Why Sanders Was So Wrong To Call Clinton Not Qualified For The White House

Photo: Mychal Watts/WireImage/ Getty Images.
Editor's note: Sally Kohn is an activist, lawyer, and political commentator. The views expressed here are her own.

Earlier this week, I wrote a column for CNN in which I implored Hillary Clinton and her campaign not to go negative on Bernie Sanders. After all, there had been reports that after a string of primary losses, Clinton and her team were planning to do just that. I thought this would be harmful not only to the otherwise civil and substantive tone of the Democratic contest so far, but also to the ultimate work of having to unite the party behind whomever is the nominee.

Then, Bernie Sanders went and did it instead. On Thursday, Sanders said that Clinton is “not qualified” to be president. There are calls online from Clinton supporters to #TakeItBackBernie. As an undecided progressive voter who has, up until now, strongly leaned toward Sanders, I’d like to join the call.

Take it back, Sen. Sanders. I haven’t decided who I’m voting for in the New York State primary, but at this point, your statement definitely decreases your chances of it being you.

To be clear, Sanders has defended his remarks by arguing Clinton started it — a sophomoric line of thinking befitting the Republican ticket. In a segment on MSNBC’s Morning Joe, co-host Joe Scarborough asked Clinton if Sanders was ready for the Oval Office. Clinton demurred repeatedly, saying there were “a lot of questions,” but that she would ultimately “leave it to voters to decide.”

Sanders characterized this as Clinton questioning whether he was qualified, pointing to a Washington Post story with that narrative. But while Clinton may have danced near that line, in no way did she clearly, definitively cross it. Sanders did.

Sanders said Clinton is not qualified to be president because of her support from Super PACs and because she supported both the war in Iraq and the Panama free trade agreement. Now, to be fair, one of the reasons I lean toward supporting Sanders myself is that I agree with him on these policy positions — and I don’t want a president who has taken what I believe are disastrous positions.

Saying I don’t think Clinton should be president because of her economy-crumbling views on trade deals or her coziness with Wall Street is radically different than saying she’s not qualified to be president.

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But saying I don’t think Clinton should be president because of her economy-crumbling views on trade deals or her coziness with Wall Street is radically different than saying she’s not qualified to be president. I don’t agree with Republican candidates Ted Cruz or John Kasich, or former Vice President Dick Cheney for that matter, but I would never suggest they’re not qualified to be president. Donald Trump, on the other hand, is not qualified to be president. He’s the sort of character that assertion should be reserved for.

In fact, Clinton is the most qualified candidate running on the Democratic or Republican ticket. Again, I don’t have to agree with 100% of her vision to believe that she is 100% most qualified to enact her vision as president. To suggest otherwise is not only mean and petty, but overlaps dangerously with Republican attacks against Clinton, who over the years have called her an “unfit” “incompetent” “disqualified” candidate who “can’t be trusted” and is “the worst.” We expect those sorts of ridiculous and harmful assertions from Republicans bashing Clinton. We can, and should, expect more from her fellow Democrats.

In the wake of Sanders’ remarks, Clinton thankfully took the high road — and then some.

“I don’t know why he’s saying that, but I will take Bernie Sanders over Donald Trump or Ted Cruz anytime,” Clinton said at a press conference in New York. “So, let’s keep our eye on what’s really at stake in this election. We have Republicans whose values are so antithetical to what’s right for New York or right for America.”

Critics are right to say the media, always happy to cover a fight, helped start this one by wrongly reporting what Clinton had said. Still, Sanders took the bait.

We have two candidates on the Democratic side, both of whom are wholly qualified and would make infinitely better presidents than the jokers and extremists on the other side of the aisle. Clinton — and Sanders — should focus on articulating that distinction to the American people, not tearing each other down. Democratic voters will, I think, be paying close attention and not rewarding negative campaigning. I know I won’t.
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