The Democratic nominating contest has been framed many ways this cycle—it began as Clinton vs. Anybody But Clinton, moved on to stateswoman vs. socialist, and now is often (over)simplified as a matchup between a pragmatist and an idealist. The dichotomy that runs through them all, though, is this one: establishment insider vs. anti-establishment outsider.
Which is what made Hillary Clinton’s decision to run away from the “establishment” label during Thursday’s MSNBC debate so surprising—and, perhaps, so successful.
The moment came when Sen. Bernie Sanders fielded a question about his ability to be the standard-bearer of a party he’s arguably not even a part of and spun it into a strength. “Secretary Clinton does represent the establishment,” he said. “I represent, I hope, ordinary Americans who are not that enamored with the establishment.”
Hillary didn’t let the charge go unchallenged. “I’ve got to just jump in here,” she began, “because, honestly, Senator Sanders is the only person who would characterize me—a woman running to be the first woman president—as exemplifying the establishment.” This was a little disingenuous given that only moments before, Hillary had been touting her lengthy list of endorsements, but it was nonetheless a powerful point worth making.
Yes, Clinton is the favorite of the Democratic establishment, regardless of how you want to define it. She has locked up the endorsements of more sitting senators, congressmen, and governors than any Democratic candidate in history had by this point in the race and enjoys a massive lead in the super-delegate race. She has the broad support of mainstream media outlets, including the backing of the Des Moines Register in Iowa, as well as the Boston Globe and the New York Times. (The Washington Post has chimed in with its own scathing takedown of Sanders.) And let’s not forget that the current chairwoman of the national party, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, was a high-profile Clinton surrogate in 2008 and has done pretty much everything she can to help Hillary in the 2016 cycle.
But Hillary’s larger point stands: Bernie may be calling for a political revolution—but electing a woman as president would also be a revolutionary act.