Bernie Sanders, a non-observant Jew and self-described socialist, speaking to Christian-right students at Falwell-founded Liberty University... now there’s a sight you don’t see every day.
What’s next, Donald Trump guest-editing Ms. magazine? Hillary Clinton keynoting a cybersecurity convention?
Point is, Bernie deserves some props for preaching to the opposing choir - something that happens all too rarely in today’s polarized political climate. It’s highly unlikely that he swayed many minds Monday - he probably lost the kids at the outset, when he reiterated his support for gay marriage and “the right of the woman to control her own body” - but, rest assured, he knew that going in. He had his own political reasons for venturing into the lion’s den.
No only did Sanders want to send a message to the Democrats who question whether he’s electable, he wanted to send a message to Hillary Clinton. His willingness to campaign on hostile southern Virginia turf is proof that he intends to fight her everywhere on the map, not just in Bernie-friendly enclaves like Iowa and New Hampshire.
The typical stump formula is to speak to one’s followers, to reinforce their zeal - as evidenced Monday, for instance, when Trump vamped and preened in a Dallas arena stuffed with star-struck fans. Bernie, on the other hand, at least tried to challenge his listeners, to tell them things they might not want to hear.
He suggested that the Christian-right kids define “morality” far too narrowly. It’s not just about opposing abortion and gay marriage, he said. It’s about recognizing that income inequality, and the chasm between rich and poor, are just as immoral:
“You are a school which, as all of us in our own way, tries to understand the meaning of morality. What does is mean to live a moral life?....We are living in a time - and I warn all of you, if you would, put this in the context of the Bible - we are living in a time where a handful of people have wealth beyond comprehension. And I’m talking about tens of billions of dollars, enough to support their families for thousands of years....
“Now, when we talk about morality, and when we talk about justice, we have to, in my view, understand that there is no justice when so few have so much and so many have so little. There is no justice, and I want you to hear this clearly, when the top one-tenth of one percent - not one percent, the top one-tenth of one percent - today in America owns almost as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent. And in your hearts, you will have to determine the morality of that, and the justice of that.”
Bernie also challenged them with a Bible verse (Amos 5:24): “But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream.”
All told, it was a noble effort. Whatever you might think of Bernie, he at least tried to cross ideological boundaries - without compromising his convictions. When he was challenged about his support for abortion rights (the questioner was vociferously applauded), he stood firm and essentially said that while conservatives are fine with protecting the unborn, they care a lot less about helping the kids after they’re born - as evidenced by the ongoing congressional budget cuts in health care, education, and welfare spending.
Can he really trump Hillary for the Democratic nomination? I’m staying out of the prediction business; the conventional wisdom a few months ago was “No Way,” now it’s “Way.” Much may depend on what happens in the (few scheduled) Democratic debates, which start next month. But if Hillary ever assumed that Bernie was solely focused on Iowa and New Hampshire, where Bernie-friendly white liberals are numerous, the Liberty University gig tells us that he intends to contest her everywhere, even in the Super Tuesday southern states that vote in early March. And his small-donor network is robust enough to sustain him for a while.
Yup, the Democratic slog has barely begun.
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 Email him at email@example.com