Bernie Sanders has been essentially running for president non-stop since April 2015, and he’s been constantly in the public eye ever since. In the last go-round he went up against Hillary Clinton who had on her side people like David Brock, a veteran political operative who has at his disposal one of the largest and most sophisticated oppo-gathering apparatuses ever built. Since then, he’s been a bogeyman for rightwing media—Fox News, Daily Wire, the Washington Examiner—and scrutinized heavily by center-left outlets, such as the New York Times, Politico, the Daily Beast.
News outlets have watched every single episode of his Burlington cable access show while an army of freelance opposition researchers aligned with his primary opponents have spent the last few years monomaniacally combing through old clips of interviews and speeches hoping to find something that will tank his campaign.
In spring last year, Democratic powerbrokers and mega donors (and Pete Buttigieg, apparently) held a closed-door meeting to brainstorm about how to best deal with Sanders’ campaign, which no doubt involved mobilizing resources to gather and deploy political intelligence against him.
To say that Bernie Sanders has “never been vetted” is laughable. For half a decade, Sanders’ opponents on the left and the right have done nothing but vet him.
The argument in 2016: With a long political record that is largely unknown to the public, Sanders is vulnerable. The more people get to know him, the less popular he will be.
This hypothesis has been tested and proven unequivocally false. During his first presidential campaign, close to 40 percent of Americans had no idea who he was. Now, he’s the most well-known and best-liked Democratic primary contender.
Not only is this talking point being recycled—they’re bringing up the exact same weak opposition research that was billed in 2016 as the weapon the Republicans supposedly would use to crush Sanders in the general.
Third Way, a centrist think tank that has been fiercely critical of Sanders, did a dump of stale oppo in the week before the Iowa Caucus.
They warned voters:
[B]ecause of media negligence and the strategic calculation of his rivals, you have not seen much real exploration of the politically toxic background and ideas of the current polling leader in Iowa … [W]e urge to consider at least a few of the many things in Bernie Sanders’ long record in public life that make him the Trump team’s “ideal Democratic opponent.”
The various pharmaceutical, chemical and fossil fuels companies that bankroll Third Way should ask for their money back. Apparently millions of dollars only buys you a blog post, most of which was cribbed directly from a 2016 Slate article titled “Bernie Sanders’ radical past: In a general election, the attack ads would write themselves.”
Third Way argues that the right would highlight that Sanders has backed “anti-American radicals” in the past, citing his support for Socialist Workers Party candidate Andrew Pulley forty years ago.
Here’s the thing: This story has been reported over and over again by a variety of outlets, starting with the Washington Post in 2015.
It was repeated in multiple publications and spread by rightwing hacks like Dinesh D’souza all last year. It was trotted out again by the Wall Street Journal just days ago. It was used to smear Sanders in his mayoral run at the peak of Reaganite Cold War red-baiting.
No one cared then. No one cared five years ago. And no one cares now.
This McCarthyite guilt by association is already pretty shaky to begin with but it’s even weaker given that most of the allegations took place half a century ago in an era of radicalism, and a near universal constant is that people tend to get more moderate with age. One could make a true but just as misleading claim that a “former Marxist-Leninist radical praised Trump.” Or that George W. Bush staffed his foreign policy agencies with ex-Trotskyists.
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Another interesting item in Third Way’s report is the claim that the Trump campaign will accuse Sanders of wanting to abolish the military. Here they cite his membership in the 1970s in the Liberty Union Party, whose platform called for getting rid of our bloated armed forces in favor of a “system of local citizen militias and Coast Guard [that] would provide our nation with ample protection and also protect us from the imperialist impulses of our leaders.”
It’s amusing that they think this will expose Sanders to being attacked as a radical kook, when just about every one of the framers of the constitution agreed with this position. Any historian (or a former Reagan advisor) would tell you that the Founding Fathers considered a standing army anathema.
Third Way writes: “They will say he’s written truly offensive and crazy things.” The examples he gives are 50-year-old writings that were also dredged up in 2016 and they went off like a soaking wet bottle rocket back then.
The group cites an article he wrote in 1969 in which Sanders discusses an empirically suspect article in an academic journal that asserts psychology can influence risk of cervical cancer. They assume that the Trump campaign is going to run some ad to the effect of “Crazy Bernie believes bad thoughts give you cancer!” Trump literally thinks humans have a finite amount of energy and that exercise is bad for you because it will use it up.
Jonathan Cowan, president of Third Way, writes:
It doesn’t take professional opposition researchers to find things in Sanders’ past that would arm the Trump team with the political equivalent of nuclear weapons. All you have to do is #GoogleBernie.
This statement really belies the claim that “Sanders has never been vetted.” Researchers have so thoroughly scoured the archives that the average person can turn up an embarrassing article from an obscure 1969 edition of an alt-weekly with just a few keystrokes.
A person can’t really get more vetted than that.
Cowan writes that “Trump will lie about any Democratic nominee, but with Bernie, much of what he’d say would be easily backed up.” An out-of-context anecdote that’s misrepresented and sensationalized is functionally no different from a lie.
And there’s no indication that these “backed up” attacks will be any more or less harmful than any other. In fact, most can be neutralized by simply adding context—as has been the case with most of these last-minute oppo dumps.
A recent example is the attempt to manufacture a story about Sanders supposedly writing an article favorable to notorious segregationist George Wallace. The headline in the story by the Washington Examiner read “Bernie Sanders praised segregationist George Wallace as ‘sensitive’ in 1972.”
Though the story went viral and Sanders took fire from all sides, it was effectively quashed in less than an hour once people took a look at the the full text of the article, which compared Wallace to Hitler.
The whole incident actually turned out worse for Joe Biden because it provided an opportunity for Sanders supporters to remind everyone that Wallace praised Biden and gave him an award once—which fed into an existing narrative about the former vice president’s troubling record on segregation.
The idea that some digging up some dusty old skeletons out of Sanders’ closet will sink his campaign reveals a huge blindspot on the part of the commentariat. They’re projecting their own notions about what makes a candidate unelectable onto Joe Sixpack or merely assuming the credulous plebs can’t tell shit from Shinola.
A lot of facile assumptions are made based on what happened in the past without any acknowledgement of how much has changed. In making the case for the power of oppo, the 2016 Slate piece points to John Kerry’s disastrous 2004 campaign.
However, there are a number of reasons why it’s unlikely that the Republicans can swift-boat Bernie Sanders. For starters, the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth disseminated their story mostly through cable and network television ads, which are increasingly ineffective in an era of diversified information sources. Sanders has a solid comms team with dominance across social and alternative media, which puts him a better position to counter attacks.
The hyper-acceleration of the news cycle also pushes stories out of the spotlight much faster, so it’s harder for them to stick in our short collective attention span. In the 2000s, it was possible for a campaign to implode over a single gaffe, like the Dean Scream, but that stuff doesn’t rate anymore.
There were dozens of moments in Trump’s campaign that would have killed another candidate’s chances in past elections, such as the “Grab them by the pussy” incident. Some chalk it up to an invulnerability peculiar to Trump— “Teflon Don”—but a large part of it can be attributed to the new normal in campaigns.
Narrative matters more than any given piece of negative press. The case for Hillary Clinton’s electability in 2016 in part rested on the idea that she had withstood decades of Republican attacks already. She was fully “vetted.” But ironically, that proved to be a liability because a narrative that she was corrupt had been established, which left her vulnerable to further attacks later in her campaign—namely the email controversy.
Sanders has no such problem. He’s gotten out in front of any potential attacks by establishing his own narrative. It’s harder for Trump to red-bait him if he’s been owning the label socialist for decades.
Lastly, there are a lot of unwarranted assumptions based on who is the supposed audience is for these attack ads. The logic is: These are all “moderate Republicans,” and we have to tread lightly to avoid offending their sensibilities.
But the Slate article quotes a political science professor discussing the 10 million or so swing voters, who he characterizes as “less tuned in to the campaign” and “kind of out of it.” These are low-information voters who are likely to vote based on a general impression of the candidate. Bad press about some arcane controversy that happened 50 years ago isn’t really going to sway this group.
In all likelihood they won’t read these oppo dumps that wonks obsess over. They’ll see a candidate in passing on TV and make a gut decision based on the cut of their jib. Interestingly, the New York Times piece Third Way cites that describes Sanders as Republican strategists’ “ideal opponent” notes that their own research shows voters consider him to be the most “authentic,” which is a quality that undergirded Trump’s appeal in 2016.
The other, much larger group of eligible voters that could actually win the election—traditionally non-voting younger people—are mostly in the bag for Sanders already and he’s the reason why a lot of them will be going to the polls at all.
So let’s just call this talk of Sanders being “unvetted” what it is: Another disingenuous tactic designed to scare voters away from him and into the camp of a “safe” candidate hand-picked by the milquetoast center.