Polman: Feeling the bull, Bernie's biggest con
You'll get no argument from me that Hillary Clinton is a flawed candidate — stonewalling the release of those Goldman Sachs chats is merely Exhibit A — but when it comes to bull-slinging and empty sloganeering, she's no match for her self-righteous rival.
Watching Bernie Sanders in Thursday night's Democratic debate — the last of the season, if we're lucky — all too often I was "Feeling the Bull." I realize that my perspective is anathema to those who shriek with Beatlemaniac delight at his every thunderous utterance, but what can I say. His passion for fantasy speaks for itself.
Sanders riffed ridiculously from the opening bell. He re-conjured his dreams of free college tuition and government health care without once explaining how either would pass a Republican House or a non-filibuster-proof Senate. And like any other inside-the-Beltway politician, he kept saying stuff like "I have introduced a bill ... I have introduced legislation," which means squat, especially in light of the fact that he has done virtually nothing of significance during his three-decade congressional career.
He had no explanation for his failure to release years of tax returns ("Jane does 'em"), he again had no coherent explanation for his votes against the gun-controlling Brady Bill, and his vote to protect gun manufacturers from lawsuits. When asked to substantiate his standard portrait of Clinton as a special-interest lackey, he whiffed like Ryan Howard chasing a breaking ball in the dirt.
His biggest con of the night was when he opined like a pundit about the status of his campaign.
"Secretary Clinton cleaned our clock in the Deep South. No question about it. We got murdered there. That is the most conservative part of this great country," Sanders said. "But you know what? We're out of the Deep South now."
I get that it's no fun to be losing so decisively, but that's a line he's been floating for weeks now, recently on Larry Wilmore's Comedy Central show. And on so many levels, it's a laughfest.
For starters, he's basically saying that Clinton's wins shouldn't count as much as his wins; that her primary wins in big racially diverse states shouldn't count as much as his lower-turnout caucus wins in smaller, overwhelmingly white states. Second, he's specifically claiming that Clinton owes her southern victories to right-wing voters. In truth, she won big thanks to robust turnout from African-Americans — who just so happen to be among the most liberal of all Democrats on economic issues.
Sanders, who has yet to break through with blacks virtually anywhere on the map, does himself no favors by insinuating that their votes are worth less than those of his young white legions.
Third, he seems to have forgotten the primary results in Virginia, North Carolina, and Florida. Perhaps those states don't meet his definition of "Deep South." But all three are below the Mason-Dixon line, and all three are racially diverse states that were key to the Obama coalition. (Virginia and Florida went blue in '08 and '12; North Carolina went blue in '08.) None of the three can be typecast as "very conservative," at least not in presidential election years. All three, with heavy black and Hispanic turnout, slaughtered Sanders in the primary balloting.
Fourth, it's a howl to hear him dismiss the "Deep South" as unimportant, considering the fact that he stumped in Dixie last year, telling Louisianans about how important they are: "I'm here to tell you that the time is now for us to fight in 50 states of the country."
Fifth, Sanders' bid to pin his deficit on the "Deep South" ignores the fact that he was beaten in Ohio (by 14 points in that swing state), Illinois, Missouri, Arizona, Nevada, and Massachusetts. Yes, he has run a stronger race than anyone envisioned, and, yes, a big slice of the Democratic base is wary of Hillary and weary of the Clintons, but the delegate math — undergirded by the popular vote gap — is inescapable.
And fatuous spin can't defeat it.
Dick Polman is the national political columnist at NewsWorks/WHYY in Philadelphia (newsworks.org/polman) and a "Writer in Residence" at the University of Pennsylvania.