In the first Democratic presidential debate last month, Vermont senator and candidate for the Democratic nomination Bernie Sanders surprised viewers and political analysts alike by passing up a chance to attack frontrunner Hillary Clinton over her use of a private email server while US secretary of state. Voters were “sick and tired” of hearing about the controversy, Sanders told the moderators. Smiling broadly and clasping her rival’s hand, Clinton replied: “Thank you, senator Sanders!”
The congeniality didn’t last. Sanders now appears to be walking back his comments, or at least downplaying the interpretation of everyone who watched the debate. In an interview with The Wall Street Journal this week, Sanders said the federal investigation into Clinton’s emails is “appropriate.” Did her usage interfere with public-records requests, or expose sensitive information? These are all “valid questions,” Sanders said.
“You get 12 seconds to say these things,” he added. “There’s an investigation going on right now. I did not say ‘end the investigation.’ That’s silly … Let the investigation proceed unimpeded.”
The atmosphere of the first debate inspired a number of commentators to declare the Democratic primary more “grown-up” and “substantive” than the Republican race. But Sanders’ walk-back of his emails comment—one that he acknowledged at the time “may not be great politics”—suggests that the realities of a zero-sum political race are trumping his attempts to take the high road. In recent weeks, Clinton’s campaign has criticized Sanders for allegedly using sexist language and have attacked his stance on gun control. Meanwhile her poll numbers, at least when it comes to Democratic voters, continue to increase.
Long story short: At the second Democratic debate on Nov. 6, don’t expect any more grinning mid-debate handshakes.