It was the first promise Bernie Sanders made as a presidential candidate.
“I’ve never run a negative ad in my life,” Sanders told reporters at the Capitol exactly nine months ago, at the brief press conference he held to declare his candidacy. “I hate and detest these ugly, 30-second negative ads.”
As Iowa voters prepare to caucus on Monday, the Clinton campaign is accusing its surprisingly strong rival of repeatedly breaking that pledge. “Sanders Campaign Doubles Down on Last-Minute Barrage of Negative Attacks,” read the subject of one Clinton campaign email Thursday. A day earlier came a similar email: “Facing Pressure, Sanders Turns to More Negative Attacks, Undermining Promise to Run a Different Kind of Campaign.”
And on Friday, Clinton’s top pollster, Joel Benenson, charged that Sanders was running “the most negative” Democratic primary campaign in history.
Huh? Are we watching the same campaign?
All of this sturm und drang is about a single Sanders ad released on Thursday that takes aim—implicitly—at the six-figure speaking fees that Clinton accepted from top Wall Street firms like Goldman Sachs after she left the State Department in 2013.
Is this a tougher, more negative ad than the hopeful, patriotic spot Sanders ran to the tune of Simon and Garfunkel’s “America”? Certainly. Is it an attack ad? No. As you can see, the narrator never mentions Clinton's name or even refers to an opponent or another Democratic candidate. The ad more subtlety drops in references to “Goldman Sachs,” “speaking fees,” and Washington politicians “bought and paid for.” It leaves it to viewers to make the connection to Clinton, which given the headlines and Sanders’ more-direct references at the Democratic debates, they surely will. In other words, it’s a classic primary-campaign ad.