On Monday night, Fox News aired a town hall with Bernie Sanders, a front-runner in the 2020 Democratic primaries. The self-described “democratic socialist” took a risk appearing on the populist-right network. It paid off.
Overall, the senator from Vermont set forth several of his platform’s most popular planks, avoided gaffes, and answered almost every question to audience applause.
Three moments were especially striking. First, Sanders was touting Medicare for all when the Fox News moderators Bret Baier and Martha MacCallum asked the audience members to raise a hand if they currently receive health insurance from an employer. Many hands went up. And by a show of hands, how many would be willing to switch to the health-care system that Sanders was proposing instead? Almost everyone appeared to raise a hand again—a result that seemed to surprise the moderators, who had already told viewers that the group in the auditorium was ideologically diverse.
Second, Sanders used the town hall to address President Donald Trump directly, urging him to end U.S. involvement in the war in Yemen per a resolution that both houses of Congress have passed. “Sign that resolution,” Sanders challenged. “Saudi Arabia should not be determining the military or foreign policy of this country.”
Third, on a night when the moderators repeatedly challenged Sanders on his statements, raising concerns, there was one big claim they did not even question. “Whether you’re a conservative, a moderate, or a progressive,” Sanders said, “I don’t think the American people are proud that we have a president who is a pathological liar. And it does not give me pleasure to say that.”
Under any previous president, moderators would have expressed shock at such a statement. But it is so obviously true that the sitting president is a pathological liar that even moderators on Fox let the characterization stand. “Trump cannot even tell the truth as to where his father was born,” Sanders said. “It’s really that crazy. His father was born in New York; he claims he was born in Germany. If you can’t even tell the truth about where your father was born, it’s hard to believe anything he says.”
It wasn’t a perfect night.
Sanders was at his most disappointing when he touted a popular subsidy that would disproportionately benefit relative elites (free college tuition); was vague about how he intends to pay for his agenda; and explained why he has opposed so many free-trade agreements, which is to say, policies that increase the size of the economic pie, helping the United States afford more social-welfare spending. He sometimes impugned the motives of those who challenge the practical viability of his proposals, as if they’re all just bought-off shills.
Still, he stepped into one of the more significant filter bubbles that divide red from blue America. He was decent in his manner, pleading for comity, embracing universalist rather than identitarian language, decrying racial injustice and anti-Muslim demagoguery, and mincing no words in correctly labeling Trump a pathological liar. His strengths outshone his flaws in front of a TV audience that many Democrats have a hard time reaching, having written it off as deplorable, if not irredeemable. He showed other Democratic candidates the way forward and warmed up the Fox audience to left-wing ideas.
For having a constructive discussion despite their significant differences, Sanders and Fox deserve congratulations and that highest form of flattery: imitation.