When Will Bernie Sanders Start Playing Hardball?

Bernie Sanders has yet to go negative. Is tonight the night? REUTERS/Rick Wilking

If Bernie Sanders wants to defeat Hillary Clinton at tonight's debate, The New Yorker just published a how-to guide. All Sanders has to do is exactly what Barack Obama did in 2008.

A memo from top Obama officials obtained by the magazine's Ryan Lizza outlines how Obama, then a junior senator from Illinois, toppled the heir apparent to the White House—by attacking her character. "The only way for Obama to win this argument about change was for him to raise the character issue, which he had tiptoed around until that point in the campaign," Lizza writes.

From the memo:

"Change you can believe in" was intended to frame the argument along the character fault line, and this is where we can and must win this fight. We cannot let Clinton especially blur the lines on who is the genuine agent of change in this election.

• The reason Clinton can't be trusted or believed when it comes to change is that she represents, to a great degree, the three sources of discontent formulated in our premise.
• She's driven by political calculation not conviction, regularly backing away and shifting positions on issues ranging from war, to Social Security, to trade, to reform.
• She embodies trench warfare vs. Republicans, and is consumed with beating them rather than unifying the country and building consensus to get things done.
• She prides herself on working the system, not changing it—rebuffing reforms on everything from lobbyist donations to budget earmarks.

If any of that sounds familiar, it's because these are the exact same talking points Republicans, and some Democrats—Bernie Sanders included—have been using against Clinton since she announced she was running. And in the case of the GOP, since long before that.

Will the same trick work twice? Former Obama advisor and the previous White House Chief of Staff David Axelrod tells Lizza it won't. "I said a month ago that I thought her stock was greatly undervalued, and I would buy it now," he says of Clinton.

But why fix something if it ain't broke? These talking points were successful in 2008, and they've continued to be successful in 2015. The only real question: is Bernie Sanders willing to play hardball?

So far, Sanders has kept mum on "EmailGate," the scandal that has dominated news coverage of the Clinton campaign for the past few months. Every single Republican candidate, meanwhile, has used Clinton's private email server to attack her.

But Sanders is an idealist—or at least he plays one on TV. As senior Obama campaign strategist Larry Grisolano tells The New Yorker s Lizza, "if you are the unity guy you can't come out with a crowbar against your opponent." For now, it appears Sanders wants to be "the unity guy."