Bernie Sanders has spent his campaign pledging to keep the conversation positive and focus on the issues without relying on negative attacks to take his opponents down a peg. But his aversion to the negative could be fatal for his campaign that can’t seem to close the growing gap with frontrunner Hillary Clinton.
And to some, like Joe Trippi, who managed progressive hero Howard Dean’s 2004 presidential campaign, Sanders’s reluctance to play hardball shows a lack of grit.
“I don’t think he wants to be president,” said Trippi. “You’ve gotta be cold as ice and all that good stuff and his consultants may be his team may want to be, but he doesn’t and so he’s not going to do what it takes to run for president.”
Sanders has attempted to get around his pledge. His latest attempt to break the “no attacks” rule (or just bend it a little) occurred this past weekend when his campaign launched an online ad that called Clinton out for her large corporate donations. That ad was pulled down after The Washington Post called to inquire about its negative nature.
The kerfuffle illustrated that as the third debate approaches and the first contests grow closer, Sanders’s campaign still hasn’t seemed to figure out how to go after his main rival for the presidency.
The online ad followed some other potshots in public, including an op-ed in Talking Points Memo that said Clinton’s college financing plan “doesn’t ask enough of the rich” and puts the burden on the middle class. In his fiery speech at the Jefferson-Jackson dinner in Iowa this fall, Sanders went after Clinton’s record on trade, her 2002 vote in Iraq, and accused her of poll testing her answers.
She ignored him, answering none of the attacks and before going on the offensive and implying that Sanders might not be electable.
He tacked back during the first debate and looked too nice, letting Clinton off the hook for the scandal involving her use of private email when she was Secretary of State.
He then fumbled a question about his votes on gun control, making it pretty much a net loss. Before the second debate his campaign told The New York Times it was no more Mr. Nice Bernie and pledged to come at Clinton with contrasts that would leave a mark.
But the terrorist attacks in Paris the day before the debate blunted Bernie’s barbs, and Clinton—with her vast foreign policy experience—emerged almost unscathed save for an answer in which she implied Wall Street gave her money as a thank you for her help after 9/11.
And despite his criticisms Sanders was able to land that night, he again stumbled out of the gate after quickly changing the subject from Paris back to his boilerplate talking points. Now as the third debate kicks off on Saturday, Bernie’s campaign appears to have stalled, according to recent polls.
A Monmouth University poll released Wednesday shows Clinton holding her more than 30 percentage point lead on Sanders. Not only that, 80 percent of the Democrats surveyed said they were either enthusiastic (22 percent) or satisfied (58 percent) with Clinton as their nominee.
He remains ahead in New Hampshire by 5 percentage points, according to a Real Clear Politics average of recent polls, but in Iowa, South Carolina, and Florida he remains behind by double digits.
Dave “Mudcat” Saunders, a veteran of former Sen. John Edwards’s presidential campaign and, more recently, the short-lived Jim Webb bid, said there is no other way to take down a Clinton.
“If he doesn’t go negative he doesn’t have a chance,” Saunders said. “He’s got to go sharp negative. He’s got to get the media back covering the race. He can’t throw a rock at her, he’s got to drop a nuke on her.”
But, of course, not everyone wants Sanders to go full scorched earth against Clinton. Rep. Raul Grijalva, one of two congressional Democrats who have endorsed Sanders, said he hopes Sanders, again, uses the debate to just draw contrasts with Clinton.
“He just points to facts, where you are getting your money, this is your position then, this is your position now, that’s fair and legitimate,” said Grijalva. “What’s not fair and legitimate are the whispers, the rumors—I don’t think he should ever go there it doesn’t help his cause.”
Rep. Keith Ellison, who has also endorsed Sanders, said that contrasting their records was more than fair game.
“If it’s fair for her to do it to him, it’d be fair for him to do it to her,” Ellison said.
Ellison added that once the conversation goes back to kitchen table, economic issues—Sanders would grow in strength again.
“One reason why it may feel like he hasn’t caught fire is because we’ve been in this national security conversation,” Ellison said. “But the real things that keeps Americans up at night, day in day out, are his real specialty.”
Still, Grijalva said, given Sanders’s aversion to the negative, the Sanders campaign could do a better job getting their candidate out there.
“What’s missing is, because he doesn’t throw trash, he’s not a mudslinger and he’s not a firefly for the cameras and the microphones, he’s not getting the public attention from the media,” he said. “If there’s one thing he changes, his team needs to be more assertive that they get time.”
The Sanders campaign did not return requests for comment for this report.