As reliably as night follows day, Bernie Sanders’s Iowa surge has brought another round of lament from Washington’s elite political and media class that the new front-runner has not faced adequate media scrutiny. “They let him get away with murder,” said Matt Bennett of the centrist think tank Third Way, which opposes Sanders’s policy agenda, in a January 27 story emblazoned across the home page of Politico.
The notion that Sanders is sailing toward primary victories with nary a soul bothering to pose a question about his record or electability is a relic of the 2016 Democratic primary, when Hillary Clinton and her supporters grew frustrated with his durable presence in the race and pundits puzzled over the fact that Sanders polled better against Donald Trump. The common explanation settled on was that Sanders’s popularity was a mirage resting on his lack of scrutiny. But it’s hard to square that conventional wisdom with the written record—a compendium of “vetting” so varied and substantial that it raises the question as to whether the people who need vetting the most are those who continue to call for it long after their needs have been met.
The “unvetted” line of attack began early and persisted throughout the entire 2016 campaign. “I think the media is giving Bernie a pass right now,” then Senator Claire McCaskill said on Morning Joe in June 2015, less than two months after Sanders entered the race. “I rarely read in any coverage of Bernie that he’s a socialist.” By September 2015, Correct the Record, a Clinton super PAC led by David Brock, had gone on a spending spree to link Sanders to the Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez and British Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn—a tactic that would be used against both Corbyn himself as well as against French socialist Jean-Luc Mélenchon. A few months later, the same super PAC spent $1 million on online trolls to push back against Sanders’s social media popularity.
In the later months of 2015, the national press coverage briefly shifted its attention, focusing more heavily on horse-race stories than on the candidates’ policy ideas or background. During this period, Clinton received vastly disproportionate media attention, a phenomenon that neither went unnoticed nor unremarked upon. Responding to reader complaints that The New York Times was not covering Sanders equally or fairly, public editor Margaret Sullivan conceded that Clinton had received much more scrutiny, and that the “tone” of Times stories on Sanders was “regrettably dismissive, even mocking at times”—“focusing more on the candidate’s age, appearance and style, rather than what he has to say.”
Over the next six months, however, coverage of Sanders’s record—and negative ad spending against him—returned as a topic of conversation. Already during 2015, both Mother Jones and The New York Times had run long stories on Sanders’s youthful activism, his political writings, and his political career in Vermont. Among other matters, these stories drew attention to a 1972 essay on gender stereotypes Sanders had written that came across as crassly sexist, and which Sanders was subsequently made to disown. (Chelsea G. Summers, vetting Sanders on the pages of The New Republic, focused on this essay at length.) During the October 2015 primary debate, CNN’s Anderson Cooper asked Sanders, “How can any kind of socialist win a general election in the United States?”
In November, the Times examined Sanders’s governing style as mayor of Burlington, calling it “more pragmatic than socialist,” but noting his “trips to Nicaragua and the Soviet Union.” By January, a GOP super PAC launched by a former bank executive was spending money on attack ads in Iowa branding Sanders as “too liberal.” The release of Sanders’s Medicare for All plan that month launched a sustained crusade against it from Vox, with Editor in Chief Ezra Klein calling it “vague and unrealistic.” A steady drumbeat of similar criticisms from policy analysis outlets like The Times’ Upshot and The Washington Post’s Wonkblog persisted over the next several months.
Coverage of Sanders’s record went far beyond his Vermont background and his Medicare for All plan, and often framed the questions put to the candidate during the Democratic debates. The Times covered Sanders’s legislative record in the Senate, painting him as an iconoclastic gadfly who nevertheless worked with Republicans on “modest victories.” Over 16 hours on March 6 and 7, The Post famously published 16 negative pieces on Sanders—a mix of news stories, opinion columns, and blog posts. Numerous stories on Sanders’s 1980s criticisms of American foreign policy and pro-Sandinista engagement in Nicaragua appeared during this time. At the March 9 Democratic debate in Miami, moderators played a clip of Sanders praising Fidel Castro, which generated a flurry of coverage in the D.C. political press.
Nevertheless, in May, as polls were showing Sanders with a better chance of beating Trump, the “unvetted” narrative resurfaced as an argument that Sanders’s poll numbers were an illusion. “The mainstream media often failed to treat Sanders as a plausible contender, which would have entailed a much greater degree of scrutiny than he received,” Michelle Goldberg wrote in Slate on May 2. “As a result, issues that, fairly or not, would be obsessively scrutinized in a general election have gone almost entirely unexamined.” Given the intensive critical focus on Sanders’s policy agenda—and the even more intensive mobilization of opinion-column real estate against it—what these “issues” were remained unspecified.
Clinton herself joined in: “I have been vetted and tested,” she said on Meet the Press on May 22. “I don’t think he has ever had a negative ad run against him.” (Glenn Kessler, the Post’s indomitable fact-checker, helpfully explained that, while this wasn’t technically true, it was true in spirit because most of the anti-Sanders ad spending had been online, not on television.) The Monday morning following Clinton’s Sunday show appearances, the narrative was bubbling up in the press: Times reporter Nate Cohn, taking on the puzzle of Sanders’s popularity against Trump, echoed, “Sanders just hasn’t faced any major attacks on his record.” The same day, The Daily Beast’s Michael Tomasky, who had previously denounced Sanders as “unelectable,” wrote that he would be “the least-vetted, most vulnerable major-party nominee in American history.”
In retrospect, the May 2016 mobilization of the “unvetted” argument, deployed overwhelmingly by Clinton loyalists and centrist opponents of Sanders’s ideas, looks less like a claim grounded in actual press coverage and more like a polemical response to Sanders’s persistent popularity. Since the 2016 primary, which made Sanders a national figure and the symbolic leader of a left resurgence, coverage has multiplied exponentially.
A Washington Post story on Sanders’s 1988 honeymoon in the USSR launched a press whirlwind. The center-left framing of both the Democratic Party establishment as well as much of the political press has had a strong hand in shaping the information voters have received about Sanders—pushed not only by pundits but by debate moderators and moderate candidates like Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg, and Amy Klobuchar. Debate moderators challenged Sanders on the viability of a socialist candidate in June 2019 and again in September 2019, and his opponents joined in the ribbing. A nearly identical, wagon-circling discussion of health care policy has featured in all of the Democratic debates thus far, usually on terrain highly favorable to the moderate candidates. “Your campaign proposals would double federal spending over the next decade at an unprecedented level of spending not seen since World War II,” a CNN moderator asked Sanders on January 14. “How would you keep your plans from bankrupting the country?” The press relentlessly hammered Elizabeth Warren on the financing for her Medicare for All plan and hammered Sanders for refusing to put numbers on his, indifferent to his view that campaign plans are statements of moral principle, not scorable policies.
Since Warren’s collapse in the polls that followed scrutiny of her Medicare for All plan—and her furtive attempt to satisfy the centrists’ demands for an explanation as to how the plan would be paid for—it has become conventional wisdom among pundits and television-paid political operatives that Sanders hasn’t received the same level of scrutiny. “The ‘likability’ of self-confessed yeller and grumpy guy Bernie Sanders never gets discussed,” Washington Post Never-Trump conservative Jennifer Rubin wrote on January 3. “When will he go through the vetting we expect of top-tier candidates?” Consultant and former Bill Clinton press secretary Joe Lockhart conceded that there had been much discussion of Medicare for All but argued that “there has been far too little discussion of Sanders’s 50-year record,” and that “one of the leading candidates for the nomination has largely escaped the kind of scrutiny his opponents have been put through.”
Lockhart’s list of issues “unknown to most primary voters”—Sanders’s past positions on gun control, his anti-imperialist critique of American foreign policy, the “socialist” label—were all litigated extensively in 2016—circulating in Republican attacks on Sanders and other left Democrats like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez ever since. These have also been widely echoed by Democratic Party insiders. “I think there are a number of people who are concerned that Bernie Sanders has not been fully vetted in this current field the way that other candidates have,” former Clinton staffer Zac Petkanas told CNN. “And there are a lot of unknowns about him.” These “unknowns” remained unspecified, but the emerging conventional wisdom seeped into even straight news reporting: On the eve of the January debate, The Hill reported that “For much of the race, and despite polling showing him nipping at Biden’s heels for the lead in national surveys, [Sanders] has been a virtual afterthought.”
Now, as new polls confirm his rise to front-runner status in Iowa and New Hampshire and a tentative leveling with Biden at the national level, Sanders’s opponents have begun to attack him directly, and the media knives have come out in the form of try-hard opposition research and an intensification of the “unvetted” argument, with Never-Trump conservatives again playing a starring role in the chorus. Late last week, The Daily Beast unearthed video of Sanders saying low-wage workers were “slaves” and, grasping for relevance, declared that “newly unearthed baggage from his own decades-long political career could call his own past statements and judgment into question.”
Democratic operatives like Neera Tanden of the Center for American Progress, an obsessive and conspiratorial Sanders opponent on social media, seized on a Sanders endorsement from the podcaster Joe Rogan to upbraid Sanders for accepting support from a figure with noxious views on identity issues. That argument was reprised by yet another Never-Trump conservative, Atlantic columnist David Frum, who laid out Rogan’s history of anti-transgender comments as an introduction to his argument that “Bernie Sanders is a fragile candidate” who “has never fought a race where he had to face serious personal scrutiny.” (All this as prelude to Frum’s bizarre argument that, actually, Sanders’s supposed insensitivity to identity was good, something Democrats should learn from in the future.)
Meanwhile, the January 27 front page of The New York Times resurrected the 2016 specter of Sanders’s “internet army,” which has the gall to criticize other candidates and allegedly visit harassment on anyone who dares to criticize its candidate. The Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin quickly weaponized it for her anti-Sanders crusade, writing, “Sanders’s holier-than-thou ethos often manifests itself in refusal to answer ordinary, utterly appropriate questions.”
Months of polling since the 2020 race began have overwhelmingly shown several Democratic candidates comfortably beating Trump in the general election, with Biden and Sanders as the reliable top two. In well over 50 national head-to-head polls conducted throughout the primary Sanders beats Trump in all but four. To his credit, Biden has an even stronger lead over Trump, and a few polls in states beyond Iowa and New Hampshire, where data is sparse, also show Biden winning with larger margins. Reasonable people can disagree about what the general election battle would look like, especially before any primary voting has actually taken place. But the perception of a candidate’s strength against Trump is, at this point, a form of tea-leaf reading inevitably reinforced by ideological priors.
Nevertheless, it’s clear that the narrative of “unvetted Bernie Sanders” functions, just as it did in 2016, as a preemptive attack-response by his ideological opponents within the Democratic Party—and a few conservative opportunists on the margins—to his mounting success in the polls. There’s no telling the extent to which history may repeat itself. How many more stories retreading his Vermont career will be published? How many videos from the 1980s of him saying almost exactly what he says today will be resurfaced? How many more denunciations of the costs and practical impossibility of Medicare for All shall we endure? How many more reminders that he’s a socialist? How many more fixations on outlier polls to predict doom at the hands of moderate suburban voters? What would it take for him to finally be considered “vetted”? As long as he’s at the front of the pack, it appears that nothing will ever be enough.