For months, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders seemed to run for president in parallel universes. Clinton focused her criticism on Republicans and rarely targeted Sanders. She did not even say his name in public until long after the first debate. They raced like lap swimmers, each in their own lane.
But with snow settling on New Hampshire and a loss likely in the Granite State on Tuesday, Clinton and her allies have turned their fire on the Vermont senator. In the last weeks, Clinton, her husband Bill, daughter Chelsea, allied super PACs, surrogates and members of Congress have by turns accused Sanders of hypocrisy, inconsistency and cutting corners. The Clintons, well-accustomed to decades of intense scrutiny by Republicans, now are giving Sanders a more thorough appraisal than he has ever had in his career.
Frustrated Clinton aides believe that Sanders is a politician like any other. Sanders has flip-flopped on gun control, Wall Street donations and immigration reform, they say, changing his views when it is politically expedient.
It is a view of Sanders that has become increasingly visible on the campaign trail. “The purity bubble is about to burst,” David Brock, the architect behind the pro-Clinton super PAC Correct the Record, told TIME.
Clinton world’s focus on Sanders in recent weeks has been sundry and repeated. Her allies foresee a fine-toothed scrutiny of Sanders’ record, saying that he has benefitted in his career so far by escaping much scrutiny.
“I think there’s a lot that has not yet been said and written about Senator Sanders and what he’s actually done,” New Hampshire Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, who is campaigning for Clinton, told TIME. “This is someone who has been in Washington almost 30 years. You don’t stay in Washington that long unless you’re a politician and you understand politics.”
The Clinton campaign’s more heated tone reflects a growing realization among campaign aides that the primary against Sanders will be a long and grueling fight. The 74-year-old insurgent Vermont senator is poised to win in New Hampshire on Tuesday, and barely lost to Clinton in Iowa. He has said he will continue campaigning all the way to the Democratic convention in July, and will likely force Clinton to expend money and energy for months against him. With an open spigot of cash from his robust online fundraising operation, Sanders has little reason to end his campaign early.
Clinton has begun to forcefully strike back at Sanders for questioning her Wall Street donations. At an event in a high-ceilinged building in Manchester on Monday, Clinton suggested Sanders was hypocritical for attacking her over her banking donors. Clinton pointed to a recent report that Sanders had indirectly received finance industry donations for his 2006 campaign. “Senator Sanders took about $200,000 from Wall Street firms. Not directly, but through the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee,” Clinton said. (Some of the DSCC cash for Sanders’ race originally came from Wall Street institutions.)
In their latest debate on Thursday, Clinton called Sanders’ criticism over her Wall Street donations a “very artful smear,” suggesting Sanders was insulting her integrity. “If you’ve got something to say, say it, directly,” Clinton said.
Former President Bill Clinton has been perhaps the most adamant critic of Sanders in recent days. At a campaign event on Sunday, he questioned Sanders’ honesty for misleadingly suggesting in his campaign ads that he received endorsements from newspapers.
“Bernie took what they said was good about him and put it in his own endorsements,” the former president said on referring to an advertisement that suggested Sanders had an endorsement from the Valley News. (It has not.)
And in a rebuke to Sanders for railing against the establishment, Bill Clinton said on Monday in Manchester that Sanders was being divisive and avoiding a substantive policy debate. “We can’t be in a place where we demonize everybody is against us,” he said. “Where everybody who’s on the other side is part of some mythical establishment. … We have to do this together, and producing results together.”
In New Hampshire last month, Chelsea Clinton said Sanders wanted to “dismantle Obamacare, dismantle the [Children’s Health Insurance Program], dismantle Medicare, and dismantle private insurance,” referring to his plan for universal health care coverage, which has been criticized as thin and unworkable. Chelsea Clinton said she worried “that would strip millions and millions and millions of people off their health insurance.”
Some Clinton supporters welcome a more combative candidate, saying they want a closer look at Sanders’ record.
“There’s a lot of stuff that comes out about Hillary. She’s been scrutinized, scrutinized, scrutinized. I don’t see any of that about Bernie coming out—and there are things,” said Barbara Marzelli, who runs a gardening business in New Hampshire. “It’s like everybody’s throwing spaghetti at the wall and seeing what sticks. They haven’t started to fling spaghetti at Bernie.”
Hillary Clinton has also questioned whether Sanders is a true progressive, pointing to a mixed record on immigration and gun control. She has said Sanders following the gun lobby’s lead on a 2005 gun control bill, and aides point to Sanders’ vote against immigration reform in 2007. “The only person on [the debate] stage who voted against Ted Kennedy’s comprehensive immigration bill was Senator Sanders,” Clinton campaign pollster Joel Benenson said Friday at a breakfast with reporters in Manchester, N.H. “I don’t see how he gets to go out and decide who progressive is when he voted against that.”
Brock, who runs Correct the Record, a super PAC that coordinates with Clinton’s campaign, outlined the main lines of attack against Sanders in an interview, pointing to what Brock called a lack of direct foreign policy experience, sketchily drawn policy proposals—and “hypocrisy.” Sanders’ hypocrisy “goes to to the question of his fundraising at the DSCC and the financial sector,” Brock said. “It goes to pledges that he’s not going to run a negative campaign and breaking the pledges.”
Sanders’ campaign responded on Monday to the criticism. “It is very disturbing that, as the Clinton campaign struggles through Iowa and New Hampshire, they have become increasingly negative and dishonest,” campaign manager Jeff Weaver said.
Meanwhile, Clinton and her aides have kept up more familiar forms of criticism. On the stump, Clinton points out that Sanders’ policy proposals would be extraordinarily difficult to pass and says Sanders would be unlikely to deliver, as a candidate and as a president. “We don’t want to over-promise,” Clinton said in a high school gym in southern New Hampshire on Monday night. “The last thing we want is promises that can’t be met.”
They have also pointed to Sanders’ lack of foreign policy experience. “I think you really saw on that stage someone who can… be our commander-in-chief, protect our national security,” campaign manager Robby Mook said last week. “I think you saw Senator Sanders fail that test.”
Whatever happens in New Hampshire on Tuesday, it is clear that some voters have been waiting for Clinton to open up on Sanders.
“Nobody is immaculate except Mary, the mother of God,” said Barbara Waldmann, a retired schoolteacher from New York. “No one is immaculate.”
-With additional reporting by Jay Newton-Small
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