WASHINGTON – For a guy running against the establishment, Bernie Sanders sure seems to crave its approval.
In New Hampshire last week, the Democratic presidential candidate put out an ad touting his endorsements giving the false impression that two local newspapers – the Nashua Telegraph and the Valley News – had endorsed him. An early version of the ad overtly claimed the papers had endorsed him. They had done no such thing.
Sanders did the same in Iowa, running a nearly identical ad – “He’s been endorsed for real change,” the narrator said – that left the strong and wrong impression the Des Moines Register was among those endorsing him. The paper had endorsed Hillary Clinton.
Also in Iowa, Sanders sent out campaign mailers that included the logos of the League of Conservation Voters and AARP, according to Newsweek, even though AARP does not endorse and the League of Conservation Voters endorsed Clinton.
In Nevada, Sanders campaign staffers allegedly misrepresented themselves as Culinary Union members, wearing union pins, so they could gain access to employee dining rooms on the Las Vegas Strip and campaign for Sanders. After Nevada journalist Jon Ralston reported this, the union, which had made no endorsement, said it was “offended” by the multiple instances of “falsifying.”
Officers of the American Legion were also unhappy that the Sanders campaign sent out a mailing in New Hampshire showing photos of Sanders with uniformed members of the legion without their permission, the Valley News reported; the nonpartisan group feared that the mailing gave the appearance of endorsement.
Watergate these things aren’t. Such shenanigans are fairly common in politics. And that’s the point: Sanders behaves in many ways like a conventional pol.
This isn’t a slur. He is no doubt sincere in his long-held beliefs, which are on the populist far left. But his actions are not those of a revolutionary. Sanders is part of the Washington firmament.
Sanders arrived in Congress in 1991, two years before Hillary Clinton arrived in Washington as first lady. He has nominally been an independent but a de facto Democrat. In 1996, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which coordinates Democrats’ House campaigns, cleared the field for Sanders’s re-election.
In Sanders’ 2006 campaign for the Senate, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee – heavily funded by Wall Street interests – helped his bid with about $200,000 in contributions and ads, CNN reported over the weekend.
Since he arrived in the Senate in 2007 and continuing through last summer, Sanders has regularly hosted the DSCC’s retreats on Martha’s Vineyard and in Palm Beach, Fla., for wealthy donors (including lobbyists). Sanders also allowed the committee to do a direct-mail piece signed by him, and his campaign has a joint fundraising agreement with the Democratic National Committee, just like Clinton’s.
Sanders has often boasted that he doesn’t have a super PAC. But, as The Washington Post’s Matea Gold has noted, an ad hoc network working to elect Sanders “is also employing professional political tactics, such as the use of entities that can raise and spend unlimited sums.”
None of this makes Sanders dirty, or bad. Neither does his hiring of Tad Devine, a veteran of the Kerry and Gore campaigns, as a top adviser, or his hiring of President Obama’s hands to do his social media and online fundraising, or his using a slogan “A Future to Believe In” that borrows from Obama’s 2008 “Change We Can Believe In,” right down to the design and colors. It doesn’t even make him bad that a couple of his staffers exploited a security breach at the DNC to access the Clinton campaign’s voter data.
What this does mean is that Sanders and his aides are playing the game and working the system. They are not revolutionaries storming the establishment ramparts.
Iconoclasts do not typically say things such as “I’m the former chairman of the U.S. Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs.” Sanders, who once said that he didn’t prepare for debates and didn’t have a pollster, now does debate prep, has a pollster and boasts about the polls. When he first kicked off his campaign, he said he wouldn’t officially declare himself a Democrat because “I’m an independent.” Then he said he would if necessary for ballot access. Last week he said, “Of course I am a Democrat.”
As The Post’s Aaron Blake noted, Sanders backed Jesse Jackson’s 1988 presidential run but said he would have preferred a third-party bid because neither of the big-money parties “will ever represent the people in this country that are demanding the real changes.”
The more conventional Sanders of today has a different view.
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter @Milbank.