Our Opinion: Ugly fight bad for Democrats and the nation

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The Democratic presidential candidates have been the responsible adults this long election season, offering a stark contrast to the spit-balling children on the Republican side. Is that beginning to change?

The race has moved to New York, a state that both Democratic contenders, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, can claim a personal connection to. Vermont Senator Sanders grew up in Brooklyn and Mrs. Clinton has a home in the state she served as a US senator. The substantial number of delegates at stake in the Tuesday, April 19 primary aside, doing well with state voters matters to them as people, not just as candidates.

So it is not surprising that the battle between the two Democrats has grown more heated. That's fine as long as the debate sticks to the issues, but it cannot grow ugly and overwrought. Negative campaigning is best left to Donald Trump and Ted Cruz.

The tempest ignited Wednesday when Mrs. Clinton asserted that her rival had not done his "homework" on Wall Street, a defining issue for Senator Sanders. The Vermonter has been criticized for not offering sufficient details on how he would reform Wall Street, and agree or disagree, this hardly constituted a vicious attack by the former secretary of state.

Senator Sanders responded as if he had been viciously attacked, declaring at a rally in Philadelphia Wednesday that "She [Clinton] has been saying lately that she thinks that I am, quote-unquote, not qualified to be president." The "quote-unquote" reference by the senator was a misstep as Secretary of State Clinton did not say he was unqualified.

Senator Sanders upped the ante on Thursday, saying of Mrs. Clinton, "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 supported the Panama free trade agreement." That was preposterous, as even Hillary-hating Republicans don't challenge her qualifications, preferring instead to focus on manufactured controversies like Benghazi or Whitewater.

The Eagle editorially opposed the Iraq War and agrees that then-Senator Clinton was unwise to support it. She has, however, acknowledged her mistake, unlike those in the George W. Bush administration who were the war's architects. Support of the Panama agreement was ill-advised, but while a vote on a complex trade pact can prompt disagreement it is unfair to claim that an experienced and accomplished official is rendered unqualified for the presidency because of it.

Senator Sanders' statements smack of the influence of campaign honchos Jeff Weaver and Tad Devine, who have reportedly been spoiling for a fight with Mrs. Clinton and encouraging their client to start one. Imitating the leading Republican candidates however, constitutes bad advice.

The race for the nomination is far from over, although Senator Sanders is behind in the delegate count. (This is in part because of the super-delegates, a Democratic Party conceit designed to pamper party bigwigs). If the senator does not win he will nonetheless have performed a valuable service by igniting the party's passions, inspiring young people, and pushing Mrs. Clinton out of the mushy middle where she would stay if not prodded.

And when the nomination is decided, Sanders and Clinton partisans will have to come together, which will be difficult if the campaign grows ugly and personal. The party's nominee will evidently face either a bigoted blowhard or a far-right extremist who has been dedicated to blocking good government since he arrived in the US Senate. A loss to either will have dire consequences for the nation.

"I don't know why he's saying that," said Secretary of State Clinton in reference to her opponent's remarks about her lack of qualifications, "but I will take Bernie Sanders over Donald Trump or Ted Cruz any time." That is indeed the bottom line, and both Democratic candidates and their supporters must not forget it in the months ahead.


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