Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., speaks to guests at the Jefferson-Jackson Dinner Saturday in Des Moines, Iowa. (Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images)
DES MOINES, Iowa — Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., went on the offensive at the Iowa Democratic Party’s annual Jefferson-Jackson dinner, where he delivered a speech that highlighted former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s shifting positions. His performance earned headlines dubbing him “fiery” and “bare-knuckle.” However, his campaign insists the remarks aren’t the beginning of an all-out attack on Clinton in their race for the Democratic presidential nomination.
Sanders’ press secretary, Symone Sanders, told Yahoo News on Sunday that she was surprised by some of the coverage of his speech.
“I saw some reports saying, you know, ‘Oh, the senator like smacked Hillary, slapped Hillary, attacked her.’ Those were not slaps, attacks and smacks, but they were differentiating on the issues,” Symone said. “The senator has a really strong record to stand on, so he’s going to stand on it.”
Clinton is the frontrunner in the Democratic primary, but state and national polls show Sanders is her top rival.
Sanders’ speech included lines that alluded to Clinton’s vote for the Iraq War when she was in the Senate, her long pauses before announcing opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline and Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement and the passage of the Defense of Marriage Act during the administration of her husband, President Bill Clinton. Symone pointed out that Sanders began an effort to “differentiate” his record from his opponent’s heading into the Democratic presidential debate on Oct. 13. While she acknowledged he may have sharpened his approach, Symone vowed Sanders will not “directly attack” Clinton.
“I think what folks saw last night, you know, was Bernie came out and was being a little more pointed in his record, if you will. … Prior to last night, he had not drawn as stark a contrast of where he stands as opposed to the other candidates. I think that is definitely true,” Symone explained. “Folks that have said, ‘Bernie came out of the gate and said where he stands.’ Yes, he did, so I don’t think you haven’t seen that, but you won’t see him directly attack.”
In an interview on ABC’s “This Week With George Stephanopoulos” on Sunday, the day after the dinner, Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta suggested Sanders broke prior vows not to “go negative” with his speech.
“I think Bernie Sanders seemed to have a course correction in the JJ dinner from one in which he said he wasn’t going to go negative to obviously focusing his … fire on her,” said Podesta.
However, Symone specifically said Sanders will not go “negative” and begin criticizing Clinton by name.
“He has never done a negative attack ad in his life, and he has never gone on a negative campaign,” Symone said. “Bernie’s not going to start doing these interviews talking about how, ‘Secretary Clinton’s bad on blah blah blah.’ You know, you’ll never probably hear those words come out of his mouth. And what you will hear is him saying, you know, ‘I believe climate change is the greatest threat to our national security, so it didn’t take me four years to get a position on Keystone.’”
Symone framed Sanders’ Jefferson-Jackson dinner speech as an effort to “highlight his record.”
“I think that’s important to voters to know, especially for people that don’t know the senator, to know … where he stands on these trade agreements,” said Symone. “Not just the Trans-Pacific partnership but, you know, NAFTA, CAFTA and the permanent normal trade agreement with China.”
According to Symone, it would be wrong to view Sanders’ comments on Keystone, various trade agreements, the Iraq War and DOMA as “Hillary zingers.”
“These were just the facts,” she said.
Symone also pointed to the moment in the Democratic debate where Sanders famously declared the American people had had “enough” of hearing about the scandal over Clinton’s emails. Clinton thanked Sanders onstage, and her campaign later told Yahoo News it felt like the moment was “an assist” from Sanders.
“He calls it like he sees it,” Symone said. “So he can go ahead and defend her and say, ‘Look, Americans are tired of these damn emails, they want to talk about the issues.’ Secretary’s, like, ‘Yeah.’ He’s like, ‘OK, but also, Americans are tired of these disastrous trade policies.’ And that might make some people uncomfortable, but you know what? Bernie was speaking truth to power. That’s what makes him so real and authentic.”