After running away with the New Hampshire Democratic presidential primary on Tuesday, Bernie Sanders in his victory speech made the case for why he can win a general election. Then MSNBC host Rachel Maddow did the same thing — only in a much more compelling way.
To be clear: Maddow, who co-moderated a Democratic debate last Thursday, hasn’t explicitly backed Sanders over Hillary Clinton. And during MSNBC’s primary-night coverage, she didn’t try to tell viewers why they should vote for the Vermont senator.
Instead, she followed Sanders’s address with a personal reflection that was all the more striking in its sincerity after hours of cable news blabbing. Her message was a vivid example of what Sanders had said moments earlier — that an unapologetically liberal candidate can actually turn out voters better than a center-left candidate whose more mainstream positions supposedly make him or her more “electable.”
If you really are a liberal, it’s been a long time in this country when you felt like mainstream politics had nothing to say to you, and that mainstream politics just was not about you. And I look at all these young people, in particular, out at this Bernie Sanders event: I was 19 in 1992 when Bill Clinton was running on the Democratic side, and at the 1992 Republican convention, Pat Buchanan got up there and gave his “culture wars” speech, where he basically declared a crusade against minorities and particularly against gay people. And as a gay person watching that in 1992, I didn’t feel like Bill Clinton had my back, right? I didn’t feel like the Democratic Party had my back. He was talking about agreeing with Ronald Reagan that government was the problem and all that stuff.
If you are a liberal, you are not a majority in this country, and you know it, and it always feels that way. But this Democratic race with Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders campaigning this way against each other — that happened because Bernie Sanders got into this race. And all these kids who are enthused about this race — whether or not they’re supporting Bernie Sanders directly — are never going to feel like mainstream politics isn’t about them.
If Sanders indeed has a shot — and reasonable people can disagree — Maddow perfectly captured the reason why in one minute of live television. The clear implication was that her own feelings of disenfranchisement represent the sentiments of other liberals, too, and that Sanders (the self-proclaimed democratic socialist) has suddenly made many of those people feel less marginalized.
Thus, the case for Sanders being Democrats’ best bet to hold the White House isn’t about an ability to win the center, come November. (That’s an argument for Clinton.) It’s about an ability to bring to the polls a horde of liberals who might otherwise stay home.
Maddow and Rush Limbaugh are about as dissimilar as two media figures can be. But this is the same argument the conservative talk radio host has been making in reverse about the need for Republicans to nominate a true conservative who will fire up and turn out voters who skipped Election Day when Mitt Romney was at the top of the ticket four years ago and when John McCain was the standard-bearer in 2008.
Here’s how Limbaugh put it in October:
If they don't nominate one of these conservative candidates, then they are looking at another huge butt kicking. … They keep nominating these moderates, these Northeastern liberals or whatever. They think [they] are gonna get the independents, and they keep losing.
There’s a remarkable symmetry here, as commentators on opposite ends of the political spectrum promote the counterintuitive idea that moving toward the poles, rather than toward the middle, is the way to succeed in 2016.
Sanders on the Democratic side and Ted Cruz on the Republican side surely hope they are right. And by getting personal on primary night, Maddow made the most convincing case yet.