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A dark turn for the Sanders campaign

Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders speaks at a campaign rally in Saint Mary's Park in New York City, March 31. Dennis Van Tine/Sipa USA/Sipa USA USA

When Bernie Sanders first announced his plans to run for president, he did so with the best of intentions — to raise the profile of issues that had long been ignored on the presidential campaign trail: wealth inequality, the role of money in the political process, and the increasingly desperate economic fate of the American middle class.

To a large degree Sanders has succeeded beyond his wildest imagination. He’s won 14 primaries and caucuses and garnered 6.5 million votes. But as it’s become increasingly clear that Sanders faces practically insurmountable hurdles to win the Democratic nomination, his campaign has taken a slightly darker and angrier turn.


The candidate who pledged last May that his campaign would not be about Bernie Sanders or Hillary Clinton, but “about the needs of the American people”; the candidate who boasted he’d never run a negative political attack in his life; the man who said he would be “driven by issues and serious debate . . . not reckless personal attacks of character assassination,” has begun to run a very different race.

Sanders is increasingly embracing the tactics he once decried. Rather than trying to unify the Democratic Party behind its almost certain nominee, Hillary Clinton, he is ramping up the attacks against her. While once Sanders refused even to mention Clinton’s name, now he doesn’t go a day without hitting her.

And the focus of his attacks is always the same — that she is too close to Wall Street, that she has flip-flopped on trade, and that she was wrong on the Iraq War. In Ohio last month, he said, “I proudly stood with the workers! Secretary Clinton stood with the big money interests!”

In recent days Sanders has hit Clinton for taking contributions from oil, gas, and coal lobbyists. He regularly criticizes her for having a super PAC and for taking money from Wall Street. And last week he even attacked her for joining with George Clooney to raise money for the Democratic National Committee. Now he’s going after her for being a flip-flopper, which he says is “why a lot of people don’t trust her.”


At a rally in the South Bronx Thursday night, Sanders offered the same critique — laying out a litany of differences between him and Clinton. These attacks led to booing of Clinton’s name, something that Sanders once spoke out against but now allows to go on without reproach.

He went after Clinton for her Wall Street speeches and implicitly made clear that she was corrupted by these contributions — and that it’s the only explanation for why she disagrees with Sanders on his policy agenda. Sanders’ warm-up speakers went even further. Actress Rosario Dawson mentioned that Clinton is under FBI investigation over her e-mails (she’s not actually under investigation) — a topic that Sanders had famously once begged off discussing.

Make no mistake, these are legitimate attacks on Clinton, but they do contradict Sanders’ pledge to avoid personal attacks and character assassination. Sanders cannot regularly suggest that Clinton is bought and sold by corporate, moneyed interests and then say he’s running a campaign on the issues. He’s openly attacking her integrity. In a recent TV interview, Sanders even went after what he called the “corporate media” for not covering the issues he cares about, because, he said, mainstream journalists are taking cues from their corporate paymasters. In Sanders’ world, everyone but him and his supporters are tainted.


There’s also the much bigger question of why he is doing this. Sanders likes to tell his supporters that he has the momentum to win the Democratic nomination. But the simple fact is that it would take a miracle for Sanders to overtake Clinton’s wide delegate lead. As campaign stat guru Nate Silver pointed out recently, even in the most optimistic scenario for Sanders, he would still likely fall short.

While I understand the need to maintain a brave face for his supporters, Sanders is doing them and the party he wants to represent no favors not just by misleading them about his chances, but by increasing their dislike of Clinton. Sanders has said on more than one occasion that he thinks Clinton “on her worst day” would be an “infinitely better candidate and president than the Republican candidate on his best day.” I have no doubt that he believes this. Perhaps he should start acting like it.

Michael A. Cohen’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.