Democrats are starting to act like Republicans

Sanders has brought the fight to Clinton

The Republican presidential primary has been the circus everyone expected with front-runner Donald Trump as the ringleader.

But it was supposed to be different — more civil — on the Democratic side. Hillary Clinton was the presumptive nominee riding high with solid poll numbers. She withstood a barrage of attacks and investigations by Republicans painting her as untrustworthy.

Any primary opponent — other than Joe Biden or Elizabeth Warren — was considered a minor inconvenience. Two candidates surfaced. Martin O'Malley, the former governor of Maryland and mayor of Baltimore, failed to gain traction and left the race.

U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, elected as an Independent in Vermont, decided to run as a Democrat. No one seemed to take his candidacy seriously.

The Democratic presidential primary started off civilly, in stark contrast with the tone of the GOP primary. Even the Democratic debates were respectful, with candidates disagreeing on issues while avoiding personal attacks.

Democrats who were happy with President Obama believed Hillary could protect his legacy.

Clinton is running on her record, her experience and a promise to continue progress on health care, immigration, equal pay, equal rights, voter rights, increasing the minimum wage and gun control, including background checks. While her issues resonate with Democratic voters, her message lacks the passion of Sanders'.

Pundits believed Clinton would benefit from a primary challenge to keep her in the public eye and sharpen her campaign skills. It was never anticipated Sanders could pose a real threat.

Sanders, a self-described socialist, had been in the U.S. Senate for many years with little fanfare. He had a consistent message that was consistently ignored. But the mood of the country was changing, and his message of income inequality was now gaining traction.

He attracts huge crowds to his rallies and continues to raise more funds than all candidates through millions of individual contributions on the Internet. He's energized millennials and independent voters. His proposal offering free college tuition is winning him college students.

He's unapologetic about his socialist beliefs. Voters see him as honest, genuine and authentic. While he refrained from going negative or engaging in personal attacks, his surrogates and supporters were doing it for him.

He won caucuses and primaries in states with predominantly white voters and open primaries. As he gained momentum, his tone changed. He became more combative, more divisive and less civil, morphing from a lovable grandfather to a grumpy old neighbor yelling, "Get off my lawn."

He criticized Democratic Party leaders over debates and superdelegates, and accused them of stacking the deck for Clinton. He knew the rules when he chose to run as a Democrat. He could have run as an independent but wanted the advantages of running in a party structure.

Both candidates got testy in the last debate and talked over each other. Sanders questioned Clinton's character and judgment while constantly wagging his finger.

He attacked her on giving paid speeches and questioned her speaker fees. He also demanded she release the transcripts of her private speeches, handing Republicans an effective line of attack in the general election.

Clinton carefully avoided calling Sanders "unqualified" despite "Morning Joe" Scarborough's repeated queries. Sanders falsely accused her of doing so and launched an attack on her qualifications.

Despite winning eight of the past 10 contests, Sanders is still losing. He blames it on a "rigged system," which fits his message of the powerful against the powerless, but it doesn't match reality.

Clinton is expected to do well in the next five or six states that have closed primaries and high minority populations. It's not impossible for Sanders to win the nomination, but it's highly unlikely, especially after Clinton's win in New York.

The Sanders camp is complaining that independent voters were unable to vote in New York, even though they know it was a closed primary. But his supporters point to it as another vote-rigging conspiracy.

In 2016, the Democratic Party expected to prosper from a divided GOP. Instead, it has to worry about drama at its own convention and figure out how to unite voters who are increasingly adversarial.

Paula Dockery is a syndicated columnist who served in the Legislature as a Republican from Lakeland. pbdockery@gmail.com.

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