For better and for worse, Sanders made all the big decisions.
There’s no strategist pulling the strings, and no collection of burn-it-all-down aides egging him on. At the heart of the rage against Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party, the campaign aides closest to him say, is Bernie Sanders.
It was the Vermont senator who personally rewrote his campaign manager’s shorter statement after the chaos at the Nevada state party convention and blamed the political establishment for inciting the violence.
He was the one who made the choice to go after Democratic National Committee chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz after his wife read him a transcript of her blasting him on television.
He chose the knife fight over calling Clinton unqualified, which aides blame for pulling the bottom out of any hopes they had of winning in New York and their last real chance of turning a losing primary run around.
And when Jimmy Kimmel’s producers asked Sanders’ campaign for a question to ask Donald Trump, Sanders himself wrote the one challenging the Republican nominee to a debate.
There are many divisions within the Sanders campaign—between the dead-enders and the work-it-out crowds, between the younger aides who think he got off message while the consultants got rich and obsessed with Beltway-style superdelegate math, and between the more experienced staffers who think the kids got way too high on their sense of the difference between a movement and an actual campaign.
But more than any of them, Sanders is himself filled with resentment, on edge, feeling like he gets no respect — all while holding on in his head to the enticing but remote chance that Clinton may be indicted before the convention.
Campaign manager Jeff Weaver, who’s been enjoying himself in near constant TV appearances, and the candidate’s wife Jane Sanders, are fully on board. But convinced since his surprise Michigan win that he could actually win the nomination, Sanders has been on email and the phone, directing elements of the campaign right down to his city-by-city schedule in California. He wants it. He thinks it should be his.
“Bernie’s been at the helm of this campaign from the beginning,” said Weaver, “and the overall message of this campaign and the direction of the campaign and the strategy, has been driven by Bernie.”
Convinced as Sanders is that he’s realizing his lifelong dream of being the catalyst for remaking American politics—aides say he takes credit for a Harvard Kennedy School study in April showing young people getting more liberal, and he takes personal offense every time Clinton just dismisses the possibility of picking him as her running mate—his guiding principle under attack has basically boiled down to a feeling that multiple aides sum up as: “Screw me? No, screw you.”
Take the combative statement after the Nevada showdown.
“I don’t know who advised him that this was the right route to take, but we are now actively destroying what Bernie worked so hard to build over the last year just to pick up two fucking delegates in a state he lost,” rapid response director Mike Casca complained to Weaver in an internal campaign email obtained by POLITICO.
“Thank you for your views. I’ll relay them to the senator, as he is driving this train,” Weaver wrote back.
In the run-up to the California primary, the big strategic question was how much to modulate the tone of the letter to superdelegates that he’s been preparing to send out Wednesday, building on the case that Sen. Jeff Merkley, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, former Sen. Paul Kirk and former Communication Workers of America president Larry Cohen have been making to fellow superdelegates over the phone for weeks about polls and other factors that would make Sanders the more competitive general election candidate.
This isn’t about what’s good for the Democratic Party in his mind, but about what he thinks is good for advancing the agenda that he’s been pushing since before he got elected mayor of Burlington.
Sanders owns nearly every major decision, right down to the bills. A conversation with former Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin about getting left in personal debt from his own 1992 presidential campaign has stayed at the top of Sanders’ mind.
He demanded that the campaign bank account never go under $10 million, even when that’s meant decisions Weaver and campaign architect Tad Devine have protested — like making the call in the final days before Kentucky to go with digital director Kenneth Pennington’s plan to focus on data and field, instead of $300,000 to match Clinton on TV.
Sanders ultimately lost there by just 1,924 votes.
Sanders and aides laugh at the idea that he’s damaging the party and hurting Clinton. They think they don’t get enough gratitude for how much they held back, from not targeting more Democratic members of the House and Senate who opposed him to not making more of an issue out of Clinton’s email server investigation and Bill Clinton’s sex scandals, all of which they discussed as possible lines of attack in the fall. They blame Clinton going after him on gun control for goading him into letting loose on her Goldman Sachs speeches.
“If they hadn’t started at it by really going hard at him on guns, raising a series of issues against him, that really was what led to him being much, much more aggressive than he otherwise would have been,” said Devine, the consultant who helped engineer Sanders’ plans for a protest candidacy into a real campaign (and convinced him to run as a Democrat).
Since he finished approving the ads for California not long after the Kentucky strategy spat, Devine has been back home in Rhode Island, noticeably missing from cable news as a surrogate but still regularly in touch with Sanders. Devine, who’s been more anxious about what an endgame looks like, says he hasn’t heard anything from the senator that suggests he would alter his plans because of the Clinton campaign’s eagerness to have President Barack Obama endorse her and declare the primaries done.
“They would be very smart to understand that the best way to approach Bernie is not to try to push him around,” Devine said. “It’s much better if they try to cooperate with him and find common ground. They should be mindful of the fact that the people he’s brought into this process are new to it and they will be very suspicious of any effort to push him around.”
Aides say Sanders thinks that progressives who picked Clinton are cynical, power-chasing chickens — like Sen. Sherrod Brown, one of his most consistent allies in the Senate before endorsing Clinton and campaigning hard for her ahead of the Ohio primary. Sanders is so bitter about it that he’d be ready to nix Brown as an acceptable VP choice, if Clinton ever asked his advice on who’d be a good progressive champion.
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