Spoke Too Soon

Why Did Bernie Sanders Help The New York Times Bury Him?

Politics-watchers are mystified that Sanders’s staff cooperated in a front-page postmortem on his election campaign—when he’s still fighting to win.

Photo Illustration by THe Daily Beast

Bernie Sanders is drawing bigger and more enthusiastic crowds than Hillary Clinton, and outraising the Democratic frontrunner by millions of dollars.

Now he is poised to beat her in Tuesday’s Wisconsin primary while giving the former secretary of state and New York senator a run for her money in what for Clinton is must-win contest in her adopted home state.

The two sides are currently dickering over the details of a televised debate in advance of the April 19 New York primary election.

So why would the Democratic Socialist Vermont senator, his wife Jane, and key strategists of his presidential juggernaut have cooperated with a front-page New York Times post-mortem that suggests the race for the Democratic nomination is all but over?

“This one was bewildering,” former Obama strategist David Axelrod told The Daily Beast as the media-political complex greeted the Times piece—especially the Sanders campaign’s willing participation in it—with widespread astonishment.

By most accounts, the story reflected a conspicuous lapse of political tradecraft for an inspiring campaign that, until now, has wildly exceeded expectations.

“It was the sort of piece you do after the candidate drops out of the race,” Axelrod continued. “It isn’t the sort of piece you do the day before the candidate is about to win the Wisconsin primary, especially when it contains the sort of recriminations about Bernie himself—‘If you just let us do what we wanted to do, we might have won this thing.’ That was surprising.”

“It’s a post-mortem before they’re dead,” marveled veteran Democatic strategist Joe Trippi, who ran the presidential campaign of another anti-establishment Vermonter, Howard Dean, until it ended with a scream in the 2004 Iowa caucuses. “None of it makes sense to me.”

Trippi said: “One of the things about post-mortems is that they’re always about blame. It’s about ‘He didn’t listen to me, and he didn’t campaign hard enough.’…It’s always about, ‘I didn’t do it.’ ”

Trippi added: “I think the strategy should have been to fight the New York Times tooth and nail to not go with their obit prior to Wisconsin” instead of “giving them the candidate, the wife, and every consultant and strategist commenting on what went wrong.”

Top Sanders strategist Tad Devine, in interviews on cable television and with The Daily Beast, spent much of his day defending the campaign’s cooperation with the Times story, which ran above-the-fold in the right-hand column, under the headline, “Early Missteps Seen as a Drag on Sanders Bid.”

The report, co-bylined by Patrick Healy and Yamiche Alcindor, was rife with second-guessing about missed opportunities and roads not taken in a series of on-the-record interviews with Sanders’s aides and spouse.

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Quotes from Sanders’ loyalists and others in the story mused that the 74-year-old candidate might have been better positioned, won more primaries and amassed more delegates if only the senator had not resisted their advice to take time away from his Senate duties and hit the campaign trail more aggressively, court the African American vote in the South, buy more television ads, and go negative on Clinton much earlier than he did.

As of now, Clinton has 1,712 delegates, including 469 super-delegates—party officials and office-holders who are free to choose their candidate, irrespective of election results—on her way to the required 2,383 majority to win the nomination.

Sanders is far behind with 1,011 delegates, including only 31 super-delegates.

Trippi predicted that while the support of Sanders’s most ardent admirers won’t be affected, the Times story will harm the senator’s efforts to sway the super-delegates currently backing Clinton to change their minds.

“I think there’s a sense of frustration setting in,” Clinton spokesman Brian Fallon declared Monday afternoon on MSNBC, “because they realize the delegate math is so daunting.”

Devine, for his part, told The Daily Beast that he first heard rumors that the Times was planning an “obituary” for the Sanders campaign a few weeks after his candidate decisively lost the Feb. 27 South Carolina primary to Clinton by more than 24 percentage points.

“I first talked to Pat Healy two and a half to three weeks ago,” Devine said, “and the gist of it was ‘you guys lost and you lost because you really screwed up.’ Well, we haven’t lost. We’re still fighting. We don’t regret what we did.”

Devine added: “The New York Times was going to write this story. I don’t think it was Pat’s story, but the editors of the New York Times were going to write this story.”

The Times declined to comment.

Devine argued that as a result of the campaign’s constructive engagement, “it started off in a much worse place than it ended up,” and at least left open a slim possibility that the Sanders campaign could recover from its mistakes.

“So, Tad,” Andrea Mitchell asked during Devine’s appearance on her MSNBC program, “is the view that you blew it? Not you personally but the campaign? That you blew the big chance to take this nomination away from her?”

The Times story noted: “Despite the urging of some advisers, Mr. Sanders refused last fall and early winter to criticize Mrs. Clinton over her $675,000 in speaking fees from Goldman Sachs, an issue that he now targets almost daily.

“He also gave her a pass on her use of private email as secretary of state, even though some allies wanted him to exploit it. And he insisted on devoting time to his job as a senator from Vermont last year rather than matching Mrs. Clinton’s all-out effort to capture the nomination. Some advisers now say that if he had campaigned more in Iowa, he might have avoided his critical loss there.”

Jane Sanders, the senator’s wife and close adviser, suggested to the newspaper of record that if her husband had started campaigning full-time earlier last year, victory might be at hand.

“We didn’t run all over the nation last year,” she said. “We spent every week in the Senate; and every weekend, three or four days a week, he would be running around the country…It’s something that gives you pause.”

Trippi’s and Axelrod’s reactions to the story were echoed by operatives and journalists on Twitter, where participation in the Times’s arguably premature obituary was deemed a mistake.

“If Sanders campaign is doing post-mortems,” tweeted Democratic consultant media Greg Pinelo, “why are they still raising money and attacking Hillary?”

Another consultant, Clinton supporter Tom Watson, tweeted: “So weird to see the Team Sanders ‘who’s to blame’ infighting right at this stage. If you’re a donor…”

Washington Post political reporter Abby D. Phillip, meanwhile, characterized the Times story as one “in which the Sanders campaign undermines itself ahead of a supposedly ‘pivotal’ NY battle w/ Clinton.”

Perhaps the only bright spot for the Sanders campaign was former Nebraska senator Bob Kerrey’s comments to the Times.

Kerrey, who has endorsed Clinton despite a history of antagonism with her husband, told the paper: “Making the transcripts of the Goldman speeches public would have been devastating” to Clinton. “When the G.O.P. gets done telling the Clinton Global Initiative fund-raising and expense story, Bernie supporters will wonder why he didn’t do the same.”

Kerrey added that Sanders could also have attacked Clinton over using a private email server as secretary of state: “The email story is not about emails…It is about wanting to avoid the reach of citizens using FOIA”—the Freedom of Information Act—“to find out what their government is doing, and then not telling the truth about why she did.”

As Axelrod tweeted: “Why is Bob Kerrey, IDed as a @HillaryClinton backer, dumping all over her in this piece? With friends like this…”