Auto-Bailout Backfire: Does Sanders Have Antidote To Negative Politics?

Dave Johnson

Politicians and campaign consultants, listen up. There is a lesson to learn from Michigan’s Democratic primary upset: Voters are tired of having their intelligence insulted by cynical politicians using 90’s-style “gotcha’ politics.”

“Gotcha politics” is a tactic where a politician attempts to lure or entrap an opponent by use of a supposed fact, gaffe, mistake or statement that makes it appear the opponent is a hypocrite or untrustworthy. Then the politician “pounces,” hence the term “gotcha.”

Just two days before the Michigan primary, Hillary Clinton tried to use this cynical tactic on Bernie Sanders. During the Flint debate she said, “I’ll tell you something else that Senator Sanders was against. He was against the auto bailout.”

Tuesday’s post, “Auto Bailout Controversy: ‘Gotcha’ Politics vs. Building Trust” wondered if the long-term costs of cynical politics outweighs potential short-term gains:

This kind of “90’s-style” politics is a “scorched earth” tactic, leaving little goodwill in its wake. In the short term it might gain votes, even win a primary, but those votes bring with them longer-term costs.

Over time, as the fact-checking of Clinton’s “gotcha” accusation unfolds, Clinton risks increasing voters’ perception that she has a “trust” problem. Winning a primary with a tactic that risks increasing voter perception that she can’t be trusted could cost her.

… The stakes are very high in this election, and if Clinton is the nominee she is going to need goodwill – and all the votes she can get. Isn’t there a higher road with lower risks that Clinton can follow in this campaign?

Gotcha Politics Backfired On Clinton

It seems there are short-term costs to this kind of negative politics now as well. Clinton’s attempt to mislead voters not only didn’t work, it looks like it may have backfired and cost her votes in the primary itself. The voters Clinton was attempting to win over – auto workers – knew darn well that Bernie Sanders was on the side of auto workers and had been for a very long time. Michigan voters appear to have resented the attempt to mislead them.

A quick trip around Google shows that Sanders has been there for the auto workers for years, decades even, and auto workers knew that:

In August 2015 at the United Auto Workers Community Action Conference, “Bernie Sanders addressed the annual conference about the importance of workers’ rights and the important issues that, as he said, many of his colleagues do not address.”

Sanders’ relationship with the UAW goes back much further than that. Here are his ratings at Vote Smart: Bernard ‘Bernie’ Sanders’s Ratings and Endorsements on Issue: Labor Unions:

1996 United Auto Workers – Positions on Workplace Rights 100%
1997 United Auto Workers – Positions 100%
1998 United Auto Workers – Positions 92%
1999 United Auto Workers – Positions 100%
2000 United Auto Workers – Positions 100%
2001 United Auto Workers – Positions 92%
2002 United Auto Workers – Positions 100%
2003 United Auto Workers – Positions on Workplace Rights 93%
2004 United Auto Workers – Positions 93%
2005 United Auto Workers – Positions 93%
2006 United Auto Workers – Positions 100%
2007 United Auto Workers – Positions 100%
2009 United Auto Workers – Positions 100%

There is also anecdotal evidence that the tactic backfired. For example, Noam Scheiber, a New York Times labor reporter with a finger on the pulse of the UAW ,tweeted “Have heard from plugged-in labor source that UAW worked v. hard for Bernie in MI. Thought Hillary totally misrep’d his auto bailout vote.” He also tweeted, “UAW liked Bernie on trade to begin with, then was backlash to Hillary portraying him as anti auto-bailout. Got UAW folks very revved up.”

Robert Borosage, writing in “March Madness: Sanders Takes Michigan in Huge Upset“:

Clinton may well have paid a price for her cynical attack on Sanders in the Sunday Michigan debate, when she distorted his vote on the auto bailout. (Sanders supported the bailout, but voted against Bush’s bank bailout even when some of the auto money was folded into it). The Clinton low blow angered UAW leaders and activists, and was challenged by a Sanders ad and in the press and social media. It reminded many of the cynical tactics that sour people on politics, and may well have reminded many of Clinton’s unconvincing campaign conversion from supporting corporate deals to opposing the Trans-Pacific Partnership that was negotiated while she was Secretary of State. The punditry praised Clinton’s ploy. But at a time when voters are disgusted by political games and posturing, it added to their doubts about Clinton – and of course infuriated Sanders’ supporters.

D.C. Insiders Getting The Lesson

It appears that the Washington insider crowd might be learning the lesson. For example, Politico, in 5 takeaways from Bernie’s Michigan miracle, writes:

Brooklyn’s [Clinton campaign HQ] silver bullet counter-argument was to roll out a half-true, politician’s attack on the ’09 auto bailout (Sanders voted against it because it contained provisions bailing out the automakers’ insolvent, Wall Street-controlled finance arms). In any event voters didn’t buy that the wife of President NAFTA had more credibility on free trade than a guy who walks, talks and barks like a UAW organizer.

The Larger Lesson

Bernie Sanders’ campaign may be the antidote to the old-style, negative politics that became so common in past elections. Old-style, negative politics attacked the politician, because the politicians’ campaigns were void of actual ideas and solid proposals. But Sanders is running a campaign of ideas and solid proposals, not personality. His campaign is not about him becoming president, and he says so. It is about his ideas and proposals being enacted. Opponents can try to attack Sanders’ character, but that does not diminish the power of the ideas and proposals he campaigns for.

The larger lesson to learn is that voters are ready for actual ideas and proposals that address the needs of the country. Voters are tired of the old, negative politics based on distortions and want ideas and proposals discussed on their merits.

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