Bernie Sanders’s Fox News town hall, which aired Monday night, showed that contrary to the belief of many of his detractors (and some of his supporters), the Vermont senator really does have more than one rhetorical mode.
There was the mode he used for the town hall part, and the mode he used for the Fox News part — represented by anchors Bret Baier and Martha MacCallum, who liberally interspersed questions from the audience with questions of their own.
When speaking directly to audience members or to the TV audience watching at home, Sanders was sincere and open. When asked about President Donald Trump, he spoke with emotion about how he hoped everyone could agree a “pathological liar” should not be president; in his closing statement, he practically begged for more comity in the country, without backing off his insistence that the rich need to do more to provide for working families.
When speaking to Baier and MacCallum, however — or, in a couple of moments, directly to the Fox News-watcher-in-chief — Sanders was as prickly as you’d expect. “The president watches your network a bit, right?” he needled. He hectored the hosts for making more money than he did. He huffed that he’d give fair answers only if asked fair questions.
The uncomfortable dynamic between Sanders and the hosts occasionally served to sharpen intellectual differences. Early in the hourlong town hall, Baier asked whether Sanders’s millionaire status (earned, he said, by the success of his recent book) proved that capitalism worked; Bernie tartly responded “no,” then, after a pause, launched into a mini-lecture about the obligation to ensure a minimum standard of living for the least wealthy in America.
More often, though, it was just uncomfortably tense. And that worked great for Sanders.
It was Bernie’s crowd — to the Fox anchors’ apparent dismay
For one thing, the audience was on his side.
After Sanders answered an audience question about why government-provided versus private-sector health care by outlining his health care proposal, Baier decided to poll the audience about it, asking people if they’d prefer it to their current, private-sector-provided health insurance. (That frame evokes Barack Obama’s famous promise that “If you like your healthcare, you can keep it” — something conservatives and Fox News frequently point to as a symbol of Obamacare’s broken promises.)
The poll ... did not go the way Baier appears to have thought it would.
It’s apparent that Fox didn’t stack the town hall with conservatives or people who hated Bernie Sanders; while the first questioner was a student organizer with the conservative youth organization Turning Point USA, the second was a progressive organizer who’d campaigned for Hillary Clinton.
But Baier and MacCallum’s questions were often rooted in the conservative assumptions that a stereotypical Fox News viewer might have: that cutting the defense budget would “send a message” to other countries that the United States is weak, or that migrant asylum seekers “have to go somewhere” because there’s no room for them in border communities (and therefore, implicitly, that they should go to sanctuary cities). Sometimes, Sanders simply dodged them without any newsworthy gaffes or saying anything that Democratic primary voters might disagree with.
Sometimes, he fired right back and challenged the question. “Why are you so shocked by that?” he challenged MacCallum during a back-and-forth about paying for his health care proposal. When Baier characterized Sanders as a “staunch supporter of Congresswoman Ilhan Omar” during what was supposed to be a 15-second “lightning round,” Sanders spent at least 15 seconds rejecting the premise — “Hold it, hold it, hold it. I’ve talked to her about twice in my life” — before affirming that he supported the right of a “Muslim member of Congress not to be attacked every single day in outrageous, racist remarks.”
By the end of the town hall, audience members were booing the occasional Baier or MacCallum follow-up, even doing call-and-response with Sanders.
Maybe this proved the central point of Sanders’ campaign rhetoric: that the American people writ large, not just progressive Democrats, really do want the government to guarantee them a certain standard of living. Maybe it just proved that Sanders is a good politician who’s skilled at presenting his preferred policies in a way that sounds good to people.
Either way, Sanders looked like a frontrunner — which, if you look at the polls, is exactly what he is. Sanders lags behind former Vice President Joe Biden in some polls, but Biden hasn’t yet officially declared his candidacy; if Biden somehow decides not to run, polling experts say Sanders could inherit a big chunk of his supporters, making him the prohibitive favorite.
That’s a very unusual position for a politician who has won national fame by defining himself against other Democrats. And it’s an awkward fit with his gruffly persona. Sanders’s prickliness seems sensible when he’s punching up in the polls; but when there’s no one to punch up at, a combative attitude can come off as ungenerous or even bullying.
The Fox News hosts provided the perfect foil.
Sanders directed his irritations at them, giving the audience plenty of the authentic-seeming “Bernie from Brooklyn” without actually being irritated with any potential voters, and without saying anything negative about any of his fellow Democrats also running for the presidency. When MacCallum invited him to attack Biden as a centrist or South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg for suggesting Sanders might be too old, Sanders demurred — pointing out that Biden was a friend and that the primary was for voters to hear differences and make up their minds, or half-joking about his distant past as a long-distance runner.
The answer gave the impression of Sanders floating above the fray, frontrunner-style. But he wasn’t. He was fighting MacCallum and Fox News. And in the same way that one might win a debate — but not a typical town hall — he won.