Again, Bernie Sanders is distinguishing himself from his Democratic colleagues on matters of character, confidence, and imagination. The Democratic party has rejected offers from Fox News to host its primary debates. But on Monday night, Sanders did a town hall from Bethlehem, Pa., which sits in one of those now-famous counties that suffered de-industrialization, voted for Barack Obama in 2012, and then went for Donald Trump in 2016. It was a very savvy move. It demonstrated Sanders’s verve, a strong dash of political courage, and a presidential willingness to speak to audiences beyond his party’s base. Republicans would be foolish to think he’s a pushover.
We should dwell on Sanders’s decision to appear on Fox in this format. “Your network doesn’t have a lot of respect in my world, but I thought it was important,” he told hosts Brett Baier and Martha MacCallum of the event. And of course he’s right. The media environment is entirely transformed from 20 or 30 years ago. Even the most dedicated news consumers often watch one cable network that matches their political disposition, and then consume news and opinion (and opinionated news) through social-media feeds biased first by their actual social milieu and then by algorithms that feed consumers more of what they already like. Sanders is smart to cross the media aisle.
He also found ways to speak to his base and a Fox News audience at the same time. When asked by a centrist Democrat about whether the party was drifting too far to the left, Sanders pivoted to giving an answer that would sound good to leftists who want to talk about policy, centrists who want to think of themselves as high-minded and civic, and conservatives as well. “If we spend all our time attacking Trump, Democrats are going to lose,” he averred. Not profound, but a very politic answer nonetheless.
Sanders effectively and charmingly exposed the gap between Donald Trump’s political rhetoric and the reality of his administration. The tax cuts won’t go to the wealthy, Trump promised. In fact, Sanders pointed out, most of them did go to the wealthiest payers. National Review readers know that this was inevitable because the tax burden falls heaviest on those who earn the most. But Sanders still made an effective rhetorical weapon of it. He brought up Trump’s campaign promise not to cut Medicare or Medicaid, and the fact that Trump’s budgets would do just that.
Sanders was canny when answering questions on immigration. He emphasized the need for more judges to handle the incredible burst of asylum claims at the border. “We need border security, of course. Who argues with that?” Sanders said. He was also rather effective on health care. Baier pointed out that 180 million Americans have private insurance that would be canceled by Sanders’s plan. Sanders retorted that many Americans see their insurance plans change annually when their employers shop for new plans, or whenever their jobs change. That Republicans have offered nothing to remove the kludgeocracy of administering health insurance through New Deal-era tax loopholes makes the proposed simplicity of Sanders’s plan appealing by comparison.
Sanders was also able to show off his blessedly ornery and old-school personality, which is a winner, I think. Challenged on his status as a 1 percenter with a net worth in the seven figures, Sanders replied, “If anyone thinks I should apologize for writing a bestselling book, I’m sorry, I’m not going to do it.” A non-apology that contains an apology.
Bernie supporters have a lot to be excited about. Their candidate has not only moved his party on ideas, he’s transformed himself from a prophetical voice of the left to presidential material. He has a message that is aimed perfectly at the states that Trump won narrowly in 2016 and that a Democrat needs to win back in 2020. His message discipline springs from the fundamental integrity of his convictions. He’s formidable.
And, once again, his appearance on Fox distinguishes him from other Democrats and particularly from Hillary Clinton. Many Republicans who watch Fox News and consume populist media can get the distinct impression that Democrats are just waiting for them to die. That was what was so damaging about Hillary Clinton’s “basket of deplorables” comment and her implication that Trump supporters will have no place in defining American life going forward. Sanders believes in his message so much, he wants to pitch it to you just before you settle in for Tucker Carlson Tonight. That’s to his credit.