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Opinion Will Democrats stand up to the bully on their own side?

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) capped a speech to hundreds of people on the campus of the University on Nevada, Reno, on Feb. 18, by leading several dozen on a two-block march to the student union to cast their ballot on the final day of early voting ahead of Saturday's presidential caucuses. (Scott Sonner/AP)
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Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) at the CNN town hall Tuesday night confirmed what he told MSNBC’s Chuck Todd recently: He will not, on second thought, release his full medical records as he promised after the 78-year-old had a heart attack last fall. Social media erupted with objections, with many journalists pointing out that it was hardly unreasonable to demand that he fulfill his promise.

On CNN Wednesday morning, the Sanders campaign unleashed its press secretary, Briahna Joy Gray, to launch attacks on journalists and make unsupportable claims about other candidates. Gray declared the effort to hold Sanders to his promise to be a “smear” akin to birtherism (“And what you’re seeing right now is really reminiscent of some of the kind of smear, kind of skepticism campaigns that have been run against a lot of different candidates in the past. Questioning where they’re from, aspects of their lineage, etc.”).

She declared this to be part of a "smear campaign from the likes of Jennifer Rubin, [who] is one that has been beating this drum a lot, Republicans who if they were honest with themselves don’t support Bernie Sanders for other reasons, largely, for the same reasons that millions of working Americans do support Bernie, which is that he supports social programs that prioritize Main Street over Wall Street and has, yes, made a lot of enemies in the pharmaceutical industry and the health insurance industry and all of the interest groups whose interests are aligned against those of average Americans.”

It is not clear why she chose to single me out, rather than the many other journalists making the same point about his broken promise, or accuse without a shred of evidence that I am part of a “smear campaign.” What is clear is that no other campaign behaves in this fashion, singling out journalists and labeling legitimate questions as “smears" — well, other than President Trump’s ongoing war with the media.

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Gray also asserted without evidence that “Michael Bloomberg, who’s the same age as Bernie Sanders . . . has suffered heart attacks in the past.” In 2007, a Bloomberg surrogate informed the New York Times, “Before he was elected mayor in 2001, Michael R. Bloomberg had surgery to have two stents implanted in a coronary artery because of blockage in his heart.” There is no evidence he had a heart attack, let alone multiple attacks. Bloomberg’s campaign spokeswoman told me that he had never had a heart attack.

Bloomberg campaign manager Kevin Sheekey also released a written statement: “After a positive stress test in his doctor’s office at Johns Hopkins University in 2000, Mike had two coronary stents placed. He quickly told the FAA, consistent with the rules for any pilot, and this information has been public for years. The Bloomberg 2020 campaign released more information about his outstanding health soon after he entered the race.” Sheekey continued: “Here’s what we know about Sen. Sanders: In October 2019, he had a medical incident in Las Vegas. He didn’t tell the public for days and the full details have never been released. Now his campaign staff is spreading lies about Mike Bloomberg.” He added: “Facts matter. This isn’t the way to defeat Donald Trump in November.”

The conduct of Sanders’s campaign, as well as that of informal “Bernie bros” who roam social media hurling insults, threatening critics and even doxxing union officials who criticized his Medicare-for-all campaign, has become an issue in the campaign. Sanders’s staff is responsible for a good deal of the venom.

At least in my experience, no other campaign’s followers, let alone paid staff members, behave in a comparable fashion. As readers of this space know, I have at times been critical of practically every candidate; none has personally attacked me publicly.

Democrats will need to decide whether Sanders can operate by his own set of rules that reject transparency, renege on promises and attack journalists. Democrats who have watched Never Trumper Republicans speak out against Trump, whose conduct in the campaign foreshadowed his conduct in office, have said that they hoped — if presented with a similar challenge in their own party — that they would have the nerve to stand up to bullying. Now is their chance.

UPDATE: Gray subsequently tweeted, “I mispoke when I said Bloomberg had a heart attack. Rather, he underwent the same stent procedure as Bernie. Bernie released 3 detailed medical reports in December — just like the other candidates.” This is misleading. Sanders had a heart attack; Bloomberg’s campaign maintains that Bloomberg did not have a heart attack. Sanders promised in the wake of his heart attack that he would release all records. He has not.

The 2020 Super Tuesday primary elections fall on March 3 and encompass 14 states. It's the biggest contest for Democrats seeking their party's nomination. (Video: The Washington Post)

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