It’s Time to Get Serious About Bernie Sanders

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Democratic Presidential Candidates Debate In Charleston, South Carolina
Is Hillary feeling the Bern? Photo: Andrew Burton/Getty Images

Most weeks, New York Magazine writer-at-large Frank Rich speaks with contributor Alex Carp about the biggest stories in politics and culture. To kick off 2016: Bernie's New Hampshire surge, Palin's Trump endorsement, and the Oscars' diversity problem.

As Bernie Sanders increases his lead over Hillary Clinton to 27 points in one New Hampshire poll (and appears to be closing the gap nationally), some in the media have begun to wonder why they didn't see this pre-caucus surge coming. Is it time for the Democratic elite to more broadly reconsider Sanders's candidacy?
Let’s face it: This is going to be remembered as the election where almost no one in either party’s Establishment or the political news media saw anything coming. So why should the Bernie Sanders surge be any different? Writing at CNN Politics, Dylan Byers points out that the Times, whose supposedly data-driven "Upshot" column is still trying to explain why it declared Donald Trump near death last summer, buried Sanders’s announcement of his candidacy on page 21 — versus the page-one play given Clinton, Trump, and Ted Cruz.

I certainly have been no seer in the case of Sanders. I have never believed — and still don’t — that he can be elected president even though I prefer almost everything about his views and record to Clinton’s. To me he has three problems in a national election: He’s 74; he can be stigmatized as a nominal “socialist” (though that nomenclature may not carry much weight, negative or otherwise, to 21st-century American voters, beyond the claque who think every Democrat is a socialist); and he’s Jewish, a fact that few want to discuss as a possible hindrance to a national general-election candidacy.

I also thought Sanders couldn’t win the Democratic nomination because he has so little support from the party’s crucial African-American constituency. My theory was that while Clinton is a dreadful candidate running a campaign as tone-deaf as the one that imploded in 2008, she’d still triumph thanks to the loyalty of black voters, Sanders’s aforementioned handicaps, her command of the party hierarchy, and her fund-raising clout. I may be proven wrong about all of this. The enthusiasm of Sanders supporters has translated not just into big crowds but into enormous financial support for his campaign by individual donors; he has been pursuing black voters under the media radar; and the Clinton campaign is looking panicked and confounded by a youth-led insurgency in 2016 just as it was eight years ago. The recent effort of a Clinton backer, David Brock, to cast aspersions on Sanders’s (apparently sound) health backfired; so did Chelsea Clinton’s dishonest claim that Sanders wanted to dismantle government health care (he wants to expand upon Obamacare). Meanwhile, Sanders has gotten tougher on Clinton. In the last debate, he tied her speaking fees from Goldman Sachs around her neck like an anvil. He has demolished her grandiose claims about the value of her experience by going after her vote for the Iraq War. Barack Obama did that, too, and Clinton is nearly as flummoxed by this predictable line of attack now as she was then.

If Clinton continues to lose altitude through self-inflicted wounds, through Sanders’s ability to sell himself to a wider electorate, or through further revelations about her and Bill Clinton’s dubious buck-raking from Wall Street, corporate America, and foreign governments, the Democrats are left with only one plan B: Bernie Sanders. The party’s elites better start reconciling themselves to that, because if we’ve learned anything over the past year, anything is possible. Who would have imagined that an election that was destined to be Bush versus Clinton stands at least a small chance of yielding Sanders versus Trump, with possibly a third-party candidate (or so Bloomberg enthusiasts believe) to scramble the odds further?

Sarah Palin's appearance in Iowa, to endorse Donald Trump, was mocked widely on the coasts. How helpful can she be in Trump's campaign against Ted Cruz, even if her support may only add to his potential problems in the general election?
Palin’s pugilistic endorsement of Trump has been fodder from heaven for condescension and ridicule across the political and media spectrum — much in the same way, some may recall, that Trump’s early speeches were. Heaven knows her appearance was bizarre — not so much locked-and-loaded as, just possibly, plain old loaded. But for her audience, the base of the GOP, the “lamestream media’s” criteria of logic, fact-checking, sobriety, and propriety are beside the point. The base loves her, as it loves Trump, precisely because she breaks all the rules and says what she thinks. Granted, thought may not be the appropriate term to describe the whirlwind of non sequiturs, mixed metaphors, jingoistic sloganeering, puerile flag-waving, and self-infatuation that constituted her “speech.” It was an entertainer’s riff in much the way Trump’s performances are. If he is Don Rickles and old Vegas, she is Loretta Lynn and old Nashville. (The 83-year-old Lynn, by the way, has endorsed Trump.)

I have no idea if Palin will help Trump vanquish Ted Cruz. But if Cruz, who wraps himself in the legacy of his father, a hard-right and homophobic preacher, cannot win Iowa, he’s probably done. And Palin’s seal of approval may well help Trump best him there, by making tea-party types and hypocritical Evangelical Christian voters feel better about supporting a guy with “New York values,” a checkered marital history, a largely pro-choice paper trail on abortion, and little or no familiarity with either religious practice or Scripture. Somewhere God is laughing — or maybe Jerry Falwell is. Jerry Falwell Jr. invited Trump to speak at Liberty University on Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

Perhaps the most amusing aspect of Palin’s return to center stage is the loud chorus of Republican potentates expressing outrage about both her and her Trump endorsement. Most of her current critics were her cheerleaders the first time around, from William Kristol (who once took credit for discovering her in Alaska) to Meghan McCain (who campaigned relentlessly for the ticket her father shared with Palin) to the talking heads at Fox News, which promoted her from the get-go and put her on the payroll after she left public office. The Palin endorsement, like nearly every other aspect of Trump’s rise to the top of the GOP heap, gives the notion of chickens coming home to roost an apocalyptic dimension. 

In an essay he wrote for The Hollywood Reporter a little over a year ago, Chris Rock described entertainment as a "white industry" and talked about the role he's played as a "big brother" to black actors and comedians who couldn't otherwise get a break. Now he's hosting the industry's biggest awards show amid a walkout over another all-white slate of nominees. What would you like to see from him as the ceremony approaches?
The last thing Chris Rock needs to hear from me or anyone else is advice or instruction on what he should do at the Oscars. He is a brilliant interpreter of America and its culture, as I think he has made clear throughout his career, including in the freewheeling conversation I conducted with him for New York in the aftermath of Ferguson, late in 2014. The fact that he is the host of this year’s “all-white” Oscars is the best thing that could have happened to that telecast, which has been mired in declining ratings and irrelevance for some time now. Who would not watch his opening monologue? 

Movie, television, and theater critics — I was once among them — have to take awards seriously, or at least try to. Readers care about them; they’re fun; they prompt debates. But really: They are completely arbitrary or capricious for the most part, and most people in show business know (and privately acknowledge) as much — even if they play to win. As one much-Tony-awarded theater giant has joked to friends, “As long as they’re giving them out, I’ll take one.” So to painstakingly decode this year’s Oscars as some larger indicator about race in America is ridiculous, particularly in what everyone recognizes was a less-than-vintage year for American movies. Look at Chicago, or Baltimore, or Cleveland, or the state-enabled poisoning of the majority-black populace of Flint, Michigan, not at a Hollywood ceremony, to see what’s going on. It’s the Oscars, for heaven’s sake — where many voters eject a screener after ten minutes — not the Council of Trent.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, meanwhile, will have to either reform or die. An old white male electorate is as damaging to it in the entertainment marketplace as that same demographic is to the GOP in the political marketplace. If the Academy intransigently refuses to reflect the audience that votes with its eyeballs — the ever-more-diverse America whose Nielsen ratings and box-office dollars the industry craves — it will soon go the way of the nickelodeon.