Bernie long ago promised not to run a negative campaign, but every last shred of that pretense went up in smoke when he called Hillary unqualified for the presidency. His escalating attacks and those of his aides and surrogates are finally attracting attention, but the negativity is nothing new. By his own standards, Bernie has insidiously set the toxic tone for months.
Throughout this election cycle, a segment of Bernie’s fans have been engaging in bullying behavior and making abusive attacks on Hillary and her supporters. In February, after the growing outcry against these intimidation tactics became a liability, Bernie was finally obliged to address them, saying: “We don’t want that crap” and “Anybody who is supporting me that is doing the sexist things—we don’t want them.”
That is the one and only time Bernie has publicly commented on the relentless nastiness, even as it has continued to escalate. And, abetted by the media, he has managed to somehow maintain the pretense that he is above this toxicity, that he is outside of it.
Certainly, Bernie has never explicitly directed his supporters to harass people who criticize him and/or support Hillary. But this venom didn’t emerge from a vacuum.
And when he stood at a podium in front of thousands of people at a campaign event in Philadelphia and declared, unjustifiably, that Hillary is unqualified to be president, every last shred of the pretense that these attacks are not reflective of a top-down strategy was demolished.
Bernie had thus far been content to rely on innuendo and dog whistles to attack Hillary and to leave the harsher attacks to his aides and surrogates. Down the chain, the vicious personal insults and lies have been the province of his most unscrupulous supporters, some of whom live and breathe online with the sole purpose, it seems, of bashing Hillary and intimidating her supporters.
Now, Bernie’s claims to personal innocence have collapsed. He made a demonstrably false claim that Hillary called him unqualified, and used it to excuse his reckless assertion that one of the most qualified presidential candidate in the nation’s history, and the first woman with a legitimate shot at the presidency, is unqualified.
Far from backing down, Bernie’s campaign manager Jeff Weaver defended this naked character attack, saying Bernie’s campaign had not gone too far, because Hillary “is funded by millions and millions of dollars from Wall Street and other special interests. She’s made a deal with the devil.”
Josh Marshall, always a measured writer, says:
I’ve increasingly had the sense that Weaver is a, maybe the key source of toxicity and cynicism in the Sanders camp, and I suspect doesn’t care terribly about the November election if Sanders isn’t the standard bearer.
Bernie’s campaign is steeped in a culture of attack, embodied in his campaign manager. And now the candidate has made it clear that it comes straight from the top. He can no longer distance himself.
Of course, that there was ever any distance was always a fallacy. Just yesterday, before the rally, he was asked about a criticism of one of his positions and responded in the same way that has been a hallmark of his most bullying supporters: Deflect even the most minor criticism by going on the attack against Hillary. Addressing Sandy Hook families, he launched into this tirade:
I would say that I think we all are aware of what happened, and Sandy Hook is a tragedy beyond comprehension. But maybe Secretary Clinton might want to apologize to the families who lost their loved ones in Iraq or Secretary Clinton might want to apologize to the millions of workers in this country who lost their jobs because of the disastrous trade agreements that she supported.
For months, Bernie has been hammering away at Hillary’s speeches to Goldman Sachs—insistently and derisively referencing her speaking fees and complaining that she hasn’t released the speech transcripts—even though he himself once identified that as a personal attack:
“Mr. Sanders’s advisers urged him to challenge Mrs. Clinton over accepting $675,000 from Goldman Sachs for delivering three speeches, according to two Sanders advisers. Mr. Sanders, hunched over a U-shaped conference table, rejected it as a personal attack on Mrs. Clinton’s income—the sort of character assault he has long opposed. She has the right to make money, he offered.”
That’s as close to a self-indictment as you’ll ever get in politics: Identifying something as a personal attack that you’ve long opposed and then launching a sustained version of that very same attack.
Bernie has been unreservedly impugning Hillary’s character, setting the tone that trickles down through his entire campaign.
His staff demeans her, with chief strategist Tad Devine saying that Hillary “cannot be trusted” to make Supreme Court appointments, and Weaver so generously opining: “Look, she’d make a great vice president. We’re willing to give her more credit than Obama did. We’re willing to consider her for vice president. We’ll give her serious consideration. We’ll even interview her.”
About the latter, Bernie could only muster: “I think that every campaign has statements come out which are inappropriate. That was inappropriate.”
His surrogates have demeaned her, with Cornel West saying that Hillary lacks “genuine integrity,” and Tessa Thomson piling on: “There is no question in my mind [Bernie Sanders] is the feminist in this race.” Thus revoking the feminist card of the woman who decades ago famously said: “If there is one message that echoes forth from this conference, let it be that human rights are women’s rights and women’s rights are human rights, once and for all.”
(On his surrogates’ attacks on Hillary, all Bernie can offer is: “We have many, many surrogates who say many, many things. Many of these surrogates do not agree with everything I say. And I do not agree with every approach and everything that they say. And that’s the simple reality.”)
His supporters—not all of them, but an awful lot of them—harass Hillary supporters, spread disinformation about her, make ugly (and patently false) allegations. They troll blogs and derail threads and hijack hashtags, inserting themselves over and over even when they’re asked to stop. Last night, a #HillarySoQualified hashtag was almost immediately hijacked by Bernie supporters, using it as a vehicle to harass her supporters.
And it is no wonder that they engage in this noxious behavior. This is the message they get from the leader of the movement and his lieutenants: Attacking Hillary is the winning strategy.
But it isn’t. The escalating attacks on Hillary are only steeling the resolve of her supporters. (And further, alienating people who formerly supported Bernie.)
It’s a winning strategy only insomuch as it will help Hillary win. Just ask Rick Lazio.
Hillary has survived every attack thrown at her for decades. In fact, she has not just survived, but thrived, becoming one of the nation’s most prominent statespeople.
Personal attacks haven’t worked before and they won’t work this time. They will deliver her right to the Oval Office.
And Bernie will be left regretting his broken promise to run a positive campaign.
[Peter Daou contributed to this article.]
(AP Photo/David Becker)