Bernie Sanders refuses to answer questions about ISIS. Bad move?

As terrorist attacks and mass shootings raise public concerns over security, Senator Sanders prefers to talk about poverty and inequality. 

Bryan Woolston/Reuters
US Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders addresses the media at the Freddie Gray Empowerment Center in Baltimore, Md., on Dec. 8, 2015. Sanders drew criticism for his failure to answer questions about the Islamic State.

Bernie Sanders really, really wants to talk about poverty and inequality and the US economy, to the exclusion of other top issues.

That’s become increasingly apparent since the Paris terrorist attacks and mass shootings in Colorado Springs and San Bernardino, Calif., have raised foreign policy and guns on the national agenda.

Take Tuesday’s appearance by Senator Sanders (I) of Vermont at the West Baltimore neighborhood where Freddie Gray was arrested and riots erupted after Mr. Gray’s death last spring.

After touring the area, Sanders mentioned the devastating poverty and rundown housing he had seen. He said the landscape resembled that of a “third world country."

It was “stunning that we are less than an hour from the White House and the United States Congress," Sanders said at a press conference.

But the Baltimore Sun noted that his words were partly overshadowed by a verbal spat with reporters over the subject of the Islamic State.

Prior to the press conference, a Sanders aide said that subject was off-limits, due to the nature and setting of the West Baltimore tour. Reporters being reporters, they ignored that dictum and asked about IS anyway.

Sanders “appeared agitated and ended the press conference,” according to the Sun’s John Fritze.

This clash followed a weekend swing through New Hampshire in which Sanders chafed at responding to questions about guns and terrorism, according to MSNBC.

“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,” Sanders said at a rally in Plymouth, N.H.

Is this imbalanced focus going to hurt Sanders?

On one hand, it must be really annoying to politicians that reporters don’t always want to focus on their idea of the topic at hand. Think of all the joint press conferences presidents have had with world leaders where the US media corps asked about purely domestic stuff – or scandal.

And the economy rules, in the sense that it’s usually the No. 1 issue voters care about.

But that’s “usually." Right now is an unusual time. Events have made voters feel edgy and insecure – and candidates might need to respond to that. Presidents do. It’s part of their job.

“Sanders is – sorry Sanders people! – surprisingly one-dimensional as a candidate,” writes the savvy Washington Post political reporter Chris Cillizza.

And on a national level, that’s not working for Sanders at the moment. Look at the RealClearPolitics rolling average of major surveys: He’s about 26 points behind Hillary Clinton. That deficit has been pretty steady since Vice President Joe Biden announced he wouldn’t run back in October.

And a look at the sub-tabs of individual polls shows Sanders’s deeper problems. In a recent CNN/ORC survey, he trails Clinton by 27 percentage points on the question of which candidate Democrats most trust to handle the economy.

On foreign policy, the gap is huge: Clinton leads Sanders as most-trusted on foreign issues by 74 to 17 percent. That’s a whopping 57-percentage point difference.

Unless they reverse, for Sanders those are not the numbers of a future commander-in-chief.

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