PLYMOUTH, New Hampshire – As Washington and the campaign trail are consumed by questions of terrorism and gun control after last week’s shooting in San Bernardino, California, Bernie Sanders chafed this weekend at the idea that news events should dictate what his campaign says or does.
On a swing through this key presidential primary state, Sanders largely stuck to his bread and butter domestic issues, before tacking on some more topical material towards the end of two speeches Saturday about guns and the so-called Islamic State. And as if sensing the criticism before it came, Sanders preemptively defended himself by saying he would not be, as he sees it, cowed by the media into jettisoning his core message.
“Let me conclude by saying this,” the senator told a crowd of 1,000 at Keene State College. “If you turn on the TV, what they now say is well, we’ve got one problem: It’s ISIS. We don’t have to worry about old people not having enough to eat. We don’t have to worry about having more people in jail than any other country… All we should focus on now, 24/7, is ISIS.”
“I say that ISIS must be destroyed,” he continued. “But I say we are a great enough country, and a smart enough country that we can destroy ISIS as we rebuild a disappearing middle class,” he added to applause.
That’s more or less been Sanders’ stance since the terror attacks in Paris last month. “I think we as a nation are smart enough to walk and chew bubble gum at the same time,” Sanders told Boston NBC affiliate WHDH Friday when asked if the economy or national security issues should take precedence.
Sanders supporters are thrilled by the fact that he has strong convictions and sticks to his message no matter what. But presidents rarely have such luxury. Sunday night, for instance, President Obama will update the nation on the fight against ISIS in a rare Oval Office address.
After Paris, 28% of Americans now say terrorism is the most important issue influencing their choice of the next president, compared to 33% who chose the economy, according to a recent Washington Post/ABC News poll.
Asked by CBS's John Dickerson on "Face the Nation" Sunday what he would say if he were giving that address, Sanders reiterated that "we have got to be as aggressive as we can in destroying ISIS," short of sending ground troops, and called the Paris attack an "intelligence failure." Ahead of the second Democratic presidential debate, which came the day after the Paris attack, critics alleged Sanders was unwilling to discuss foreign policy. But he delivered a mostly well reviewed performance than leaned heavily on his vote against the Iraq War.
Sanders spent the previous week trying to shore up his uneven record on gun control, which has become a liability for him. Democratic rivals Hillary Clinton and Martin O’Malley have made the issue central pillars of their campaigns.
Sanders held a press conference with Senate Democratic leaders to push for new gun laws, voted for every piece legislation he could that came before the Senate, went on a tweet storm about guns, wrote an op-ed on the subject, and emailed his supports with a lengthy missive laying out his plan to reign in firearms.
But in Keene, his first speech since the San Bernardino shooting, Sanders did not mention guns once. That prompted a sharply worded rebuke from O’Malley’s campaign, which also dispatched a staffer to Sanders’ second event of the day to spin reporters on why Sanders “did the NRA’s bidding.”
At that event, at Plymouth State University, Sanders did address the need for new “common sense” gun safety laws. “I support people’s rights to hunt,” he said, “but people do not go hunting with assault weapons.”
And he again spoke about ISIS and the need for Muslim nations to take the lead in fighting what he views as a war for the soul of Islam. “These states are going to have to step up to the plate,” he said.
But again, he seemed distressed by the pressure from the media to sway him from his core message of taking on the billionaire class.
“If you turn on the TV tonight, someone will say this is the major issue facing the country. It’s the only issue -- until tomorrow’s issues,” he said to laughs before another crowd of more than 1,000. “Who determines what the major issues are? You do. You have got to do that. And don’t let CNN or NBC or anybody tell you what the major issues are.”