Was Sanders Actually Fishing For Votes at Liberty University?

When I heard about Bernie Sanders choosing to speak at one of Liberty University’s famous “convos” where so many right-wing figures have spoken in the past, my initial reaction was probably the same as pretty much everybody’s: “Huh! Really?” Once I got over my amazement, I figured Sanders might be making two points by doing this: (1) running against the ever-cautious, often-cosseted Hillary Clinton, he’s willing to go anywhere and expose himself to all sorts of potentially hostile reactions, which is a useful trait to have in a presidential nominee; and (2) you don’t have to be one a them squishy, spineless “centrists” to have a civil conversation with people on the other side of political or ideological barricades.

Making these points–and getting the kind of guaranteed publicity that Nixon-goes-to-China moments always get–struck me as worth the trouble and the limited danger involved. Besides, Lynchburg is an interesting old half-ruined river town once you get off Liberty’s campus, or so I felt when I lived not far from there and wound up preferring it to snooty if hip Charlottesville.

But it seems other smart observers think Bernie was in Lynchburg not to make some broad point about his candidacy to people who were not there, but was actually trolling for votes.

At TNR Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig assumed that was the case, and then made a rather tortured case that he “isn’t crazy” to do so. Since Bruenig herself is a self-proclaimed Christian Socialist (albeit a Catholic, not an evangelical) who is also opposed to abortion, she seems to be hoping against hope that someone will convince conservative evangelicals that their scripturally-required commitment to the poor ought to outweigh their antichoice convictions and their traditions of solidarity with the GOP. So she’s praying Bernie began a trend:

[A]s previously strong relations between evangelicals and the GOP appear poised to fracture and circumstances grow too dire for Christians to leave the troubles of politics to their fellows, an option like the package of policies presented by Sanders seems prime for Christian support.

The odd thing about this comment is that progressive policies already have “Christian support” among the millions of Christians who are pro-choice and haven’t gotten in the habit of marching to Zion with Fox News and the GOP. It disappoints me that Bruenig seems to have forgotten about us as she gazes hopefully towards those students at Liberty.

Meanwhile, from a very different perspective, at Ten Miles Square our own Martin Longman figures Bernie is just doing what he needs to do if he intends to get himself elected president: trying to create a mind-blowing coalition by taking “a left-wing message to Hillary’s right flank” and attracting some contemporary version of “the George Wallace vote”–you know, conservative populists–and in this particular case, “Mike Huckabee’s supporters.”

[T]here’s a lot of overlap between Sanders supporters and Paul supporters, but there could be overlap with Sanders and Huckabee, too.

There’s just no way that Sanders can outflank Hillary from the left, but if he can bring in the disengaged and carry a big chunk of the middle, he’ll be cooking with gas.

And he doesn’t have to ignore or sell out black and Latino voters in any way while he’s doing this. Just before he went to Liberty, he was down in South Carolina visiting with mostly black Democrats, including a visit to Benedict College.

The name of the game is getting the most delegates to the Democratic National Convention and then getting the most votes in the Electoral College. Sanders still doesn’t have any clear path to those goals, but his campaign seems to understand that they can’t try to win with the standard Democratic primary electorate and have any hope of success.

If that’s the deal I’d say it would make more sense for Bernie to figure out the natural habitat of Trump supporters–maybe a WWE event in Pennsylvania or something–and make a direct pitch that he’s a much better elite-wrangler than The Donald.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.