We’ve heard the constant refrain in the media: Sen. Bernie Sanders is not a serious candidate; he’s running to bring attention to the issues on his political agenda rather than to actually win the nomination—and if he isn’t, then he should be. But even if that narrative were entirely true, it does a disservice to voters by undermining the seriousness of the choice they have whenever they are faced with a ballot.
One of the main “unserious” things that Sanders did throughout his campaigning in 2015 was his refusal to engage in character assault against his opponent, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. In the October Democratic debate, his rousing call to “forget about [her] damn emails” drew sharp contrast between the civility of the Democratic race and the raucous mess that was—and is—the Republican race. The incident also confirmed for many what a decent man Sanders is and drew another contrast: his determined transparency and dedication to talking only about the issues with Clinton’s dodging questions on her own record while attacking him over his voting record on guns.
By January, it had become clear that Sanders' movement was here to stay and this dynamic changed when the ruling came down that Goldman Sachs would escape severe penalties for its role in the financial crisis. In their January debate, Sanders smashed Clinton for accepting $675,000 in exchange for giving three speeches to Goldman Sachs executives.
Sanders’ rallies—which were once light-hearted happenings of prosaic policy discussions—became filled with brutal sarcasm: “I figure if she gets $250,000 for a speech, it must be a brilliant, earth-shattering speech. It must be a speech written in Shakespearean prose.”
It is in this environment that Sanders drew criticism for using the word “unqualified” when discussing Clinton. The word set the media on fire for days; a response clearly unwarranted for Sanders’ simple point that the job requirements for president are unconventional and that good judgment is a qualification for high office. But it was the moment the Clinton campaign had been waiting for: Sanders was no longer the morally unimpeachable good boy of the campaign, he had become something else—he had become a politician.
The truth is that Sanders was elected mayor of Burlington, Vermont in 1981 and has been a politician for almost as long as he was an activist. But he is a qualitatively different kind of politician. In stooping to targeting his opponent, Sanders is trying to do right by the millions of people who have voted for him and donated to his campaign by doing everything he can to win. The same can be said of Clinton, but the difference lies in their approaches.
The Clinton campaign’s express purpose is to, in Clinton’s words, “disqualify, defeat, and worry about uniting the party later”—a strategy they have implemented with characteristic calculation and subtlety. While they spent months making damaging insinuations, Sanders was stumping about the issues he has been championing his entire career: affordable healthcare, family leave, climate change and income inequality among others. The results: heading into the New York Primary, Sanders has won 1,087 delegates and Clinton has won 1,307.
When voters are evaluating these candidates’ comments—and when Democrats are making decisions in the voting booth on Tuesday April 19—they should remember how remarkable Sanders’ record against Clinton is in the grand scheme of things. He has not remained the docile angel opponent of 2015, but the strength of character those first seven months displayed remains beneath his furious attempts to seize the chance to make a difference.
The fact that character assault was ever off the table in his campaign shows how wonderfully and painfully averse he is to the methods and machinations of establishment politics. It was never the wrong thing to do.