Bernie, Don't Go Down THAT Anti-Hillary Road

By Peter Daou and Tom Watson

As progressive activists, we are long-time Bernie Sanders fans. He is a person of integrity and principle, as is Hillary Clinton. 

Sanders famously railed against the media's obsession with Hillary's emails and he was the first to openly call the attacks against her what they are: sexism. He has run a strong, positive campaign and has brought a welcome progressive voice into the 2016 race.

A huge part of his personal brand and his appeal early in the campaign was his pledge not engage in negative attacks. His campaign tapped into a desire to get beyond personal sniping and divisiveness and it was as important as his pledge not to take Super PAC money. 

To date, Bernie and Hillary (we use their first names because their campaigns do) have conducted an amicable, mutually respectful contest with no cheap shots.

Here's the problem. Hillary's October resurgence has created the temptation for Bernie to go down a more traditional attack path. He is, after all, a political pro and his campaign includes seasoned Washington hands. One of his top strategists is Tad Devine, who Peter worked with at the Kerry campaign and who is hardly an outsider. Devine has counseled Bob Kerrey, Jon Corzine, Claire McCaskill, and Robert Menendez, among others. 

Bernie has also hired a pollster to hone his messaging, further evidence that he's not above traditional campaign tactics. According to CNN:

Bernie Sanders, who has recently blasted poll-tested politicians, has hired a pollster of his own as his campaign enters a key stretch before the early nominating contests.

Bernie and his team know that negative campaigning works and they may believe that now is the time to start going after Hillary.

It would be a terrible mistake.

It's not that Bernie shouldn't draw contrasts with Hillary (or she with him), that's what a healthy campaign is about. It's that he is suddenly coming dangerously close to the Rovian menu of rightwing anti-Hillary messaging that we've written extensively about, an array of character hits tested and perfected by conservative oppo shops and disseminated by the media and commentariat.

These focus-grouped negative frames include:

• CALCULATING (Scheming, crafty, manipulative)
• SECRETIVE (Suspicious, paranoid, uncommunicative)
• POLARIZING (Divisive, alienating)
• UNTRUSTWORTHY (Corrupt, deceitful, dishonest, unethical)
• OVER-AMBITIOUS (Will do or say anything to win)
• INAUTHENTIC (Disingenuous, fake, unlikable, insincere)
• INHUMAN (Machine-like, robotic, abnormal, cold)
• OVER-CONFIDENT (Inevitable, defiant, imperious, regal)
• OLD (Out of touch, represents the past)

If Bernie wants to draw sharp contrasts with Hillary over policy differences, we welcome it. It's his right as a candidate in a tough contest. She can do the same, as she has on the gun issue. But to start questioning Hillary's honesty, judgment and integrity will cost Bernie far more than it will hurt Hillary. 

Unfortunately, these Rove-style attacks are not infrequent among Bernie's supporters and the gender disparity is an undeniable factor. Amanda Marcotte elaborates:

While both Clinton and Sanders had plenty of young people of all genders turning out, the young people of the Sanders crowd were just as male-dominated as the Clinton crowd was female-dominated. 

These gender dynamics could have an unfortunate downside, however. Sanders went after Clinton hard in his speech Saturday night, and his supporters cheered every word while the Clinton supporters sat in silence. Sanders supporters are a diverse crowd, but as Suzy Khimm of the New Republic notes, a huge amount of his support comes from an Internet-savvy, cantankerous crowd of young men. It’s a crowd that’s already swapping conspiracy theories about a media plot against their candidate.

We are seeing an uptick in our own personal feeds, with Bernie supporters, virtually all male, echoing gender-based critiques of Hillary that are more typical of rightwing forums. It is a troubling development, to say the least.

Although we've cautioned that Hillary has a challenging path to the Democratic nomination, she is still in a strong position to prevail in the primaries and become the nominee, and we hope that all Democrats eventually join her campaign. That includes Bernie supporters.

So far, Bernie has set the kind of tone that would facilitate that transition. In a hundred stump speeches at a hundred rallies, he has said that his campaign would be fought on the issues and the issues alone.

Let's hope it stays that way.

UPDATE 1 (10/29/15): Encouraging news at the end of a Maggie Haberman story:

Mr. Sanders has tried to distance himself from comments by another aide, his top strategist, Tad Devine, about unleashing deeper attacks against Mrs. Clinton. In an interview with CNN on Wednesday, Mr. Sanders said he did not know what Mr. Devine was referring to.

This supports the view that there's an ongoing debate inside the Sanders campaign about whether to adopt traditional negative tactics against Hillary. It also suggests Bernie is inclined to adhere to his positive approach.

UPDATE 2 (10/29/15): More from the Washington Post:

Presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders said Thursday that some recent comments by his campaign manager about Hillary Rodham Clinton were “inappropriate.”

As we said at the top of this piece, Bernie Sanders is a man of principle. We're pleased to see that he's resisting the urge to go hard negative on Hillary. 


Peter Daou and Tom Watson founded #HillaryMen to provide actionable analysis of the 2016 campaign focusing on the gender barrier in U.S. politics. Peter is a former senior digital adviser to Hillary Clinton and the Clinton Global Initiative. He is a veteran of two presidential campaigns (Kerry '04 and Clinton '08). Tom is an author and Columbia University lecturer who advises companies and non-profits on social activism.