MANCHESTER, New Hampshire — The Bernie Sanders’ honeymoon is over. Now that Sanders has won the New Hampshire primary in a big way and promised to take the fight to Hillary Clinton in every region of the country, the Democratic insurgent is poised to face a wave of media scrutiny unlike anything he’s seen so far.
The post-honeymoon phase is sure to present new challenges for Sanders, who only recently achieved political celebrity and has yet to face a true crucible of critical coverage, campaign strategists and political reporters told CNN. Heading out of the Granite State, the media will look beyond the Vermont Senator’s sensational storybook rise and cast greater scrutiny on his record, his campaign tactics and the viability of his proposals.
“It’s that old axiom a Chicago alderman once shared with me: ‘The higher a monkey climbs the poll, the more you can see his ass,'” David Axelrod, the chief strategist for Barack Obama’s presidential campaigns, said of Sanders. “The better you do in this process, the more scrutiny you get. It’s the price of success.”
Sanders is already starting to pay that price: CNN’s Jake Tapper pressed the candidate on Sunday to account for why he opposed Ted Kennedy’s 2007 guest-worker program — on the grounds that it would bring down wages for Americans — only to embrace an immigration overhaul later. The New York Times recently published a report about how Sanders, the Chairman of the Veteran Affairs Committee, was “blinded” by his faith in government and initially dismissed systemic leadership failures at the Department of Veterans Affairs. The Washington Post’s Dana Milbank wrote an opinion column on Monday headlined, “Bernie Sanders is no revolutionary.”
This is a departure from the coverage Sanders received in January, when he was surging in the polls and threatening to give Clinton a run for her money in Iowa, where he only narrowly lost. Then, the media was largely focused on the enthusiasm surrounding his campaign, the large crowds, and his anti-Wall Street message.
There have been critical stories written about Sanders, to be sure. Several outlets, including CNN, have taken hard looks at some of his more ambitious proposals and fundraising efforts. Last summer, Politico published a story about a child Sanders had fathered out of wedlock — and the campaign’s refusal to really address the issue.
But Sanders has yet to endure the sustained barrage of headline-driving, cable news-consuming scrutiny that so many presidential candidates have had to endure.
No one is more keenly aware of the Sanders’ treatment by the press than the Clinton campaign. Their candidate — a former presidential hopeful, Secretary of State and First Lady who has spent two-and-a-half decades in the public eye — is subject to more critical media coverage than nearly any other political figure in the country.
Of course, the discrepancy in coverage is due in part to the fact that Clinton has been embroiled in controversies surrounding her personal email use at the State Department, the Benghazi attacks, and donations to the Clinton Foundation. But it hardly softens the blow for Clinton aides to see the voter enthusiasm for Sanders and his anti-Wall Street message translate into increased scrutiny over her “enthusiasm gap” and the speaking fees she’s taken from Wall Street.
“We’re used to it,” Brian Fallon, the press secretary for Clinton’s campaign, said days before the New Hampshire primary. “Increased scrutiny is a natural part of being a serious presidential contender. Senator Sanders has largely escaped that level of scrutiny up until now. Appropriately, that is starting to change given his rise in the polls and his strong standing in New Hampshire.”
The Sanders campaign has already had its share of missteps. In December, it was accused of stealing millions of dollars worth of voter data from the Clinton campaign. In January, campaign staffers in Las Vegas posed as union workers. More recently, the campaign released ads implying that Sanders had been endorsed by The Des Moines Register (which backed Clinton) and two New Hampshire papers (that did not issue endorsements). FactCheck.org called the ads “deceptive.” On Sunday, some New Hampshire voters accused the Sanders campaign of using their images on campaign newsletters without their permission.
The incidents certainly drew some coverage, but not the sort of sustained barrage of aggressive national media attention that some observers believe Clinton would have faced for similar conduct.
Former Rep. Barney Frank, a Clinton supporter, recently wrote an op-ed for Politico in which he argued that Sanders “has been enjoying one of the greatest gifts any politician can ask for: the ability to define himself as he wishes, without any inconvenient rebuttals.”
“Until recently, Sanders has experienced the great benefit of not being taken seriously. Between the focus on the unexpectedly entertaining Republican race, and the intense scrutiny on Clinton as the overwhelming Democratic favorite, the only aspect of Sanders’ record to have drawn any attention from outside his own campaign is his ambivalence on gun regulation,” Frank wrote.
The Sanders campaign did not respond to requests for interviews, but his supporters readily acknowledge that their candidate has not been put under the same microscope as Clinton.
“Bring it on,” said Jonathan Tasini, one of Sanders’ most outspoken surrogates. “The last thing Bernie is afraid of is scrutiny. Scrutiny brings more coverage and attention. One of the problems was that, up until recently, Bernie didn’t get covered.”
Tasini said that Sanders isn’t afraid of scrutiny because he has nothing to hide.
“Something might come up that would shock the hell out of me, but I honestly don’t see it,” Tasini said. “Bernie benefits from people feeling that he’s an authentic guy, that’s something he’s built up over a long period of time. You’d have to have actually found that Bernie had taken money from big banks to shake people’s trust in him.”
The increased media glare means more than just a closer look at Sanders’ past, however. It also means more intense coverage of his campaign and its tactics.
In the final push before New Hampshire, Bill Clinton ramped up his criticism of of Sanders’ operation. “When you’re making a revolution, you can’t be too careful with the facts,” Clinton told a rally in Milford, New Hampshire, on Sunday. The Sanders campaign’s data breach was like stealing a car with the keys in the ignition, the former president said.
Many Democrats feel that the national media would have made a far bigger deal out of these stories if they’d happened to the Clinton campaign — and that the press may start to pay more attention now.
However it happens, the sheer laws of political gravity suggest that Sanders is in for rougher months ahead. This time eight years ago, another celebrated Democratic insurgent was giving Clinton a run for her money and enjoying largely uncritical coverage. In the wake of Iowa and New Hampshire, things changed.
“There were more probing stories,” said Axelrod, a first-hand witness to the shifting narrative around Barack Obama. “It kind of culminated in March with the frenzy around Rev. Jeremiah Wright.”