As Hillary fends off bad news, the press finally discovers the Sanders surge

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There was a moment in the Democratic debate, as Bernie Sanders explained that ObamaCare isn’t enough and he wants to raise taxes on everyone to pay for government-run health care, I wondered if Hillary Clinton was thinking of that Jon Lovitz line from an old “SNL” skit:

“I can’t believe I’m losing to this guy.”

Sanders is out there as an unabashed socialist, railing against millionaires and billionaires, and many prognosticators thought he won the NBC debate in South Carolina. I found her steady as usual, speaking more to a general-election audience, putting Sanders on the defensive over gun control and displaying far greater depth on foreign policy. Sanders, on the other hand, always dials it up to a 10, Larry David style.

And yet it’s Bernie who brings the passion, who’s gotten the party’s base excited, and who is now crowing that the inevitable nominee is no longer quite so inevitable. And with polls showing Sanders with a big lead in New Hampshire—60 to 33 percent in a CNN poll?--and a modest lead in Iowa, the press is taking a second look.

What took so long? I just loved this New York Times headline the other day: “Clinton Campaign Underestimated Sanders Strengths, Allies Say.”

You got that? It’s not that every pundit on the planet has insisted for a year that Bernie had no chance, none, zero, nada, of stopping Hillary’s coronation. It’s her dumb campaign that didn’t see this coming.

The journalistic consensus—and I’m not exempting myself here—is that a 74-year-old Vermont senator who wasn’t even a member of the Democratic Party didn’t have a prayer of knocking off a former first lady, senator and secretary of State who is, after all, a Clinton.

But now the email scandal, which was dormant for so long, could be coming back to haunt her. An inspector general has told congressional leaders in a letter that her home server contained information on some of the government’s most secret programs. Clinton told NPR this was merely a “leak” designed to damage her.

And yesterday, after weeks of a media debate over whether Bill Clinton’s sex scandals are relevant to the campaign, the New York Times certified them as fair game—which matters because of its agenda-setting role. A piece saying that young women are troubled by her role in the 1990s scandals led off with Lena Dunham, the HBO star who’s already conducted a gushing interview with the former first lady, telling an Upper East Side dinner party that she too is concerned about whatever role Hillary played in going after Bill’s accusers.

This, says the Times, “captures the deeper debate unfolding among liberal-leaning women about how to reconcile Mrs. Clinton’s leadership on women’s issues with her past involvement in her husband’s efforts to fend off accusations of sexual misconduct…

“Even some Democrats who participated in the effort to discredit the women acknowledge privately that today, when Mrs. Clinton and other women have pleaded with the authorities on college campuses and in workplaces to take any allegation of sexual assault and sexual harassment seriously, such a campaign to attack the women’s character would be unacceptable.”

Other than that, it’s been a great week.

I’m going to take a deep breath here and remind everyone that Clinton is still the overwhelming favorite in this race, even if the previously unthinkable happens and she loses the first two contests.

But did the press fall into the same trap as in 2008, convinced that Hillary’s celebrity, money, gender and huge lead would make the race into a cakewalk? Once Joe Biden decided against running, Sanders declined to press on her “damn emails” and her polls stabilized, journalists concluded that she was a lock.

What they missed—and this was on a par with misreading the Trump phenomenon—is the deep anger and frustration among voters fed up with the political and media establishment.

Now, says the Times, “the Clintons are particularly concerned that her ‘rational message,’ in the words of an aide, is not a fit with a restless Democratic primary electorate.”

The paper also reports that the Clinton camp is preparing for a “long slog” against Sanders: “The campaign boasted last June, when Mrs. Clinton held her kickoff event on Roosevelt Island in New York, that it had at least one paid staff member in all 50 states. But the effort did not last, and the staff members were soon let go or reassigned.”

Even Hillary supporters, such as Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen, says she talks too much about her one- and two- and three-points plans:

“Frankly, I don’t give a damn about her plans. I sort of already know what they are anyway. After being first lady, senator from New York, secretary of state and, going all the way back, the 1969 commencement speaker at Wellesley College, she can’t possibly have any surprises up her sleeve. When it comes to policies and plans, she is a known commodity. The rest of her is encased in an emotional burka.”

I wouldn’t go that far, but Hillary is using a factual approach to make the case that Sanders is out of the mainstream. The plan that he released just before Sunday’s debate shows he would slap a 52 percent tax rate on people earning more than $10 million. And obviously he’s been pulling Clinton to the left, since first she has to win the nomination.

Even nationally, a Monmouth poll has Sanders cutting Clinton’s lead to 52 to 37 percent.

The press clearly didn’t expect a competitive race, but hey, this hasn’t been a great year for campaign coverage.