On Tuesday afternoon, as much of the political world discussed the FBI’s decision not to recommend criminal charges against Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders’s campaign blasted a text message to supporters.
“Tell the DNC Platform Committee to make sure they include Bernie’s amendment to oppose the TPP,” said the text. “Sign & share with #StopTPPNow.”
That, not the FBI, is Sanders’s focus for the moment. According to a spokesman for Sanders, the Vermont senator will not respond to the FBI’s decision, and is not altering his plan to remain a presidential candidate until the Democratic National Convention nominates Clinton.
Throughout his campaign for the presidency, Sanders refused to attack Clinton over the email story. He alternately ruled it out as a legitimate issue, and hectored the media for focusing on scandal instead of substance.
“You’re not going to be the sixteenth writer who asks me about Hillary, are you?” Sanders asked Bloomberg News in March, after the scandal broke, and he was approached for a comment. “I know you would not do that. You want to ask me about the state of the economy, unemployment, poverty. You would not ask me about my views on Hillary Clinton.”
Sanders, who arrived in Congress just two years before the Clintons arrived in the White House, was never inclined to attack the Democrat front-runner over scandals. As a congressman, he had opposed articles of impeachment for Bill Clinton, and called the lengthy Whitewater investigation a distraction from the greater shame of corporate political influence.
Since the 1980s, Sanders had won election after election without going after his opponents personally. He believed, and frequently stated, that a corporate media’s focus on personality and scandal served as a distraction from the important work of democracy. In Iowa, Sanders once refused to indulge a voter who wanted to talk about Bill Clinton’s sexual dalliances, calling them “disgraceful” but basically irrelevant to the 2016 race.
Still, the senator’s avoidance of the email story stood out; at times, Clinton’s strongest Democratic opponent seemed to be the only politician with no opinion on the evolving story. When asked about it at the first primary debate with Clinton, Sanders decided to make a definitive statement about why he wouldn’t exploit the issue.
“Let me say something that may not be great politics,” Sanders said, looking at Clinton. “I think the secretary is right, and that is that the American people are sick and tired of hearing about your damn e-mails.”
Clinton laughed, and gave Sanders a grateful handshake, but Sanders benefited from the exchange as well. A RealClearPolitics average of polling on debate day found Sanders down 12 points to Clinton in Iowa and up 9 points in New Hampshire, with surveys still factoring in Vice President Biden as a potential candidate. In the end, Sanders lost Iowa by a handful of votes, and won New Hampshire by 22 points.
But the decision to lay off the email story resonated in pop culture. Plenty of pundits — whose analysis Sanders openly disdained — argued that he blew the race by not exploiting the issue. Even Ted Rall, a Sanders supporter, wrote in his comics biography “Bernie” (which included exclusive Sanders interviews) that “Bernie neutralized Hillary’s biggest vulnerability, her illegal use of a private server for State Department business.” On the season finale of “Saturday Night Live,” the actors who played Sanders (Larry David) and Clinton (Kate McKinnon) portrayed the candidates meeting at a bar, with Clinton admitting that she won a rigged primary after Sanders refused to attack her on the email servers.
“Remember when I told everyone to stop talking about your damn emails?” said David. “What a schmuck!”
“That could have taken me down,” said a relieved McKinnon.
“I know!” said David, mugging and waving his hands. “Stupid, so stupid!”
Sanders didn’t agree, and the Clinton campaign prevented any chance of a rethink. When Sanders answered email questions with anything but a dismissal — for example, agreeing with HBO’s Bill Maher that the email story had “moved” — it generated speculation that he would start to shift and attack.
He never shifted. By June, as the primaries wound down, some Sanders supporters looked at the FBI investigation as one last chance to wrest the nomination from Clinton. H.A. Goodman, the unofficial scribe of Sanders’s most hardcore voters, wrote popular columns arguing that “the FBI primary” could still break for Sanders. “Since Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton don’t know how James Comey’s criminal investigation will unfold, Vermont’s Senator must wait, and expect to win,” he wrote last month.
On Tuesday, Goodman shot off a flurry of tweets arguing that Clinton had been “indicted in public opinion” and that Sanders was still in it. Indeed, Sanders exited the primaries with more than 13 million votes, the largest donor list in politics, and some of the highest favorable ratings of any politician in America. It was more than any pundit would have predicted at the start of the primaries. But it was not the nomination.