One month after the Democratic National Committee declared it would not partner with Fox News for its presidential primary debates, leading candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders announced he would participate in an April 15 Fox News town hall. Those on the left who don’t want Fox to be treated as a legitimate news outlet quickly voiced their disapproval.
Carolyn Fiddler, communications director of Daily Kos, which organized a successful petition calling for the DNC to deny Fox’s requests to host presidential debates, told the Associated Press, “I don’t know why he would lend his considerable presence to a network that routinely pushes sexist and racist tropes about progressives and his supporters.” Katherine Krueger, managing editor of the progressive Splinter News — who likes Sanders because he makes “the right people irrationally angry” — urged him to reconsider: “The ones who are already tuned into Fox News when that town hall starts aren’t going to move an inch on this pinko socialist.”
Sanders is correct to ignore the naysayers, though perhaps not for the reasons he’s offered.Defending his decision on “The Daily Show,” Sanders said going on Fox News will help flip Donald Trump voters: “I think it is important to talk to those people and say, ‘You know what? I know that many of you voted for Donald Trump, but he lied to you. He told you, for example, he was going to provide health care to all people; now he wants to throw 30 million people off the health care that they had. He told you that he was going to give tax reform that would not benefit the wealthy; 83% of the benefits go to the top 1%.’ I think it is important to talk to Trump supporters and explain to them to what degree he has betrayed the working class of this country and lied during his campaign.”
This is pretty naïve, if not delusional. Though Sanders is correct that the president has, sporadically and inconsistently, tacked left on health care and taxes, Trump’s signature issue has always been restricting immigration. Sanders won’t be saying anything on Fox that will change the average Trump voter’s mind on that score.
Furthermore, as the shift toward Democrats in the 2018 House election indicates, anyone who voted for Trump on the grounds that he would expand access to health care and slap new taxes on the wealthy doesn’t need Bernie Sanders to inform them that didn’t happen.
Sanders’ youngest rival, South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, had a somewhat more plausible argument for appearing on Fox News himself: “There are so many viewers who may never hear what our party has to say at all, if we’re never going on [Fox News] and explaining what we believe.” This may seem fruitless, if you assume that every Fox viewer is an immovable, blindly loyal right-wing Republican. But in a 2014 study of media consumption by the Pew Research Center, Fox was the third-most popular news source among people with “mixed” ideological views, and for those “mostly liberal,” it came in fourth.
Granted, that doesn’t translate into big portions of the Fox audience. Only 8% of the “mixed” audience and 5% of the “mostly liberal” audience cited Fox as their main news source. Still, these numbers are not zero. Considering that Democrats would have won the White House in 2016 if they flipped 80,000 votes in three Rust Belt states, they can’t be picky about where they go to hunt down hard-to-reach swing voters.
But while going out of one’s way to reach those voters for the general election makes sense, the Fox News audience is not a treasure-trove of voters that Democrats need to win the presidential primary. So what’s the point of going on Fox at this stage of the process?
The answer is: Democratic primary voters should get the opportunity to see how their candidates deal with questions from a conservative perspective, even if they are loaded with unfair right-wing talking points.
After all, the eventual nominee is not going to run in a vacuum. She or he will face plenty of sharp attacks from the right, and how well Democrats respond says a lot about how viable they would be in November 2020.
In criticizing Sanders’ decision, Splinter News’ Krueger said, “I’m willing to bet serious money that this ends up being a whole bunch of pointed questions about the Green New Deal, about why Sanders wants to take away the private insurance we all love so much, and about some newspaper column he wrote decades ago, with a question about the deficit thrown in for good measure.”
We should hope so! If Sanders doesn’t have good responses to pointed questions about his democratic socialist agenda, maybe his agenda isn’t ready for prime time. If he does, then he has an even stronger case to make why he should be the nominee and why his agenda should be enacted.
The questions for Sanders will likely be pointed, but not nasty. The moderators for town hall won’t be Trump boosters Sean Hannity and Tucker Carlson; they will be straight-news anchors Bret Baier and Martha MacCallum. As Sanders reminded “The Daily Show” viewers, he did a Fox News town hall in 2016 with Baier, who “did it straightforwardly. Believe me, we went over the ground rules beforehand and they kept their word.”
That town hall, which was coupled with one for Hillary Clinton, made news because — unlike in the 2016 Democratic debates to date — Baier asked a question about abortion. And it was a question that reflected the interests of socially conservative Fox News viewers: “Can you name a single circumstance at any point in a pregnancy in which you would be okay with abortion being illegal?” After Sanders did not name one, Baier followed up by suggesting “there are some Democrats who say after five months, with the exception of the life of the mother or the health of the baby, that perhaps that’s something to look at.”
This was a heavily slanted phrasing of the question. Democrats weren’t the ones pushing constitutionally questionable abortion bans after 20 weeks, without any exemptions for the health of the mother. Republicans were. To assign that view to “some Democrats” makes the pro-choice position seem extreme.
But guess what? Candidates can be asked questions by journalists, and even voters, with unfair wording. You may not believe this, but sometimes a candidate’s opponent levels attacks in an unfair manner. Politics is not always fair! A strong presidential contender needs the skills to turn such questions and attacks to his or her advantage. What better way for a Democratic candidate to show off those skills by tackling, head-on, questions with a conservative skew?
Democrats may not want to legitimize Fox News. But no amount of shunning is going to make it go away. The Democratic nominee will have to function in a world in which Fox exists and conservative talking points are well amplified. Keeping the Democratic presidential candidates coddled in a partisan cocoon during the primary is not going to prepare the eventual primary winner for what is to come.
Bill Scher is a contributing editor to Politico Magazine, co-host of the Bloggingheads.tv show “The DMZ,” and host of the podcast “New Books in Politics.” He can be reached at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @BillScher.