There is a strange and persistent myth that Bernie Sanders didn’t run a negative campaign against Hillary Clinton in 2016. The myth persists because the mainstream media and GOP largely gave him a free pass to attack her. And they did so because his campaign was doing their dirty work, systematically assailing her public image with rightwing talking points.
Because the damage Sanders did helped elect Trump, it is important to create a record of it so Democrats don’t make the same mistake again.
As if to cement the point that Sanders helped the GOP, the most comprehensive compilation of his attacks on Clinton exists on the GOP’s website:
In late April of 2016, Donald Trump voiced his approval of Sanders: “He’s been tough on her. In fact, I’d like him to keep going because the longer he goes the more I’m going to like it.”
Trump continued, “So Bernie Sanders, not me, said she is not qualified. So now I’m going to say, ‘She’s not qualified.’ OK?”
The Sanders campaign’s hard negative pivot as voting season approached turned into a full-fledged effort to eviscerate Clinton’s character as 2016 progressed. Most disturbingly and consequentially, it continued long past the point when it was clear Clinton would be the nominee and that she would face the singularly dangerous candidacy of Donald Trump.
Sanders and his operatives executed a brutally efficient attack strategy against Clinton, impugning her integrity and accusing her of being corrupt. Senior aides fanned out across cable to hammer her Wall Street speeches, a tactic Sanders himself had previously rejected as “a character assault,” according to the New York Times.
Sanders’ belated and tepid endorsement, which I welcomed at the time, was too late to undo the damage. Millions of Sanders supporters who eventually voted for Clinton did the right thing and should be praised for their decision. But more than 20% of his voters did not back Clinton in the general election. In fact, 12% voted for Trump. (While it is true that a portion of Clinton voters didn’t back Barack Obama in 2008, there is a vast difference between an election where John McCain might become president and one where Donald Trump could get his hands on the nuclear codes.)
Here are more examples of what was done to Clinton by – and in the name of – Bernie Sanders and his campaign:
- In a press release, he accused her campaign of “money laundering” and “looting” donations.
- Jane Sanders called Hillary Clinton the ‘The Anointed One.’
- Sanders supporters threw dollar bills at Clinton’s motorcade.
- Sanders supporters chanted “Hey hey, ho ho, Hillary Clinton has got to go”
- Jeff Weaver said: “She made a deal with the devil.”
- Tad Devine said: “She cannot be trusted to appoint someone to the Supreme Court who will take the issue of campaign finance seriously.”
- Cornel West said: “How many politicians do we know have genuine integrity. You can count them on your hand, and Hillary Clinton is not one of them. She’s not one of them, brother.”
- Tad Devine said that Clinton “lacks credibility” and that she’s a candidate who “voters don’t trust and believe.”
During the election, I chronicled numerous similar character attacks by Sanders and his aides and surrogates. These were not issue disagreements, these were direct claims that Clinton lacked integrity and honesty. The cumulative effect was to give Trump and the GOP a big head start and to unleash rage among a segment of Sanders supporters, primarily white males, that continues to this day. It is a noxious combination of Clinton hatred and self-righteous purism that is deeply harmful to Democratic prospects in future elections.
On April 2, 2016, I wrote the following:
The video of Hillary saying, “I am so sick of the Sanders campaign lying about me. I’m sick of it,” is an important inflection point in the 2016 campaign. Hillary responded the way she did for a reason. That reason matters. It’s because her opponent keeps implying she’s corrupt without providing an iota of evidence to support that awful claim.
Here’s the Washington Post’s fact-checker giving Bernie “Three Pinocchios” and confirming our view: “The Sanders campaign is exaggerating the contributions that Clinton has received from the oil and gas industry. In the context of her overall campaign, the contributions are hardly significant. It’s especially misleading to count all of the funds raised by lobbyists with multiple clients as money ‘given’ by the fossil-fuel industry.”
Bernie sees the writing on the 2016 wall. So do his senior advisers. But rather than go positive and unite the party, they’ve clearly decided to spend the money they’ve raised and traverse the path of maximum negativity — the path that conservatives have tried and failed with Hillary.
More than a year later, Trump is president and Bernie Sanders is still attacking Democrats, taking the spotlight away from a new generation of Democratic leaders, while his diehards hound anyone who disagrees with him. The silver lining is that these Sanders diehards, though loud and aggressive, are a fringe element in American politics.
They claim the mantle of progressivism but set the cause back by pretending that progress is easy—if you only wish hard enough for it—and by harassing those who are working for meaningful solutions in the face of an intransigent and radical Republican Party. They even went after heroes like John Lewis and Dolores Huerta for supporting Clinton, conveniently ignoring things like Sanders’ highly questionable record on guns and his push to dump toxic waste on a poor Latino community. Not to mention his swipe at Planned Parenthood as the “establishment.”
When confronted with the reality that they helped Trump by vilifying Clinton, these Sanders diehards respond with ludicrous claims about a “rigged” primary and the baseless assertion that Sanders “would have won,” somehow ignoring the fact that he lost. They point to a debunked poll that he is the most popular politician in America, a poll that excluded Obama and Biden. They argue that Clinton should have defeated Trump, even as they did everything they could to damage her and cause his victory. And all the while, Sanders remains silent about their bullying and intimidation tactics.
In the end, despite having raised important issues in the early part of the 2016 election and bringing new voters into the political process, Bernie Sanders leaves a legacy of having boosted Donald Trump’s ascent to the presidency.