You know you’ve done something right when President Trump is questioning Fox News. With Trump tweeting the above the morning after Sander’s debate on the Republican-friendly network, Trump’s slightly cryptic, yet critical message in response to the senator’s appearance on its Town Hall series said a great deal about the outcome both he and other Republican officials had anticipated from Sanders’ presence on the news network. Far from being vilified as a pariah by the news network and its audience, Sanders found a great deal of common ground with Republican voters on healthcare, taxation, and criminal and environmental justice, which is no small feat in the contemporary United States. The Trump era, to a considerable degree, has turned up the heat in an already intensely-divided American political culture. While far from amicable under Obama, relations between Democrats and Republicans have become so ugly in recent years that the idea of a candidate finding any modicum of common ground between the two feels like a dim prospect. Moderated by news anchors Bret Baier and Martha MacCallum, it was a welcome relief from the often criticised echo chamber idea that Republican and Democratic politicians aim to always seek refuge on their own ideologically-affiliated networks. At this early point in the 2020 election, it would be unwise to state that Sanders has the potential to make a lasting contribution to bridging the partisan divide, but the message from the senator’s enthusiastic reception on Monday evening in the red county of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania may well have gone some way to consolidate his image among supporters as a candidate with an uniquely broad political appeal.
On numerous issues, particularly healthcare, Sanders received consistently enthusiastic rounds of applause from the studio audience, principally by redirecting questions over the cost of his Medicare for All bill into a moral plea to treat healthcare as a human (or as Sanders put it, “yuman”) right. The moral argument for single-payer healthcare resonates strongly across the states, but one of the principal issues the Democratic Party is wrestling with at the moment is how to respond to Republican criticisms over the expense of a single-payer, MFA-styled healthcare system. Judging from Monday’s debate over expanding healthcare, it is clearly the financial question that stands in the way of candidates like Sanders making inroads with Republicans and soft-Democrats. In the senator’s revised MFA bill released last week, the predicted cost of such a program is hard to swallow even for Democrats. Even the most die-hard Bernie fans find discussing the cost of MFA a major buzzkill. More broadly, the journey for campaign seniors to turn this kind of policy into digestible, sellable billboard fodder is a tough prospect, to say the least. So compared to more Democrat-friendly audiences Sanders is generally accustomed to, being compelled to address this particular elephant in the room in front of a Republican crowd felt more challenging. One claim by GOP seniors has been that single-payer would remove private insurance. Sander’s skilful rebuttal to this was in proposing that a government-run healthcare system would give more stability to many Americans than the current system, where so many people are finding their health plans being cancelled or replaced due to changes in circumstance. Under his plan, Sanders argued that there would be no more payments for premiums, co-payments or deductibles. While these would be incorporated into higher taxes, he argued that regardless, “the overwhelming majority of people are going to end up paying less for health care”. For a debate where at times you could feel the frostiness emanating from sections of the audience when Sanders said anything too Bolsheviky, these statements received a major cheer from the audience, and allowed him to delve into a little more detail than usual over how his plan would negotiate the difficulties of higher taxation. Certainly many Democratic candidates who have pledged their support for MFA will be gauging the effectiveness of Sanders’ financial arguments last night in order to massage their own rally statements.
The only time I felt Sanders really missed the ball was in his response to a question over the complex failures behind Vermont’s retreat from implementing single-payer healthcare in 2014, a potent example of the financial and political headaches involved in pursuing such a major legislative overhaul. Instead of tackling it, Sanders dismissed the question as being too focused on “internal Vermont politics”, before moving his answer into safer territory. It was a lost opportunity, and I was quite surprised that his campaign team had not prepared him for it. As GOP staffers perfect their opposition research on Sanders ahead of a potential election showdown, the Vermont debacle will certainly feature in it, and unless the senator is able to give a detailed and convincing explanation as to what happened, then the moral arguments of MFA may be lost to millions of potentially sympathetic American voters. The imperative of tackling the costings of such a plan will only increase as the race for 2020 progresses, either sinking or advancing the party if they continue to hold MFA as a major policy banner. But considering how early in the race we are at, Sanders did reasonably well with a difficult subject.
I found Baier and MacCallum’s hosting of the debate challenging but fair. While Sanders occasionally bristled at some of their questions, he stayed composed and friendly towards them, remarking at one point that as long “as you ask me fair questions, I’ll give you fair answers.” In response to a question about the costings for MFA from a range of “bipartisan independent groups” (hmm.), Sanders quipped that he disagreed with their findings, and advised the audience that they would be best to “check out who funds these think tanks.” Fresh from an ongoing spat on Sunday with Clinton loyalists at the Center for American Progress over their attacks on Sanders’ personal wealth, I found this little side-remark amusing, but prescient in a political age awash with non-disclosed, “independent” commentators and think tanks influencing national debate. Sanders occasionally lobbed criticisms at Fox News’s ideological biases and the network’s continued acquiescence towards President Trump, but made sure to remain positive and friendly towards the mostly Republican audience, a crucial attitude that is sometimes overlooked by less elegant Democratic Party seniors. In fact, Sanders at one point made it clear that he had no interest in focusing on Trump, arguing that if the Democratic Party were to spend all its time attacking the President, it will lose the next election. He continued, arguing that “Our job is to lay out a vision that makes sense to the working families of this country.” These reassurances to so many of Trump supporters, regardless of their scepticism over Sanders’ policies, will hopefully have been warmly-received.
In fact, one of the major takeaways from the session (which can be viewed in the above video) was how much the audience had in common with their Democrat counterparts. While a decade or two ago, this would have felt like a gooey statement to make, it seems titanic in the partisan no-man’s land of American politics today. When mention was made of protecting veterans, guarding Social Security, bolstering economic, radial and environmental justice, and finding ways to improve healthcare, Sanders found major consensus with the audience. In one particularly sore moment for the moderators, after asking how many audience members (many on private insurance plans) would be willing to switch from a private provider to a government-run system, a surprising number of them agreed. While some would see the Town Hall debate as just another exercise in Sanders spouting unsustainable Barnum statements, or the audience agreeing to policies from a comfortable distance, I felt it was an effective reminder of American’s often-neglected liberalism which pertains in so many areas of political and social debate. Certainly I felt that for many Democrats who decided to tune in to the debate on Monday evening, seeing the support that Sanders received couldn’t help but close – at least to some extent – the psychological gap between themselves and their Republican neighbours. To this extent, Sanders’ appearance on the Fox News Town Hall was a real success, and this strategy will hopefully characterise his approach as he continues in his race for the Democratic nomination.