Now that he's matching—or crushing—Hillary Clinton in the polls, Bernie Sanders has officially morphed in the minds of the political and media elite from curiosity to real-deal candidate. Headlines with variations on the phrase "It's time to take Bernie Sanders seriously" have popped up with dizzying frequency in the past few days. After ignoring or ridiculing him for so long, the media apparatus has now moved into "Bernie-is-important-whoa-who-
Are many of these attacks unfair? Of course they are. Sanders represents a decent enough threat to the establishment to cause a lot of fevered agitation. But Sanders supporters should take heart about all of this. The scrutiny is evidence of their candidate's stunning success. It means that he's doing well, and that what he says matters. They should welcome it.
Sanders is not a child nor an amateur. He's a deeply experienced, highly disciplined politician who should be held to a high standard. That's what's supposed to happen when you becoming a leading candidate for the presidency of the United States. Since the American media and political system is often doing the scrutinizing, this comes with a very large amount of idiocy, but that doesn't mean that the principle is wrong. Nobody running for president should avoid hard questioning. Unfortunately for Sanders, he's chosen to work from within the system, and, like it or not, this is the system. (That's why so many people prefer not to get involved in it—because it is extremely gross!) His response to the scrutiny, both fair and unfair, should simply be to take it in stride and face it head on.
That means that he should answer, for instance, Ta-Nehisi Coates's withering critique of his stance on reparations. Coates wonders why Sanders is willing to passionately push for single-payer healthcare, trillions of dollars of extra spending and a complete overhaul of the campaign finance system, but says he's against reparations because they'll have a tough time in Congress. That's a good question! It does nobody any good for Sanders to avoid tackling it. While he's at it, he should explain how he intends to get his actual agenda through the aforementioned Congress.
It also means that, when Sanders takes jabs at Planned Parenthood and the Human Rights Campaign, he should know it's going to be treated as a big deal. Publicly feuding with Planned Parenthood when it's been targeted by both violent and non-violent extremists is not a good look. (Pointing out that the Human Rights Campaign—which is as deeply embedded in the Washington and Wall Street elite as it's possible to be— is part of the establishment is no biggie.)
Moreover, despite professing to float above the usual nastiness of an election campaign, Sanders is actually giving as good as he's getting. He's gone after Clinton over her speaking fees from Goldman Sachs and compared her to Dick Cheney on foreign policy. Now, unlike some of Clinton's attacks on him, Sanders's jabs are rooted in fact, but that doesn't mean that he's not engaging in the normal back-and-forth of a fierce political fight.
None of this is going to get easier for Sanders, especially if he actually wins one of the early primaries. For a 74-year-old self-professed democratic socialist to give Hillary Clinton such heartburn would, whatever you think of Sanders, be a triumphant victory for sheer rebelliousness. It would also lead to the equivalent of 50 atomic bombs being dropped directly on Sanders by the Clinton campaign, and by many in the media. If he wants to have any chance of withstanding that sort of bombardment, he needs to commit himself to upping his game, because the insanity is only beginning.