Reminder: Not all attack ads are created equal

Bernie Sanders is out with a new ad in advance of Sunday’s Democratic primary debate, and CNN is suggesting that it breaks Sanders’s promise to not run a negative campaign.

Here’s the ad, titled “Two Visions”:

Without mentioning Hillary Clinton by name, Sanders clearly implies that his main opponent in the race can’t be trusted to take on Wall Street, invoking her line from the previous debate that “everybody should” love her — including corporate America.

Clinton’s campaign, for their part, is not amused:

Two Visions, screenshot via YouTube

Two Visions, screenshot via YouTube

Here’s the thing: This ad is clearly an attack on Hillary Clinton, but it also isn’t the black-and-white/minor key horror movie scandal-mongering that we generally think of when we hear the term “negative campaign.” The Clinton campaign’s claim that Sanders shouldn’t have run this ad because he “said he was a different kind of politician” means that any criticism of Hillary’s proposals to regulate Wall Street (or her proposals on pretty much anything, for that matter) coming from Sanders is out of bounds. That doesn’t make sense.

Bernie Sanders has a substantive disagreement with Clinton over how to regulate the financial sector, and he has a substantive disagreement with Clinton over the corrupting influence of money in politics. These are differences that he’s consistently outlined in prior Democratic debates, and in that context they were considered substantive. As in, not unfair smears.

Speaking of unfair smears…

At the end of the day, if all negative ads looked like that, our politics would be a whole lot less cynical. In reality, the offense the Clinton campaign is taking to “Two Visions” suggests that they’ve got some actual, old fashioned negative ads cued up, and were waiting for a pretext in which they could say that Sanders hit them first.

You know, ads that look like this:

It was more or less inevitable that if and when the Democratic primary tightened (particularly in Iowa and New Hampshire) what started as a friendly exchange of ideas would get more than a little bit pointed. But let’s step back for a second: Republican candidates have declared one of their frontrunners to be a Democratic plant, another to be a financial delinquent and a third to be disqualified from the race altogether due to their foreign birth. Sanders’s ad contrasting his credentials for regulating Wall Street with Clinton can be fairly described as an attack, sure, but not all attacks are created equal.


Jon Green graduated from Kenyon College with a B.A. in Political Science and high honors in Political Cognition. He worked as a field organizer for Congressman Tom Perriello in 2010 and a Regional Field Director for President Obama's re-election campaign in 2012. Jon writes on a number of topics, but pays especially close attention to elections, religion and political cognition. Follow him on Twitter at @_Jon_Green, and on Google+. .

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