Politics

Is Bernie Sanders Getting a Free Pass?

Underestimated campaign of quirky senator may have inspired less media scrutiny

Bernie Sanders in February ahead of the Nevada caucuses, which he lost to Clinton. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Bernie Sanders' supporters argue that his campaign isn't being taken seriously.  

He's been "marginalized" by the mainstream media, wrote Robert Reich, former secretary of labor for President Bill Clinton and an ardent Sanders supporter, in Salon  on Thursday. Others in Sanders's corner demonstrated on Monday outside CNN in Los Angeles, claiming the network is flat out ignoring their man.  

Still others would argue that it's not about the tone or volume of coverage, but that the Vermont senator simply hasn't gotten the kind of bark-scraping scrutiny from the press that others seeking the White House have endured.  

Democrats for Hillary Clinton, for instance, see a persistent double-standard on the part of the media regarding her rival for the party's nomination.  

"There's almost no picayune statement that she has said that the media won’t try to pick apart while they completely ignore Bernie Sanders," said a Democratic strategist close to the Clinton campaign. "And we heard this for months, 'he’s not a serious candidate, he’s just a vanity campaign.' He has been competitive with Secretary Clinton in this race since the summer of 2015," the strategist added.  

It's indisputable that the media, and likely the Democratic Party, underestimated Sanders and has given less scrutiny to him than they have to Clinton.  

His rumpled demeanor and arm waving, "truth-to-power" speeches may be familiar to his Senate colleagues. But out on the stump, Sanders — and his confrontational style — have shaken things up, appealing to young voters in far greater proportions than Clinton. His insurgent bid has tapped into the frustrations of people disillusioned with the economy, politics, or the establishment writ large.  

Clinton's been in the spotlight for more than two decades as first lady, senator, 2008 presidential candidate and secretary of state. Polished and accomplished, she's famous and flirting with history. She's long been the Democratic front-runner, but an email scandal, an uneven performance in the primary season, and her campaign juggernaut tend to dominate airtime .  

Asked whether the media had given Sanders a free pass, John Franco — a friend of Sanders' who served as assistant city attorney in Burlington when Sanders was mayor — laughed. The scrutiny from the local press was "hostile" when Sanders was elected mayor because he was a threat to the party establishment in Vermont. Today's national media scrubbing, Franco said, is "really quite tame compared to what he endured in the 1980s." Some Democrats worry the country doesn't really know Sanders, who despite some poor performances of his own continues to win enough states by impressive margins  to keep himself in the race. Going into Tuesday's Wisconsin primary, Sanders has momentum after winning three western states last week, and is polling about 2 percentage points ahead of Clinton in Wisconsin, according to the Real Clear Politics poll average .  

An Economist/YouGov poll taken March 26-29 showed 95 percent of Democratic primary voters had a very or somewhat favorable view of Sanders, versus 73 percent for Clinton.  

But one party strategist suggested that the inconsistency of Sanders' success — sweeping some states by large margins but barely contesting others, for example in the South — has led the media to devote less attention to his candidacy.  "If I’m an editor, am I going to waste my time on this? Am I going to put a brilliant reporter on looking up Bernie Sanders’ background in Vermont when he may be toast in another week?" said Rick Ridder, a Colorado-based, Democratic strategist and veteran of five presidential campaigns.  Ridder first met Sanders in Vermont in the 1970s. He later managed Vermont Gov. Howard Dean's insurgent 2004 presidential campaign, but Ridder hasn't made any endorsements this year.  

Vermonters like their quirky senator, an avowed socialist who votes as an independent in Washington, Ridder said. But the rest of the country, he added, hasn't been treated to as much scrutiny of the candidate, particularly his earlier years when he first started challenging the Democratic Party that he is now identifying with.  

So, what about his past?

VA issues

   

In recent years, Sanders has been criticized for his chairmanship of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee from 2013 to 2015, where he didn't act on government warnings about backlogs at VA medical centers until after it became national news. In a CNN town hall forum in New Hampshire, Sanders admitted, "We should have done better."  

About his own interactions with the military, the Sanders campaign has confirmed that he applied for conscientious objector status during the Vietnam War, when he was a pacifist, although "[he] isn't now," Sanders spokesman Michael Briggs told ABC News in August 2015. His conscientious objector status was denied, the Burlington Free Press reported in 2006, but Sanders was too old to be drafted by the time his number came up anyway.

On the Hill

   

Sanders' famously inflamed demeanor on the campaign trail is part of what his supporters, fed up with America's economic system, like about his speaking-truth-to-power persona. But among some Democrats, there's lingering concern about that personality. "Bernie has never been known as a particularly collegial worker in Congress," Ridder said. "He's gruff in private," Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said in an interview with Roll Call in October. A  Vermont alternative newspaper delved into Sanders' "anger management," suggesting — based on conversations with anonymous former staffers — that he didn't always treat personnel well.

Not a sex scandal

   

Then there's Sanders' personal life, which he's accused the press of caring too much about at the expense of reporting on the issues.  

"We have a culture in Vermont where that is very much off limits politically," said Franco.  

The story of his son born out of wedlock is now well-known. Politico pushed the issue onto the national scene with a story last July titled, "Bernie Sanders Has a Secret."  The New York Times has since caught up with Levi Sanders, now in his mid-40s, calling him the "constant witness" to his father's political journey and portraying theirs as a close father-son bond. An illegitimate child may have been salacious at one point in American political history, but Sanders is running against a political last name synonymous with sex scandals.  

"Look I get it, Bill Clinton is the former president, but there’s been no vetting of Senator Sanders' wife. She's not a casual spouse to a politician, she has been a top political adviser," said a strategist close to the Clinton campaign. And she's not free from controversy. The New York Times reported that Jane Sanders resigned from the presidency of Burlington College for allegedly "overextending the college with a $10 million real estate purchase." And this is not Sanders' first time in this position. "Hillary Clinton is not the first progressive Democratic woman to be challenged by Bernie Sanders," former Vermont Gov. Madeleine May Kunin wrote in the Boston Globe earlier this year. In 1986, when Kunin was up for re-election, Sanders ran as a third-party candidate against her.  

"It’s dismissive," of course, his friend Franco said, referencing headlines that say Sanders can't win. "The other side of it," he added, is "be careful what you wish for and you may get it. I wouldn't want to have Donald Trump's coverage at this point, no thank you." Contact Pathé at  simonepathe@rollcall.com  and follow her on Twitter at  @sfpathe . Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call on your iPhone.