Going negative against Bernard Sanders is a bad career move. Every time a political opponent has attacked Sanders, it has served only to strengthen him. We have come to accept attack ads as standard fare in presidential politics. When threatened, Hillary Clinton sharpens her knives and airs ads to eviscerate opponents, while Donald Trump hurls noisy epithets daily. They might want to choose another way to weaken Sanders, because direct, personal attacks tend to backfire.
In 1980, when Sanders ran for Burlington mayor the first time, he started out lower than a long shot, a newcomer running against an entrenched Democratic machine. How could a 39-year-old Jewish guy from Brooklyn attract voters in a small town dominated by native French Canadians and Irishmen?
“All Bernie wants to talk about is Vietnam and the Third World,” scoffed incumbent Gordon “Gordie” Paquette. As I learned in researching Why Bernie Sanders Matters, he had arrived in Burlington in the early 1970s and run statewide as a Socialist, under the radical Liberty Union party. Scruffy and unfamiliar with local government, Sanders was easy to ignore. Gordie Paquette was much more worried about Richard “Dickie” Bove, whose family owned the best pizza joint in town.
But in the bitter winter of 1981, Sanders pounded the streets, organized the low-income community and siphoned off disaffected Democrats. Paquette quit scoffing. When the police union came out for Sanders, because Paquette had refused to give cops a raise, the old guard sensed a serious threat. Sanders demanded debates. Paquette refused. The press mounted pressure to debate, and Paquette relented just before the March 3 general election.
Sanders cleaned up for the second debate at the Unitarian Church on March 1. He wore a sport jacket, white button down shirt, no tie, black-framed round glasses. Mayor Paquette -- a tall, stout fellow -- cast an imposing figure in gray suit and tie. The discussion was civil until Sanders goaded Gordie for getting cozy with developers who wanted to build condominiums on Burlington’s Lake Champlain waterfront. “I’m not with the big money men,” he yelled. “He’s trying to put me with them.”
Paquette narrowed his eyes and pointed at Sanders, seated behind him and said that if elected mayor, Sanders would change Burlington into Brooklyn.
The crowd hissed. Next morning The Burlington Free Press headline read: “Sanders Picks Up More Support.” Bernie Sanders won by ten votes.
The establishment called Sanders’s election “a fluke.” Two years later Republicans and Democrats joined forces to knock him off. For his second election Sanders ran an efficient, professional campaign and seemed poised to win reelection. The Republicans freaked. “WARNING,” their full-page advertisement in the Free Press began, followed by a list of dire consequences of a second Sanders administration, like higher utility bills and increased unemployment. “Mayor Sanders is an avowed Socialist. Socialist principles have not worked anywhere in the world. They won’t work in Burlington, either.”
Sanders won a clear majority of 52 percent in a three-way race.
In 1990 Sanders challenged incumbent Republican Peter Smith for Vermont’s lone House seat. Since 1853, Vermont had elected a Democrat only once; it was considered a safe Republican seat. But running as an Independent, Sanders was poised to topple Smith. Two weeks before the election, Smith ran a starkly negative ad. It portrayed Sanders saying he was “physically nauseated” by JFK’s “Ask not” Inaugural address, and it insinuated he supported Fidel Castro against Democrats in Congress. “Those are not Vermont values, Bernie,” the ad concluded. “Keep Vermont proud. Keep Peter Smith In Congress.”
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Vermont reporters proceeded to pick apart the ad and show it distorted Sanders’s positions. Newspaper editorials demanded Smith take down the ads. Sanders beat him by 16 percentage points.
When Sanders ran for reelection for the third time in 1996, Republicans had had enough of the semi—socialist in the House. The national GOP threw in hundreds of thousands in campaign cash to knock him off. “We’re going to pull out all the stops [to bring down] that god-awful Bernie Sanders,” said then-Rep. Bill Paxon, head of the Republican Congressional Campaign Committee. Still, Sanders stood strong in the polls. The GOP sicced a private investigator on the case. She phoned Sanders’s first wife to try and mine some mud. As I learned reporting the biography, his ex-wife put off the P.I. and phoned Sanders, who called the press, who called out Republicans for violating Vermont standards. Sanders prevailed.
When Sanders declared for the U.S. Senate in 2005 to replace retiring Jim Jeffords, the Republicans fielded Richard Tarrant. Tall and white-haired, Tarrant was a candidate out of central casting. He was a self-made millionaire. He funded his own campaign to the tune of $7 million. When polls showed Sanders with a commanding lead, Tarrant turned nasty. “If Bernie Sanders is elected,” Tarrant told one interviewer, not a single business will move to Vermont. Period. I know this firsthand.”
Vermonters knew firsthand that was bunk, and they elected Sanders with a landslide victory of 70 – 30.
In all of his campaigns, Sanders has vowed to never go negative, and he has followed that in the current presidential campaign. He even went so far as to pull an ad from the internet attacking Hillary Clinton for being funded by Wall Street fat cats. “You are looking at someone who has never run a negative TV ad in his life and never will,” Sanders said.
In effect, that raises the bar for his opponents, and it also allows him to control the high ground if they go negative.
The Clinton campaign has resorted to attack ads, when necessary. Early in the 2016 campaign it dispatched Missouri Senator Claire McCaskill to endorse her very publicly while attacking Sanders as “extreme.”
Since then peace has reigned between the competing Democratic hopefuls. But that could change once the voting begins in February, especially if Senator Sanders wins a few primaries, and the Clintonites see him as a serious threat. Backed into a corner, they might have the tendency to attack. Donald Trump can’t help himself.
That's would be a mistake.