Somewhere between Hillary’s evisceration of his gun control position and her slam that we are “not Denmark,” Bernie Sanders was probably wondering where it all went wrong. How a self-described democratic socialist who had received fawning news coverage of his large campaign rallies and appeared on the cover of TIME magazine was being gutted like a fish.
Things did not go so well for the Vermont Senator on Tuesday night. The after action reporting criticized his lack of preparation and seeming unseriousness on any issue other than his signature refrain about the evils of income inequality. Mrs. Clinton, on the other hand, was lauded for her razor sharp responses and ability to incorporate the populist anger Sanders channels, while underscoring her capacity for getting things done. The other three candidates on the stage barely rated a mention, but the consensus was that Sanders had exposed himself as not-ready-for-prime-time, a relic of old lefty politics that the Democrats had dropped in the dustbin of history after McGovern was blown out by more than 20 points in 1972 and Reagan crushed Mondale in 1984.
To be sure, there is something to be said for Sanders’s earnestness. When he told Chuck Todd he does not consider himself a capitalist, I do not doubt his sincerity. When he said we should look to Scandinavian countries and how they provide social welfare to their citizens, I know Bernie Sanders truly believes that. The only problem is that verbalizing those ideas to an audience of 15 million people and more than 700 reporters covering the Presidential race is a complete non-starter for anyone actually interested in becoming President.
It is one thing to preach to a choir of 300, 3,000 or even 30,000 supporters, as Sanders has done on the campaign trail. But the United States of America is not just a college campus in Madison, Wisconsin or Waterfront Park in Burlington, Vermont. What candidates say is not just heard here in our country but around the world and whether you are grasping for depth on foreign policy or suggesting that banks be broken up, those words echo in ways they do not when you are merely one of 100 Senators in Washington, D.C.
You see, for all of the superficial similarities the media wants to point out between the Republican and Democratic outsiders running for President, there is one key difference – Republican primary voters clearly enjoy the clown car aspect of their nominating process. They are okay with “truthiness” on a wide range of topics and are not punishing candidates for saying stupid things. If anything, they are rewarding one offs like Ben Carson’s comment that he would not support a Muslim becoming President, Carly Fiorina’s easily debunked lies about Planned Parenthood or basically anything that comes out of Donald Trump’s mouth.
But Democrats have become far more sophisticated in their nominating process. The Bill Bradleys and Howard Deans of the world have had their moments in recent nominating contests and there will always be a portion of the party that embraces Medicare-for-all and massive tax hikes on the wealthy (this writer included!), but at the end of the day, Democrats have embraced the idea of “electability” because we understand that inhabiting the White House is far more important than any ideological purity test.
My suspicion is that Sanders is collecting some portion of the primary electorate that would have backed Elizabeth Warren had she run, but there is a ceiling for that support. Indeed, the idea that Hillary is unacceptable to the liberal base has always been a canard, but what Tuesday night also showed was how commanding a presence she is when the discussion turns to policy and, like it or not, how that conversation occurs in our modern media age. It is easy to buy into your own hype when the coverage is good, but unlike Sanders, who, but for a brief moment in the sun a few years ago when he filibustered the extension of Bush-era tax cuts, has strictly been a gadfly and cable TV presence, Clinton has decades on the national stage and understands its rhythms far better than her erstwhile opponent. That, far more than a clever hashtag or cheeky merchandise, is what helps win elections.
Follow me on Twitter - @scarylawyerguy