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MSNBC’s special forum with Bernie Sanders showed the promise (and limits) of his political appeal

Sanders with MSNBC’s Chris Hayes. (Photo from MSNBC)

It felt a little like stepping into a time portal to December 2015. In a nationally televised forum aired Monday night on MSNBC, Sen. Bernie Sanders told voters in a closely contested swing county that he heard their concerns, reiterated his campaign promises for transforming America, and promised to defeat Donald Trump.

Sanders was back on the stump.

“Do we think it’s appropriate that the top one-tenth of 1 percent owns as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent? Anybody here think that makes sense?” Sanders asked MSNBC’s Chris Hayes before the crowd roared back, “No!”

Sanders may look trapped in candidate form, endlessly reliving the heady days of last summer when his long-shot candidacy shook the walls of the Democratic establishment and almost brought down the Clinton machine. But that’s because Sanders really is running a campaign right now — not for the presidency, but for control of the direction of the Democratic Party.

Since the election, Sanders’s allies have argued that he would have defeated Trump precisely because of his popularity with white working-class voters in places like Kenosha, Wisconsin, where the MSNBC forum was held. And in last night’s interviews, you could see clearly why that analysis makes a lot of sense to a lot of people — Sanders connected with the Trump fans over the ravages of free trade, the dangers of unchecked corporate greed, and some of his other bread-and-butter economic issues.

But if the forum suggested the promise of Sandersism in the Rust Belt, it also hinted at its potential limitations. The Trump voters last night were clearly moved by Sanders’s opposition to trade deals and the political establishment — positions also taken by Trump. But they expressed doubt at the places where Sanders and Trump do diverge — over Sanders’s belief in a Nordic-style welfare state with big and aggressive new spending plans, which Trump opposes.

That doesn’t mean Sanders’s policies shouldn’t be incorporated by the party. But at the very least, the voters’ reactions last night should give pause to anyone who thinks the choices facing the Democratic Party will be self-evident and easy, or come free of political trade-offs.

The promise of Sandersism in Trump country

Throughout the Democratic primary, Sanders harnessed not just the unprecedented support of young voters but also a voting bloc of self-described political independents who said they were fed up with both parties. They helped him pull off a victory in Michigan and then a landslide in Wisconsin in what were then among the most stunning political upsets of the year — at least until those states again shocked everybody by breaking for Trump in November.

As Boston College political scientist Dave Hopkins found in his study of the Democratic primary, independents flocked to Sanders for his “outsider” insurgent attacks on the status quo. And at several points in the MSNBC forum, several dozen Trump voters in Kenosha — which went red this November for the first time in 44 years — made this exact same point in explaining why they were drawn to the Republican nominee.

Here’s one exchange between Sanders and a Trump voter who was asked to explain why she backed Trump:

GAIL SPARKS: I think the country needs a bit of a change. They have put a lot of Republic[ans], Democrats — professional politicians in that office. Trump seemed more of him being the businessman. And what’s this country full of? Business or talk?

SANDERS: I think you make a good point. What you’re really saying is that people are sick and tired of establishment politics. You want someone to cut through the crap. I understand that.

SPARKS: Exactly.

A similar dynamic played out in the forum over trade. Sanders probed the Trump voters to explain why they believed middle-class wages were stagnating or falling, and they strongly agreed with him that free trade deals were to blame:

SANDERS: Why is the middle class declining?

MATT AUGUSTINE: Because so many of our jobs are going overseas.

SANDERS: Do we all agree that our trade policies — NAFTA, PAT — with China have been a disaster?

AUGUSTINE: They’re terrible ...

SANDERS: Is there a general consensus here that American trade policies have failed the American worker?

(Loud applause)

Forget whether you think Sanders is right or wrong about any of this on the policy merits, or whether his railing against “establishment politics” is opportunistic posturing. Politically, the issues on which they found agreement — attacks on politicians in Washington, condemnations of free trade deals — are ones on which Sanders ran a campaign significantly closer to Trump’s than Hillary Clinton did. And they’re all issues that the Trump voters in the Wisconsin crowd told Hayes they cared about deeply.

If you want to bring these voters back to the Democratic Party, last night’s forum suggested that adopting Sanders’s stronger positions against the political establishment and against free trade would be a good place to start.

Would the Rust Belt really embrace democratic socialism?

But if these parts of Sanders’s message clearly resonated with the Trump voters in the crowd, other parts of what he was selling were greeted with much more skepticism.

In particular, some of Sanders’s most aggressive economic and domestic policy agendas — the ones that made him a darling of progressives and lefties throughout the country — were also the ones the Trump voters appeared to have the toughest time stomaching.

Take one Trump voter’s reaction to Sanders’s proposal for free college tuition:

CHRIS HAYES: What did you think of it when the senator said, “Free college tuition”?

MARY MAGDALEN MOSER: [To Sanders] That’s the moment I stopped listening to anything coming out of your mouth. Because who is going to pay for it? Why don’t you address how college tuition has skyrocketed 6,000 percent since the 1980s? You can’t have an industry where you have a seniority level where once you’re past a certain level they are unable to fire you. No other industry has that type of protection. That needs to go.

SANDERS: No, I don’t think tenure needs to go. But here is the point: Tuition has gone up a lot — not 6,000 percent, but a lot. ... Here is the very simple issue: In the United States of America, do you think all young people, regardless of their income, should get a college education? Or should that only benefit the upper and middle classes?

MOSER: I believe the way the United States works today, where every single human being in the United States has the opportunity to go to college — I do not believe it is a right. I don’t think I should be expected to pay not only for my education and my children’s, but someone else’s as well.

Later on, another Trump voter who had been open to Sanders balked at his plan for free health care:

HAYES: When you hear Sen. Sanders talking about health care as a right, is that the sort of thing you're interested in?

JAMIE SELENA: That's great, but how are we going to pay for it? Right now, if you go online and try looking for insurance, it is a massive disaster. You could spend two hours on there, and you have no idea what to look for.

... I'm lucky; I'm quite healthy — and I'm looking at premiums that are $300 to $400 a month, and a $10,000 deductible. That’s ridiculous. How can you afford that?

It certainly seems likely that both Sanders’s free college tuition plan and his free health care plan were clear assets in the Democratic primary. But as Moser and Selena’s answers suggested, they may not have been such unalloyed advantages in the general election — after all, fewer than 50 percent of Americans believe in free college tuition, according to Gallup. And polling is decidedly mixed about whether the public wants more government intervention in the health care sector.

Other parts of Sanders’s beliefs also appeared to collide head on with what the Trump voters believed. Later on in the MSNBC segment, the cameras returned to Gail Sparks, who had agreed with Sanders that the problem in America was “establishment” politicians. Sparks was responding to a Muslim woman in the crowd who had said she feared deportation or persecution under Trump.

“Being one that works in a factory, I have tried to finish my college degree to do the job I’m doing. But because there are so many illegals in there, I can’t get the pay I should get,” Sparks said. “It’s even been said on the radio that a lot of [the illegal immigrants] who get stopped don’t pay their tickets, or they go to Mexico and hide and don’t pay their taxes.”

The difficult question for the Democratic Party

The hard question right now about the direction of the Democratic Party has nothing to do with a lot of what has often featured prominently in the autopsies of Clinton’s campaign — the FBI, WikiLeaks, bad campaign strategy, the Goldman Sachs speeches.

Everybody agrees that the party should not again nominate someone under investigation for breaking federal law. It’s hard to imagine that come next time, the Democratic nominee won’t try to spend more time in states that end up proving critical battlegrounds on Election Day. And nobody is clamoring for the 2020 candidate to give politically tone-deaf, damaging speeches to Wall Street bankers for six-figure salaries.

Nor is there even really that much disagreement about trade policy. The vast majority of congressional Democrats joined Sanders in opposing the Trans-Pacific Partnership (and, for that matter, NAFTA and other trade deals going back to the 1990s), and even Clinton in the end abandoned her record of support for such deals.

But Sanders’s proposed revision to Democratic Party ideology goes significantly beyond trade.

He wants the party that already stands for higher taxes in order to finance more generous health care and education services to adopt a far more ambitious agenda that would involve much more generous services in exchange for drastically higher taxes. Those proposals have also put Sanders at odds with the traditional party establishment and the party leadership.

It seems clear that Sanders’s anti-establishment streak is compelling to many voters, especially to electorally crucial white working-class swing voters in the Midwest who feel alienated from the political system. But it was clear from the MSNBC forum that many of these same voters who find a lot to like about Sanders may not completely share his vision of Nordic-style social democracy — at least not yet. And while Sanders certainly can persuade other Democratic Party elected officials to adopt his policy positions — indeed, during the 2016 cycle he was already very successful at shifting the party platform to the left on a number of fronts — he almost by definition can’t turn the Democratic Party establishment into anti-establishment figures.

This is why last night’s forum was so important. As long as Bernie himself is on stage, Sanders and Sandersism can be one and the same. And that’s probably good enough — Sanders is popular and is popular enough in specific ways that appeal to voters who were pivotal in the Electoral College.

But the bigger question is what the Democratic Party does with Sandersism once Sanders himself has exited the stage. Sanders has always maintained that his campaign was more about policy ideas than personality — but it’s precisely the elements of his vision that are most contentious inside the Democratic Party that may also seem least appealing to the very Midwestern voters Democrats are trying to reach.