The Slatest

Hillary’s Doing a Horrible Job Pretending She’s Not Worried About Bernie

Bernie Sanders waits as Hillary Clinton walks on stage at Saint Anselm College Dec. 19, 2015 in Manchester, New Hampshire.

Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images

With the latest polls showing Bernie Sanders catching up in Iowa and pulling further ahead in New Hampshire, Hillary Clinton is trying to play it cool. “No, I’m not nervous at all,” she said on The Today Show when asked Wednesday if she was starting to get worried. “I’m working hard, and I intend to keep working as hard as I can until the last vote or caucus-goer expresses an opinion. I’m excited about where we are.”

Hmm. Let’s take a look at what a not-nervous-at-all, excited-about-where-we-are Clinton campaign looks like coming down the home stretch after spending as much time last year ignoring Bernie as it possibly could:

  • Clinton is going out of her way to highlight Sanders’ 2005 vote to shield gun-makers and dealers from lawsuits—a blemish on the Vermont senator’s progressive resume and a rare area from which Clinton is clearly to his left. (She used gun control as a weapon in the first debate, but she went back to the well this month multiple times with far greater force.)
  • More recently, she’s opened up a second front against Bernie from the right, warning voters that his universal health care plan will likely require a middle-class tax hike. (Chelsea Clinton, acting as her mother’s surrogate, took this line of attack to it’s not-so-logical conclusion on Tuesday, suggesting that Sanders wants to “dismantle Medicare,” which, as my colleague Jim Newell has already noted, is a really odd way of saying “provide Medicare to everyone.”)

Think what you want about the political merits of those attacks—personally, I think the first is sound and smart; the latter, a gamble that could backfire badly—but clearly these are not the actions of a long-time front-runner who loves how things are playing out at the moment. And in case you needed an Exhibit C to be convinced further, the Clinton campaign went ahead and provided it Thursday afternoon, when they cried foul on a relatively mild Sanders television spot that they say breaks his pledge to never go negative.

(It’s a close call but, yes, in the strictest sense, the ad does go ever so slightly negative. Sanders doesn’t use Clinton’s name, but there’s no voter in the country who’s going to think the other vision he’s talking about belongs to Martin O’Malley.)  

“People should be held accountable for their words,” Joel Benenson, Clinton’s chief strategist, complained during an afternoon press call organized by the campaign specifically to discuss a commercial that might have otherwise gone unnoticed. Later, when asked whether he was feigning outrage over something that isn’t actually a big deal, Benenson responded by … saying that the ad isn’t actually a big deal? “I think it makes it a fair question to put on the table,” he said. “I don’t think that’s outrage.” Either way, it looks a whole lot like worry.

Previously on the Slatest: What Happens if Bernie Wins Iowa and New Hampshire?

Read more of Slate’s coverage of the Democratic primary.