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Even Indie Bernie Feels The Undertow Of Politics As Usual

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, D-Vt., speaks at a rally in the Exeter town hall on Feb. 5, in Exeter, N.H.
Andrew Burton
Getty Images
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, D-Vt., speaks at a rally in the Exeter town hall on Feb. 5, in Exeter, N.H.

Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders has said he is a different kind of candidate running a different kind of campaign. He doesn't have a SuperPAC and he doesn't want one. One of the things his supporters say they like about him is Sanders isn't a typical politician.

Sanders is like the rare punk rocker who never sold out, never signed with a big label and doesn't see why you'd want to buy designer jeans when thrift store Levis fit just fine and are less than $10. Also, he still has a flip phone.

But as the campaign has progressed, and Sanders' political revolution has gained steam, Sanders and his campaign have begun doing and saying things that look an awful lot like a traditional campaign. (This isn't to say Hillary Clinton isn't doing some of these same things, like flying in a charter jet and spending lots of money on polling. She is. But Clinton is a professional politician and owns it.)

For Sanders, this campaign is an unfamiliar foray into the more conventional kind of big stakes politics. The fiercely independent Vermont Senator has had to identify as a 'big D' Democrat in order to be an official candidate for that party's presidential nomination. Isn't that kind of like signing with a major label?

All The Trappings Of A Professional Political Operation:

At first Sanders resisted polling. It took him a long time to start running television ads. And there were stories about how he wasn't doing the classic debate preparations – like staging practice sessions with staff impersonating the other candidates.

That has all changed. His year-end Federal Elections Commission filing shows the Sanders campaign spent about $250,000 on polling. And the New York Times reported Sanders prepared for recent debates with his senate chief of staff standing in for Hillary Clinton.

Air Bernie:

Contrary to the hashtag #bernieonaplane, Sanders has traded in his usual middle-seat commercial flights for charter planes, a necessity if he is to meet the demands of a presidential campaign schedule. On a recent flight from Des Moines to Manchester, Sanders milled about on the plane, chatting with reporters who had hitched a ride.

The year-end FEC report indicates Sanders spent nearly $185,000 on charter flights.

Sanders also has a campaign bus he was riding around Iowa, much as big name rock and country stars have done for decades. Sanders' was emblazoned with his campaign's slogan: A Future to Believe In.

Walking The Line On The Positive Campaign Pledge:

Sanders has honored his vow not to run negative campaign ads, but some of his ads have a message tantamount to a sub-tweet that get a certain message across. The ads say bad things about Wall Street's influence and Goldman Sachs paying hefty speaking fees. The ads never directly mention Clinton by name, but few could doubt he's talking about Hillary Clinton, who made more than $600,000 speaking at Goldman Sachs events.

On a number of recent occasions, Sanders has brought up the controversy over Clinton's emails by saying he won't make a big deal out of them — but Republicans will. This allows Sanders to raise the email issue and the concerns about trustworthiness that come along with it, while still maintaining the appearance that he's taking the high road.

It's not unlike the way Donald Trump initially raised the issue of Ted Cruz being born in Canada, saying it didn't bother him, personally, but that Democrats would make an issue of it later.

Sanders and his supporters point out that his criticisms of Clinton in debates and on the stump generally stick to the issues — her positions on trade, social security and the Keystone XL pipeline, for instance — and are not the kinds of personal smears that would truly constitute negative campaigning. But Clinton and her supporters see Sanders as subtly and not so subtly trying to impugn her credibility.

The Sketchy Stuff:

There has been a drip-drip of reporting about Sanders' campaign doing things that would typically be described as dirty politics. If any other campaign were accused of these tactics, it would be pilloried for "politics as usual." But given Sanders' high tone and squeaky clean image, criticism has been muted — and even the media seem unable to work up much outrage.

- The DNC Data Breach: Sanders campaign rapidly did a Jedi mind trick on this one, convincing supporters it was actually the DNC that was doing something unethical. Still, the Sanders campaign fired its top voter data staffer after Sanders staffers had accessed sensitive voter files belonging to the Clinton campaign when a technical glitch dropped an internal firewall.

- The campaign fliers: The League of Conservation Voters complained about Sanders using its logo in a mailer. "In this case, LCV Action Fund has endorsed Hillary Clinton, not Senator Sanders," said a press release from the League of Conservation Voters. "In the presidential race, only Clinton has permission to use LCV's logo. It was inappropriate and potentially misleading for the Sanders Campaign to use it in mail." The AARP also complained about Sanders using its logo. That seniors' group hasn't endorsed a candidate.

- Campaigning in Disguise: The legendary Nevada political correspondent Jon Ralston reported that Sanders campaign workers had been disguising themselves as union members to campaign in a members-only area.

- The Endorsement Ads: In both Iowa and New Hampshire, Sanders campaign ads implied Sanders had been endorsed by newspapers that had actually endorsed Clinton. Politifact determined the ad called "Endorsed" to be false. Sanders campaign has since revised the ad. Sanders was asked about it in Thursday's democratic debate and his response has been criticized for mischaracterizing the ad.

Sanders was asked about these things during Thursday's MSNBC Democratic debate. Here's the full transcript of the exchange:

MADDOW: Senator Sanders, thank you. Senator, in December, one of your campaign staffers was fired from your campaign for taking voter data essentially from the Clinton campaign. You apologized for that when the incident was made public.

Your campaign has now been criticized for its operatives essentially impersonating culinary union members wearing union pins in Nevada, and the Nashua Telegraph has complained recently that you falsely implied in an advertisement that they had endorsed you when they did not.

None of these issues obviously is the end of the world, but they all are of a piece. Are you in some sense losing control of your campaign?

SANDERS: Not losing control of our campaign. You know, we have hired a whole lot of people in a rapid way and I am familiar with the first two instances and they are unacceptable, and we have apologized and dealt with that.

In terms of the last one, as I understand it, we did not suggest that we had the endorsement of a newspaper. Newspapers who make endorsements also say positive things about other candidates, and to the best of my knowledge, that is what we did. So we never said, never said that somebody, a newspaper endorsed us that did not. What we did say is blah blah blah blah was said by the newspaper.

MADDOW: Just to follow up on that, the title of the ad in question was Endorsement.

SANDERS: But that was only for — that was not to be on television. That's an important point. That was just something — as the secretary knows, you put titles on ads and you send them out, but there was no word in that ad, none, that said that those newspapers had endorsed us.

MADDOW: Secretary Clinton, do you want 30 seconds on that issue?


There are still plenty of stories about Sanders refusing to bow to convention. But, if Bernie Sanders buys some new sweaters or starts wearing tailored suits, or runs a more overtly negative ad, will it damage his political-outsider, punk-rock image?

Surely for those feeling the Bern, such thoughts are remote. So far, at least, they are with him, regardless.

In other words, he still rocks, even if he does it on a major label.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Tamara Keith has been a White House correspondent for NPR since 2014 and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast, the top political news podcast in America. Keith has chronicled the Trump administration from day one, putting this unorthodox presidency in context for NPR listeners, from early morning tweets to executive orders and investigations. She covered the final two years of the Obama presidency, and during the 2016 presidential campaign she was assigned to cover Hillary Clinton. In 2018, Keith was elected to serve on the board of the White House Correspondents' Association.
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