Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersPressure grows for breakthrough in Biden agenda talks Sanders, Manchin escalate fight over .5T spending bill Sanders blames media for Americans not knowing details of Biden spending plan MORE (I-Vt.) will “never” run attack ads against Democratic front-runner Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonTrump criticizes Justice for restoring McCabe's benefits Biden sends 'best wishes' to Clinton following hospitalization The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Altria - Jan. 6 panel flexes its muscle MORE, a top adviser to the liberal firebrand told The Hill.
The pledge from Sanders's Senior Adviser Tad Devine comes as many Democrats believe Clinton is vulnerable because of the controversy over her use of a private email server while secretary of State. Sanders has been gaining ground on Clinton, particularly in New Hampshire, but continues to lag by around 20 points in most national polls.
Devine suggested that any attempt by Sanders to torch Clinton would only incinerate the senator’s own chances. And he added that Sanders himself was all in on the strategy of abstaining from personal attacks.
“You will never see us run attack ads against her,” he insisted. “You will never see, from him, the kind of personal political attack that is common in presidential campaigns. He is not wired that way. He doesn’t believe in it. He thinks people are sick of it.”
“It would come off as awfully inauthentic, and even though I’m sure there are some within his base who would like to see him sharpen his lines of attack, I don’t think the majority would,” said Jim Manley, a former aide to Senate Minority Leader Harry ReidHarry Mason ReidDemocrats brace for tough election year in Nevada The Memo: Biden's horizon is clouded by doubt Fight over Biden agenda looms large over Virginia governor's race MORE (D-Nev.).
“It’s just not who he is,” Manley added. “There is no one who loves railing about issues, like the influence of Wall Street, more than him. But he’s not the person who gets in the mud over personal attacks.”
Sanders’s support has grown rapidly, confining other Democratic challengers to Clinton, such as former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, to low single digits in the polls. Sanders’s strength also makes it unlikely that any other major left-wing candidate — the most plausible figure being Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenMisguided recusal rules lock valuable leaders out of the Pentagon Biden's soft touch with Manchin, Sinema frustrates Democrats Hillicon Valley — Presented by LookingGlass — Congress makes technology policy moves MORE (D-Mass.) — will make a late entry into the race.
But in the two significant national polls released so far this month, from Fox News and CNN/ORC, Sanders trails Clinton by margins of 19 and 18 percentage points, respectively. Two recent polls in the first-caucus state of Iowa showed similar margins.
Devine asserts that the scale of Sanders’s support this early in the cycle surprises even him. “On April 30, when he walked out in front of the Capitol and said he’d run, if somebody had said he’d get to 35 [percent] by the middle of August, I’d have said, ‘I dunno,’” he said with a laugh.
But others are skeptical that Sanders can make the transition from liberal standard-bearer to genuine contender for the nomination without going after Clinton in a harder-edged fashion.
Democratic strategist Brad Bannon said that despite the focus on some polls that have shown Clinton in trouble in hypothetical general-election match-ups, “Hillary Clinton is pretty damn popular with Democratic primary voters and I don’t see how Sanders wins without attacking her.”
Bannon noted that such assaults did not have to come in explicitly personal form. He cited as one example a potential response to Clinton’s claims to be seeking a fairer economic playing field for “everyday Americans.”
“If I were Sanders, I’d say, ‘That’s big talk, Hillary, but your campaign is being funded by Wall Street bankers, you have a history of all these people from Wall Street working on your campaigns.’ That is the kind of attack Sanders needs to mount.”
Sanders and his campaign have, in fact, made clear that they are prepared to draw contrasts on issues and policy positions. But the type of attack suggested by Bandon would be, by all indications, several bridges too far.
Speaking to the media after an event in Iowa last Sunday, Sanders reacted with irritation to a reporter who suggested that some remarks in his speech were aimed at drawing an implicit contrast with Clinton.
“What I said is, the corporate media talks about all kinds of issues except the most important issues, OK? And time after time, I’m being asked to criticize Hillary Clinton. That’s the sport that you guys like.”
Sanders went on to insist that his campaign was succeeding because of his economic message. He noted disagreements with Clinton on the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the Keystone XL Pipeline, the minimum wage and the war in Iraq.
But, he added, “I am not going to get into the game of sitting around attacking Hillary Clinton. We disagree. We are going to have — if I have anything to say about it — a respectful and intelligent debate.”
Devine, the adviser, told The Hill, “If he begins to engage this email issue, or let’s say other similar fronts, I think all is lost very quickly. I think he will be diminished and reduced by it.
“A lot of people who are coming to him are completely disenchanted with politics,” Devine added. “If you get into all this, and look like the rest of the politicians, the conversation is over.”