The question was short, and so was the answer. “Does Secretary Clinton deserve an apology tonight?” moderator David Muir asked during Saturday’s Democratic debate.
“Yes, I apologize,” replied Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont.
And with that, Sanders took a big step toward putting the story of his campaign’s improper accessing of Clinton voter data behind him.
It was a big enough issue that ABC led off the debate with it, and the digital misconduct threatened to rob Sanders of a flattering contrast with Clinton — she had the private-email-server-as-secretary-of-state thing, and he had nothing of the sort. A recent poll by The Washington Post and ABC News, the latter of which broadcast the debate from Manchester, N.H., showed Clinton with a big lead but Sanders with an edge in the “honest and trustworthy” department. That’s an advantage he can’t afford to lose if he has any hope of making a comeback.
Sanders might yet take a hit, but he mitigated the damage with the way he addressed the breach on Saturday. The main thing he accomplished was leaving the media with little more to say on the subject. It’s hard to keep hammering someone who has already been so publicly contrite.
“Not only do I apologize to Secretary Clinton — and I hope we can work together on an independent investigation from day one — I want to apologize to my supporters,” Sanders added. “This is not the type of campaign that we run. And if I find anybody else involved in this, they will also be fired.”
In apologizing quickly, Sanders struck a very different tone from the one Clinton chose after the New York Times reported in March on her extensive use of a private email server during her tenure as secretary of state. Clinton was initially defiant and took six months to say she was sorry.
Given the prospect of making classified information vulnerable, the private email server is a far more serious matter than the voter data. There’s no way Clinton could have made the story go away with a simple apology. But she did herself no favors with the press by insisting for so long that she was in the right while refusing to at least acknowledge the bad optics and legitimate questions.
Sanders, on the other hand, called “my bad” right away. The story probably isn't over completely — especially if the Sanders and Clinton campaigns really do work together on an investigation, as they suggested they would on Saturday — but for the media to belabor the incident with waves of additional reports would seem like piling on. Sometimes, it's truly better to just say "I'm sorry."