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Clinton Demands Sanders ‘Tone Down’ Campaign If He Wants New York Debate

Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign will not debate Bernie Sanders in New York before the state holds its primary on April 19, unless Sanders changes the “tone” of his campaign. The Clinton campaign insists Sanders “reneged” on its “promise” to run a positive campaign.

Karen Finney, a senior spokesperson for the Clinton campaign, said on CNN the issue is not that the campaign is against debate, but that there needs to be “talk about the tone of this campaign.” She claimed Sanders is polling “new lines of attack on Hillary Clinton” and called demanding another debate a “public stunt.”

On March 28, Joel Benenson, chief strategist for the Clinton campaign, claimed during a press conference call that Sanders “spent about $4 million running negative ads” before the March 15 primaries.

“This is a man who said he’d never run a negative ad ever. He’s now running them, they’re now planning to run more,” Benenson insisted. “Let’s see the tone of the campaign he wants to run before we get to any other questions.”

For what it’s worth, Clinton never pledged to run a “positive campaign” without attack ads. Since September, she has used a network of surrogates and rapid response super PACs to push anti-Sanders talking points into the media.

Shadowproof has documented a pattern of dishonest attacks and rumors, particularly since January. The attacks include: Sanders supports Minutemen vigilantes and similar anti-immigrant hate groups, Sanders opposed bailing out auto workers, Sanders supports the NRA, Sanders wants to dismantle the Affordable Health Care Act, Sanders supported the indefinite detention of immigrants, and Sanders sees President Barack Obama as “weak” and will not support Obama’s legacy.

No statements have been made by the Clinton campaign on how these attacks have impacted the “tone” of the primary race. For the most part, the Sanders campaign has pushed onward, as if the sleaziness of the Clinton campaign has not hampered their efforts to win over voters, especially black and Latino voters.

Additionally, on a daily basis, the Sanders campaign is put in the precarious position of having to defend staying in the presidential race to win the nomination, when Clinton has such a lead. The Sanders campaign is urged to outline what it will do to make sure Sanders supporters vote for Clinton. Even with more than twenty primaries left, the Sanders campaign is pestered constantly about whether Sanders would be Clinton’s vice president and whether he would endorse her for president.

The remarks came after a week where Sanders won landslide victories in five states—Idaho, Utah, Alaska, Hawaii, and Washington. He cut into Clinton’s lead over him in the pledged delegate count significantly.

Recent polling in New York, which Sanders needs to strongly contest, shows Clinton winning by thirty-five points. Presuming the polling accurately reflects the current political dynamics on the ground, if the primary was held today, Clinton would garner 155 delegates and Sanders would only be awarded 92 delegates.

The Sanders campaign and its volunteers have a lot of work if they expect to turn New York into a draw, like they did in Illinois and Missouri, or if the campaign expects to achieve the low bar they may have possibly set of winning forty percent of the vote.

The Clinton campaign maintains Sanders is behind by an insurmountable margin. Benenson told the press, “After April 26, there simply is not enough real estate left for Senator Sanders.”

In other words, a nomination Clinton campaign surrogates and media pundits claimed was locked up for the former secretary of state after March 15 will be even more inevitable.

All of which makes the peevishness and the petulance of the Clinton campaign ever more baffling.

If the lead Clinton holds is “insurmountable,” why not debate Sanders in New York? Why shift the media narrative from ‘Sanders has momentum after a big week’ to ‘Sanders needs to “tone down” his campaign against Clinton?’

On one hand, the Clinton campaign may be hypersensitive because it refuses to tolerate sustained discussion about the positives and successes of the Sanders campaign. It may think such talk reflects poorly on the Clinton campaign and leaders of the Democratic Party establishment. It fuels this idea that Democratic voters lack enthusiasm for Clinton, and that will impact Clinton in the general election. So, the campaign and its network of surrogates aggressively police the extent to which Sanders calls attention to Clinton’s record on the campaign trail, because that casts him as a divisive politician at a time when party leaders are arguing for unification against a Republican presidential candidate.

On the other hand, perhaps the touchiness is a signal that Sanders has Clinton’s campaign staff privately concerned about the next month. While conventional wisdom suggests closed primaries and lack of caucuses favors Clinton, maybe Wisconsin, Wyoming, New York, Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Rhode Island, are states where his current momentum could carry over. These are states that likely have strong networks between grassroots organizations and Sanders volunteers.

But let’s refrain from speculation and focus on what is known. The fact is, scroll through the social media accounts of some of the individuals who have led the charge for Clinton against Sanders, and there are virtually no messages about the so-called negative tone of the Sanders campaign. People like Zac Petkanas, the director of rapid response for the campaign, Brian Fallon, the press secretary for the Clinton campaign, and Karen Finney, a senior spokesperson, did not raise the issue at all.

After one of the worst weeks in the history of Clinton’s 2016 campaign, her campaign went on the offensive on March 28 and chose to do so by sleazily manufacturing this perception that Sanders is now sliming Clinton every chance he gets because his campaign is desperate.

It is a talking point her campaign has planted in media coverage since August 2015. The perception depends on the idea that Sanders promised a “positive campaign.” The media has obliged by constantly revisiting this notion that Sanders abandoned his commitment to run a positive campaign against Clinton.

Indeed, the Sanders campaign pledged to “never” run an attack ad in August 2015. The campaign even pulled a web ad, which portrayed Clinton as a candidate funded by banks and other moneyed interests.

But Sanders never pledged to be passive when relentlessly attacked by opponents running against him for the nomination. He never pledged to disregard the differences between their campaigns.

In fact, when the Clinton campaign accused the Sanders campaign of running a “negative” ad, MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow told Hillary Clinton, “I’ve seen the ad that you’re referring to. Honestly, it is not much of an attack.”

“It says there’s two Democratic visions for regulating Wall Street… It’s not something over the top that means that he’s now this personal attacker in the campaign,” Maddow added.

When the Sanders campaign asserts itself in the face of pressure, which serves the Clinton campaign, it is typically deemed offensive. Outlining requirements for endorsing Clinton is “sexist” because it’s wrong for a man to make demands of the first woman president. Talking about how the campaign might be able to game the system and win superdelegates—well, that is arrogant and anti-democratic. Portraying the second half of the Democratic primary as “Primary 2.0,” in which Sanders will fare better, is crossing the line.

All of which is to make it abundantly clear that this tone policing is as deserving of ridicule as the #ToneDownForWhat hashtag on Twitter suggests.

The Clinton campaign may think it is an “attack” to call attention to how Clinton raises money from elite corporate donors and rich celebrities like George Clooney. It may believe relentlessly focusing upon how Clinton will not release transcripts of paid speeches to Goldman Sachs is out of line. But, if they seriously think these are personal character attacks and not political lines intended to distinguish the campaigns, that says more about the character of Clinton and her campaign than any Sanders campaign ad ever will.

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."