Bernie Sanders has trapped himself: Why going negative on Hillary could prove fatal to his campaign

He set himself up as the guy who'd run a clean campaign on the issues -- which is why going negative is so risky

Published November 9, 2015 12:59PM (EST)

  (Reuters/Joshua Roberts/Carlo Allegri/Photo montage by Salon)
(Reuters/Joshua Roberts/Carlo Allegri/Photo montage by Salon)

Much of the chatter around the Democratic primary this past week – aside from the rending of garments that accompanied Lawrence Lessig dropping out – revolved around Bernie Sanders “sharpening” his attacks on front-runner Hillary Clinton. This came amid polls showing that Clinton’s lead, having slipped a bit in the early fall, has now stabilized and even grown in the wake of solid performances, both at the first Democratic debate and in front of the Keystone Kops routine that was the House Select Committee on Benghazi.

The big moment, according to the press, was Sanders’ clarification of his debate comments regarding Clinton’s emails. As the Wall Street Journal put it:

In the Democratic debate last month, Mr. Sanders said voters were “sick and tired” of the focus on Mrs. Clinton’s “damn emails.” Afterward, many Democrats and political analysts said that he had appeared to dismiss her use of a private email account and server in her four years as secretary of state.

Mr. Sanders rejected that assessment on Wednesday. If her email practices foiled public-records requests or compromised classified information, those are “valid questions,” Mr. Sanders said.

At first glance, this sounds as if Sanders was walking back his comments. I think it’s a bit more nuanced than that. Tommy Christopher spelled it out at Mediaite, but basically what the senator from Vermont said is that instead of filling up the airwaves with hollering about Clinton’s emails, we should let the lengthy review process by the relevant federal agencies play out. In the meantime, let’s talk about some of the policies and issues the candidates are running on, which will have an immeasurably greater effect on the voters’ lives.

Two observations to make about this. The first is that, as always, nuance is too complicated for our soundbite-happy culture.

The second, tangentially related to the first, is that it’s a nice sentiment, but Sanders has been in Congress since Bill Clinton was running for his first term. He knows by now that Hillary Clinton so much as forgetting to cover her mouth when she sneezes is good for a gazillion right-wing blog posts and Fox News segments, with a few congressional investigations thrown in for good measure.

That said, there was a noticeably sharper edge to the campaign’s talk over the past week. Sanders hit Clinton for shifting to the left on various issues over the years, particularly her recent conversions on the Keystone pipeline and the Trans-Pacific Partnership. And he lamented that his campaign “let her get away with” implying that his recent comments on gun control were somehow sexist.

This was all accompanied by reports that the campaign would make even more explicit the differences in the two candidates’ policy prescriptions. The AP reported that Sanders is considering giving a major economic speech, and that other policy speeches are in the works. The implication is that Sanders’ ideas haven’t made an impression outside his core supporters. So he needs to introduce himself and his worldview to constituencies that have so far been solidly in Clinton’s camp.

The possibility that the campaign was entering some sort of “attack” mode set some hands wringing in the press, where commentators kept reminding us that Sanders had promised since the beginning that he would not run a negative campaign by attacking Clinton personally. (His supporters are a different story, but that’s true of any candidate even if he does not explicitly promise to stay “above the fray.”) And it’s true that Sanders is walking a very fine tightrope here in trying to criticize someone for switching positions without calling her character into question. The “flip-flopper” charge in American politics has long been used to denote someone with slippery, fungible morals.

It was not for nothing that Hillary’s husband was tagged with the nickname “Slick Willie.”

Still, think about how ridiculous the narrative is with just under 90 days before the voting begins in Iowa. Sanders has set up expectations that he’ll run a “clean” campaign. Which means the political press is just waiting for any hint of deviation like a pack of hyenas waiting for a lion to toss aside a piece of unwanted zebra meat. So one tiny comment that can be construed as a personal attack will be set upon, leading to a round of criticism that Sanders is going negative. Then he’ll have to walk it back so it stops being a story. Then the press, having processed his apologies, will be on pins and needles waiting to see if he does it again.

There is a good case to be made that Sanders’ support has peaked. Which makes it more important than ever that he figure out how to make his message break through and appeal to people. And if he gets stomped in Iowa and New Hampshire, the perception will be that he can’t get any momentum against the Clinton machine. It will be a fatal wound to his campaign.

It’s a trap to set yourself up as the guy who is going to run a campaign on issues, devoid of personal attacks. Bernie Sanders may have walked right into it, and time is short.

By Gary Legum

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2016 Democratic Primary 2016 Elections Bernie Sanders Hillary Clinton