Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Bernie in the Fox's den


BERNIE SANDERS turned up on Fox News on Monday night. No, that's not a typo nor a hallucination. The self-described Democratic socialist seeking the presidency for the second time was the guest of honor at a Fox News town hall in Bethlehem, Pa., a kind of Daniel in the lion's den that Roger Ailes built (and unfriendly confines for a liberal of any pedigree).

But the fire Sanders brought to his questioners, Bret Baier and Martha McCallum, and the upbeat reception many in the audience gave him, point to a sea change that could make the primary season (at least) an interesting time. Sanders' appearance was one of the more profound shots fired in the still-nascent 2020 presidential campaign, and coming as it did on television, it almost certainly won't be the last of its kind.

It got people's attention. The Sanders town hall attracted 2.55 million viewers, with 489,000 of them in the holy grail demographic sweet spot of ages 25 to 54. His audience drew the biggest viewership of the town galls this year (so far). On that basis, Sanders' flinty, combatively principled approach to dealing with the GOP, and the weaponized Fox News bloviation machine, might be exactly what Democratic candidates need this year and next.

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First, it was an opportunity to prove that Democratic candidates as holistically perceived are not the angry, fire-breathing bomb throwers of President* Trump's tireless invention, but real people with policy prescriptions that maybe, just maybe, less reflexively doctrinaire Republicans could get their heads around.

We saw some of that possibility as Sanders fielded questions on a wide range of topics, from income inequality to Sanders' tax plan, from the likelihood of Joe Biden entering the race to the very idea of what a Democratic socialist is. On the matter of health care, Baier polled the house in Bethlehem: “A show of hands,” Baier said. “How many get their [health] insurance from work right now?”

A healthy number of hands went skyward. “Okay. Now, how many people are willing to transition to what the senator says, a government-run system?” Nearly every hand in the room went up. That plurality was further underscored by approval shouts, and a hearty applause for a idea that Trump and congressional Republicans have loved to vilify.



Even accounting for the possibility that Team Sanders had liberally seeded the room with its own supporters, there were certainly enough real Republicans in the place. Their rousing reaction to Sanders' presumably heretic proposal runs contrary to the attitudes of those in the amen corner of the GOP leadership.

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SECOND, SHOWING up within the conservative media ecosystem counters the myth that Democrats don't have the courage, or the nerve, to engage Republicans on their turf, and their televisual terms. Just as candidates are increasingly compelled to trying to campaign in all 50 states if they're serious about the presidency, the Democrats may need to get real about taking their message to all the places that matter, even if they haven't been welcome there in the past. Places like Fox News.

Gut-check moments like that are remembered by the opposition, even if they'd rather pretend it didn't happen. You get props for just showing up. That may have been Sanders' calculus; it's surely the same reason that South Bend, Ind., mayor Pete Buttigieg has reportedly been talking to House Ailes about hosting a Fox-hosted town hall of his own.

Feisty, articulate, smashmouth when necessary, Sanders brought a progressive message into a place where its toleration was least expected. To go by the reaction of some Republicans — presumably the voters of Trump's base — there's cause for concern. Reacting to Sanders' appearance, Heycel commented on the You Tube page dedicated to the town hall: “Voted Republican all my life. My next vote goes to Bernie!” Steven Porras couldn't agree more: “I’m not a Democrat but I’m on the Bernie train.”

For the loyalists of Team Trump, reactions like that suggest there's something new to fear, or at least think about: A cohort of voters as willing to vote their consciences in 2020 as they were in 2016, when many of them crossed over to Trump. What makes this so potentially important isn't not so much that Bernie Sanders came to Fox News. It's the fact that Bernie Sanders left Fox News amid an audience apparently more inclined to praise him than to bury him.

Image credits: Sanders: Fox News. Fox News Channel logo: © 2019 Fox News Channel.

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