Bernie Sanders’ Top Campaign Aides Discuss How “Bernie is in it to win it”

Sanders Jefferson Jackson

John Heilemann wrote about interviews with Berny Sanders’ top campaign aides on the next phase of the campaign. The campaign started out strong, exceeding expectations, but Hillary Clinton has had a good month in October. It is no longer enough to bring in large crowds at campaign events. Sanders must, like Barack Obama eight years ago, show Democrats why they should vote for Bernie Sanders and not Hillary Clinton.

In a series of interviews last weekend in Iowa and since, Sanders’s lieutenants provided me with a wide-ranging and at times detailed account of their strategy for the three-month sprint to the first two must-win contests. That strategy is premised on the notion that their campaign has shifted into a new gear, moving from what Weaver calls “the introductory phase” into “the persuasion phase.” This new phase will be more aggressive, hard-edged, and focused on driving home contrasts between Sanders and Clinton. In other words, it will be more negative. Just how nasty things will get remains one of two central questions that will define the battle ahead. The other is whether Sanders, with his deep aversion to negative campaigning, is willing and able to do what is required to take down Clinton without tarnishing his brand as a different kind of politician.

It’s worth recalling that a similar set of questions confronted Barack Obama eight years ago. In using the J-J as a pivot point, Sanders was mimicking Obama, who famously did the same thing in November 2007 with a speech that eviscerated the then-front-runner (“Triangulating and poll-driven positions because we’re worried about what Mitt or Rudy might say about us just won’t do”) without ever uttering the word “Clinton.”

Conflict between Sanders and Clinton escalated when Clinton resorted to her usual brand of dishonest politics, both distorting Sanders’ record on gun control and falsely accusing him of making a sexist attack. Sanders responded by contrasting his positions on the issues with those of Clinton. Sanders finally realized the mistake he made in the first debate, failing to confront Clinton when she was wrong on the issues, and allowing her to get away with smooth sounding but fallacious statements.

“We had to fire a shot across their bow, because they were going to start to have their way with us,” Devine told me. “I pushed [Sanders] hard to do what he did to let them know, if they’re going to do this stuff that two of the 12,000 votes he cast in Congress about guns are the definitive votes of the election—and oh, by the way, she is yelling because she’s a woman. If they are going to start going down that road, we are not going to take it. And it is going to be about a lot of issues where she’s gone from one place to another. We did five of them [at the J-J] and we could do 15 more.”

In the days since the J-J, Sanders has gingerly, awkwardly, but distinctly tiptoed further into the realm of explicit contrast. In a CNN interview the next morning, Sanders called out Clinton by name in the context of financial regulation. On Charlie Rose on Monday, he did so again. (“Who is going to take on the corporate interests and Wall Street and try to create a government that works for all the people in this country rather than a small number of billionaires? That’s the issue. And if people think Hillary Clinton is that candidate, go for it.”) And then on The Rachel Maddow Show, he again criticized her over her revisionist history regarding the Defense of Marriage Act.

I discussed Clinton’s dishonesty regarding her support for the Defense of Marriage Act earlier in the week and The Washington Post Fact Checker gave her Four Pinocchios for her false claims.

Devine and Weaver both claim they would rather not see Sanders take on Clinton more harshly than this. “If we can make it about his message and his record versus her message and her record, we can beat her,” Devine says. “We’d much rather win that way, because if we beat her and she collapses and we’re standing there, the whole institutional establishment party could rise up against us. That is a real possibility. Bernie’s OK inside the Senate and the Congress. But once we extend beyond that to people who don’t know who he is, it’s very scary. We’ve got the whole socialist thing and all this other stuff hanging around. So we’ll have to deal with a rear-guard action against him that will almost be like being in a second primary. So it’s much better for us if we win by not attacking her frontally—and we can argue that in fact we’re the ones that can benefit the party in terms of turn-out of the electorate.”

But Devine and Weaver are well aware that they may—indeed, given the Clintonian precedents, are likely to—have no choice but go full frontal. “On policy, we’re driving the agenda, and we’re happy to be in that position,” Weaver says. “But I think they will to a large extent drive the tone. She’s the quote-unquote front-runner, and really started going after Bernie of late. They obviously are not as confident about this race as apparently the punditry is.”

Devine agrees. “How hard we fight back and how far we push it is very much dependent on them,” he says.

“So if they go hard negative,” I ask, “you guys will…?”

“Let them get run over by a Mack truck,” he says.

Having worked for Mike Dukakis, Al Gore, and John Kerry, Devine is as seasoned a strategist at the presidential level any that exists in the Democratic Party. As such, he is an avid consumer of opposition research. Though he insists that Sanders will never go after Clinton on personal issues, her private e-mail system, or other direct questions of character—“It’s just not Bernie,” he says—he is already familiar with the array of issues that Sanders might soon deploy against her.

At the top of that list her support of the USA Patriot Act, which Sanders has repeatedly opposed. The Sanders camp has also been combing the record of Clinton’s statements in support of the now-notorious 1994 crime bill. Her remarks back then about the evils of urban gangs filled with “super-predators” with “no conscience, no empathy” are unlikely to endear her to the Black Lives Matter movement and other foes of mass incarceration because of its racially disparate impact.

They also realize that Sanders must engage in more conventional debate preparation, which he refused to do prior to the first debate:

Devine is rather less sanguine about Sanders’s preparation and performance. “We did 15 hours of prep total—that was our debate prep,” he says. “We needed 150.”

But Devine argues that Clinton’s performance in the first debate was overrated—and suggested that Sanders, if he prepares thoroughly, could be well-positioned to thrive in the next one. “Voters give you so much latitude to counterpunch it’s unbelievable,” he says. “All she has to do is open the door to him. And she opened so many doors that last debate that he didn’t walk though. If she’s going to sit there and say, ‘I went to Wall Street and told them to cut it out,’ I mean, come on! She had a great debate, but against a great debater she would have been killed.”

For Sanders, the debate in Des Moines and the subsequent two—in New Hampshire in December and South Carolina in January—are destined to be huge moments. But equally if not more important will be the air war. For many months, Clinton has been spending millions of dollars on TV advertising in Iowa and New Hampshire. Sanders has yet to run a single spot.

Sanders plans to start advertising. He is also hiring a pollster, although unlike Clinton, polls will not be used to determine which positions Sanders will take at any given moment. They note that Sanders is in a comparable situation to Obama eight years ago. As I have pointed out several times, this news report from December 2007 described how Clinton had a huge lead over Obama. In December 2003, Howard Dean was pulling away in the polls. Eventual winner John Kerry was in sixth place with only 4 percent, even trailing Al Sharpton. Iowa and New Hampshire  voters do not decide until the last minute, and the race will be decided by the voters, not the pundits.

To those who say that even if Sanders wins both the Hawkeye and Granite States, Clinton’s strength with African-American and Hispanic voters will provide her with an impregnable firewall as the nomination contest moves to larger states, Devine offers an elaborate scoff:

“I don’t think they fully appreciate the magnitude of how voters are impacted by what happens in those early states. The negative narrative that will come around her. The positive narrative that will accompany him. The big qualitative difference beyond that that we enjoy that, for example, Gary Hart did not, is the fund-raising system we’ve put in place. If we have early success in Iowa and New Hampshire, a few days after we could bring in $40 or $50 million cash, new money, out of this thing that we built. And then they’re all tapped out. They’re trying to squeeze for dough. Because the thing will have been close in Iowa and New Hampshire. They’ve already placed a purchase of $14 million in television buys in just Iowa and New Hampshire, and I think they’ll be at $20 or $25 million by then because they’ll feel so much pressure to win, they’ll just be dumping millions into this thing. We’ll come out of that with a huge flush of cash like Obama did and then we will start to move systematically in the states that follow with massive media buys. And unless the Clintons are willing to give up $20 or $30 million of their own money, they’re just not going to be able to compete with us in cash. The dynamic of that campaign is something I don’t think they fully appreciate.

“You know, Bernie because of his life story has the potential to appeal to African-Americans. I know he hasn’t been there, he hasn’t really done it, but the truth is we come in with 10,000 points on TV about his life and his story and his programs. You know, living wage, health insurance for all, free college from kids, testimonials from African-Americans, interesting African-American leaders who have been for him. We start to reassure people about his connection to them. And we don’t have to win 50 percent of the African-American vote in South Carolina to win. Probably only need to win 30 percent. So we start to put that thing together, I think we can move this very quickly towards him and the dynamic of the campaign is going to overwhelm any pre-existing advantage…and then proportional representation kicks in, which is a great advantage to anybody who gets ahead. Ask Obama, ask Jimmy Carter in 1980, the same thing happened there—you get ahead, you can’t lose.”

It might be a challenge for his campaign staffers  to get Bernie Sanders to engage in traditional debate preparation and be more critical of his opponent, but the  article ended by pointing out that, “for all his idiosyncrasies, eccentricities, and stark differences with Clinton, shares one thing with the front-runner. In the words of Weaver, ‘Bernie is in it to win it.'”