a Bernie Sanders rally and it's the first thing that comes up; on the Republican side, Donald Trump has made his lack of big donors a centerpiece of his campaign.
Even Jeb Bush, whose $100-million super-PAC, Right to Rise, is blanketing the airwaves here in the Granite State (and has a spin-off dark-money group, Right to Rise Policy Solutions), says something needs to be done. Taking questions at a Nashua Rotary Club on Monday afternoon, Bush told voters that it will take a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United and stop the glut of dark money entering the political process:
The ideal thing would be to overturn the Supreme Court ruling that allows effectively unregulated money [for] independent [groups], and regulated money for the campaigns. I would turn that on its head if I could. I think campaigns ought to be personally accountable and responsible for the money they receive. I don't think you need to restrict it—voters will have the ability to say I'm not voting for you because [some company] gave you money. The key is to just have total transparency about the amounts of money and who gives it, and to have it with 48-hour turnaround. That would be the appropriate thing. Then a candidate will be held accountable for whatever comes to the voters through the campaign. Unfortunately the Supreme Court ruling makes that at least temporarily impossible, so it's going to take an amendment to the Constitution.
Now, Jeb hasn't turned into Bernie Sanders. He'd just like unlimited donations that aren't anonymous, and he'd like whatever is disclosed to be disclosed a lot quicker. The subtext here is that while Bush is benefiting from a nonprofit that accepts anonymous unlimited donations, his backers have expressed a lot of frustration with outside groups supporting Jeb's rival, Sen. Marco Rubio. Right to Rise chief Mike Murphy said last fall that Rubio is running a "cynical" campaign fueled by "secret dark money, maybe from one person."
Chris Christie is down in the polls in New Hampshire and he's got less than 24 hours to turn things around. So when Ann Antosca, an undecided voter from Nashua, asked him a question about Social Security at a Monday morning town hall, the New Jersey governor rushed over to her corner, dropped to one knee, put his hand on the shoulder of the man to her right, and begged her for her vote.
Antosca's concern going in was that Christie's means-testing for Social Security would hurt people like her, with 401(k)s in the low six figures. But she was reassured that the ceiling would in fact be much higher. Christie, a shameless name-dropper who was joined at the event by the star of the reality TV show Cake Boss, recalled a conversation he had with Mark Zuckerberg in which the Facebook CEO expressed concern that he'd lose his Social Security. His response: "You get nothing, Mark."
"They don't wanna talk about [Social Security] because they're afraid of you; I'm talking about this because I trust you," Christie concluded. A few minutes later, she spoke up again to say she'd made up her mind to vote for Christie.
"That was cute, that was cute!" Antosca, a real estate agent who was deciding between Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush, and Christie, told me afterward. Social Security "was really the only thing that was holding me back."
Christie needs undecided voters to swing in his direction in a big way in the final days. But New Hampshire is a wonderland where the political cliches all happen to be true. Voters move late. Christie can only hope that movement is enough.
Bernie Sanders was defensive when he was asked at Thursday's Democratic presidential debate why he doesn't talk more about how he'd approach being commander-in-chief. So does he plan on changing course anytime soon? Not a chance.
On Sunday afternoon in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, speaking at the same community college that hosted Hillary Clinton on Saturday, Sanders did not mention foreign policy until the 50th minute of a 54-minute speech. Even then, he kept it short, telling supporters (and a few undecided voters) he was tired of being "lectured" by his opponent on the issue. "And by the way," he said, as he wrapped up his remarks, "as somebody who voted against the war in Iraq—who led the opposition to the war in Iraq, lately I have been lectured on foreign policy. The most important foreign policy in the modern history of this country was the war in Iraq. I was right on that issue. Hillary Clinton was wrong on that issue."
And then he moved on. In one of his final get-out-the-vote events before Tuesday's New Hampshire primary, Sanders showed a willingness to continue taking the fight to Clinton on his own terms. The speech he gave on Sunday, his voice still hoarse from his appearance on Saturday Night Live with Larry David, was much the same speech he delivered in Boston in October, and in Burlington in May. He excoriated the oligarchs who he believes corrupt the political system and outlined a theory of change, from the suffrage movement to civil rights to gay rights, that he believes shows that grassroots movements like his own can overturn the system. The routine is so familiar that when he asked his audience who the biggest recipient of federal welfare is, about half of those in attendance were able to answer—"Walmart."
What's changed is the crowd. When I saw him in Boston in October, the crowd booed 17 different times during his speech, prompted by references to Jeb Bush or the Koch brothers. On Sunday, that number was halved in a speech of equal length. (Targets of booing included the black and Latino unemployment rate, speaker fees from Goldman Sachs, and companies that exploit loopholes in the tax code to avoid "paying a nickel in federal income taxes.") Clinton refers to the animating ethos of Sanders' supporters as "anger," and there's certainly that, but increasingly, there's the optimism of an organization that truly thinks it can win.
That's typified by one of the few tweaks he's made to his speech over the last few months: He now talks about the poll numbers. "We started this campaign at 3 percent in the polls," he told the crowd early on. "We were 30, 40 points down in New Hampshire. Well, a lot has changed." Except for all the stuff that hasn't.
New Hampshire voters are angry. They believe a corrupt and power-hungry band of millionaire and billionaire families are running America into the ground, led by a coddled, vindictive, and dictatorial leader who doesn't share their values and won't help them win again.
Which is why they think NFL commissioner Roger Goodell needs to go.
"I'd like to moon him," said Roberto Cassotto of Hampton, New Hampshire, as he waited in line for a Donald Trump rally on Thursday in Portsmouth.