The New York Times published a piece over the weekend about the political prospects of Bernie Sanders, a politician who apparently does not kiss enough babies:
"[Sanders] rarely drops by diners or coffee shops with news cameras in tow, unlike most politicians. He hardly ever kisses babies, aides say, and does not mingle much at fund-raisers.
"His high-minded style carries risk. As effective as his policy-laden speeches may be in impressing potential supporters, Mr. Sanders is missing opportunities to lock down uncommitted voters face to face in Iowa and New Hampshire, where campaigns are highly personal."
The media response to the Sanders campaign has been alternately predictable, condescending, confused and condescending again.
The tone of most of the coverage shows reporters deigning to treat his campaign like it's real, like he has a chance. John Cassidy of The New Yorker, for instance, swore he wouldn't be patronizing about the Sanders run. "Indeed, I welcomed Sanders to the race!" Cassidy wrote recently.
But Cassidy's hokey "Welcome to the 2016 Race, Bernie Sanders!" piece from last spring had a small catch. It basically said that Sanders was welcome because he would be a boon to the real candidate, Hillary Clinton.
"[Sanders] can't win the primary," Cassidy wrote. "And he will occupy the space to the left of Clinton, thus denying it to more plausible candidates, such as Martin O'Malley." (!)
Noting that Sanders held positions that were "eminently defensible, if unrealistic," Cassidy nonetheless said he was glad Sanders was running, because he would "provide a voice to those Democrats who agree with him that the U.S. political system has been bought, lock, stock, and barrel."
This passage he wrote just after arguing that Sanders cannot win and was only useful insofar as he would help the bought-off candidate win.
So what Cassidy really meant is that the Sanders campaign was allowing people who are justifiably pissed about our corrupted system to blow off steam, before they ultimately surrender to give their support to the system candidate.
And he welcomed that! But he wasn't being condescending or anything.
Cassidy referred back to that old piece recently, after he became among the first of many pundits pronouncing Hillary the knockout winner of a debate that most actual human beings seemed to think Sanders handled quite well. Cassidy went so far as to ask, "Did the media get the Democratic debate wrong?"
He thought and thought on this, then decided he/it didn't.
"Based on Clinton's manner," he wrote, "and her deftness in evading awkward questions, I think she delivered the best performance."
Campaign-trail reporting is like high school: a brutish, interminable exercise in policing mindless social rules. In school, if someone is fat or has zits or wears the wrong clothes, the cool kids rag on that person until they run home crying or worse.
The Heathers of the campaign trail do the same thing. Sanders is just the latest in a long line of candidates – Howard Dean, Dennis Kucinich and Ron Paul, to name a few – whom my media colleagues decided in advance were not electable, and covered accordingly, with a sneer.
When we reporters are introduced to a politician, the first thing we ask ourselves is if he or she is acceptable to the political establishment. We don't admit that we ask this as a prerequisite, but we do.
Anyone who's survived without felony conviction a few terms as a senator, governor or congressperson, has an expensive enough haircut, and has never once said anything interesting will likely be judged a potentially "serious" candidate.
If you're wondering why no Mozarts or Einsteins ever end up running for president in America, but an endless succession of blockheads like Rick Perry are sold to us on the cover of Time magazine as contenders, it's because of this absurd prerequisite.
Ultimately, what we're looking for is someone who's enough of a morally flexible gasbag to get over with the money people, and then also charming enough on some politically irrelevant level to attract voters. ("I'm a war hero, and Sharon Stone's cousin" was Chris Rock's take on acceptable presidential self-salesmanship).
Bernie Sanders bluntly fails the Rick Perry test. In fact he pretty much defines what it means to fail that test. It isn't just that he doesn't kiss babies or comb his hair or "deftly evade answers." He's also unapologetically described himself as a socialist, which makes him a giant bespectacled block of Kryptonite for Beltway donors and mainstream journalists alike.
If questioned, most reporters would justify this by noting that an effective president must be able to bridge the gap between powerful interests and populist concerns. So it makes some sense to interrogate candidates accordingly, to make sure they're acceptable to both sides.
The flaw in this reasoning is that it assumes that Wall Street and Silicon Valley and Big Pharma and the rest need the help of us reporters to weed out the undesirables.
They don't, of course. Big money already has a stranglehold on the process of government. It outright owns most of the members of Congress, and its lobbyists write much of our important legislation. With Citizens United, buying elections is now more or less legal. Big money even owns most of the media companies that employ those pundits who are all telling us now to worry about how "realistic" Sanders isn't.
Everybody knows this. In fact, this numbing reality of how completely corrupted the modern American political process is bends the brains of those whose job it is to cover it. What happens over time is that you lose hope, and you begin to view everything through the prism of the corruption to which you're so accustomed.
When you stop believing in the electoral process, then the only questions left to interest a professional observer are who wins, and how many laughs there will be along the way. We've gotten good at thinking about these things. Cassidy's bit about Sanders harmlessly occupying the left flank and blocking more "plausible" candidates from threatening Hillary is exactly the kind of sounds-smart observation we've been trained to believe passes for political journalism today.
Conversely, we've been trained not to care about which old ladies are freezing to death this week because some utility somewhere is turning the heat off, or who's having their furniture put on the street by a sheriff executing a foreclosure order, or who's losing a leg to diabetes because they didn't have the money for a simple checkup two years ago, etc.
None of those characters make it into campaign reporting. As good as we are at the horse-race idiocy, we suck that much at writing about these other things.
Watching Bernie slog forward to an audience of political gatekeepers who wish he would stop being a bummer and just kiss more babies shames me into a confession. I find myself giving up on this process all the time.
Donald Trump, a man whose idea of policy is a big wall, was the Republican frontrunner for months, and ceded the lead to a man who wants to fight immigrants with drones. This whole thing is a joke. At times, the only thing you can take seriously about any of this is the gambler's question of who wins.
I got into the act a few weeks back, gushing about how Trey Gowdy's Benghazi hearing solved Hillary Clinton's voter-sympathy problem. Quite a development in the soap opera! But a million miles from anything that matters.
Successful politicians today on both sides of the aisle are sprawling celebrity franchises. They seem always to be making piles of money and hobnobbing with Beautiful People when they're finished moving the status quo in some incremental direction, which some hack somewhere will always be willing to call change.
Whether it's the Clintons with their foundations or Al Gore with his movies and his carbon-trading interests or the Bush/Cheney axis of hereditary politics and energy commerce, we expect the politicians who make it to the big time to cash in somewhere along the line because, hey, this is America. Donald Trump, if elected, would find a way to turn being the president into a moneymaking operation.
Sanders is a clear outlier in a generation that has forgotten what it means to be a public servant. The Times remarks upon his "grumpy demeanor." But Bernie is grumpy because he's thinking about vets who need surgeries, guest workers who've had their wages ripped off, kids without access to dentists or some other godforsaken problem that most of us normal people can care about for maybe a few minutes on a good day, but Bernie worries about more or less all the time.
I first met Bernie Sanders ten years ago, and I don't believe there's anything else he really thinks about. There's no other endgame for him. He's not looking for a book deal or a membership in a Martha's Vineyard golf club or a cameo in a Guy Ritchie movie. This election isn't a game to him; it's not the awesomely repulsive dark joke it is to me and many others.
And the only reason this attention-averse, sometimes socially uncomfortable person is subjecting himself to this asinine process is because he genuinely believes the system is not beyond repair.
Not all of us can say that. But that doesn't make us right, and him "unrealistic." More than any other politician in recent memory, Bernie Sanders is focused on reality. It's the rest of us who are lost.