Bernie Sanders’ performance in the first Democratic presidential debate in October was hardly bad, but it did show where work was needed if he intends to win the Democratic presidential nomination. Though he wasn’t directly going up against any other candidates at Friday’s MSNBC forum in South Carolina, where Rachel Maddow interviewed each of the Democratic hopefuls separately, Sanders showed that he’s shined up some of his weaknesses.
In the Vegas debate, Sanders came off as grumpy and above-it-all when challenged—unexpectedly directly by Hillary Clinton—about his record on gun control. He said, essentially, that Vermont is a rural state so BACK OFF. On Friday, Sanders kept with the “rural state” language, but inverted it into a reason for why it makes him uniquely capable of passing the modest gun control legislation that a supermajority of the country agrees on but can’t seem to push through.
“I believe that I am in a very good position, coming from a rural state that has virtually no gun control, to put together a consensus of the American people, which I think exists, which says we are going to keep guns out of the hands of people who should not have them,” he said. “I believe coming from a rural state that I can bring together the 60 percent or 70 percent of the American people who are sick and tired of seeing these horrific massacres that appear almost every couple of weeks.” The truth is, no one is in a great position to usher any gun control through the United States Congress anytime soon. But it’s worth considering, at least, whether a president who has some credibility among gun owners might have a better shot.
Sanders also found a way to reconcile his discomfort in delivering hard-hitting, personal attacks with the reality that attacking Hillary Clinton is the only way he is going to win the nomination. He pulled off the classic political trick of stating that he wouldn’t attack someone… and then doing it anyway.
“I can't walk down a hallway in the nation's capitol without [reporters] begging me to beat up on Hillary Clinton, attack Hillary Clinton. Tell me why she's the worst person in the world,” he said. “I resist it and I resist it and I resist it. Because I think—unlike our Republican friends there who think that politics is about attacking each other in incredibly stupid and destructive ways—I think what we are trying to do is have a sensible debate on important issues facing America.”
But having said that! “But having said that, look, I would not have run for president—I love my job as Vermont senator. I would not have run if I believed that establishment politics and establishment economics can solve the very serious problems that we face.” He added: “I don't think it's good enough just to talk the talk on campaign finance reform. You've got to walk the walk. I am the only Democratic candidate who does not have a super PAC.” Which is a nice way of saying that Hillary Clinton is bought and paid for without actually saying it.
Sanders also—SIREN!—forced himself to say something about his personal life. When Maddow asked him about the “biggest public misconception” of him, he said, “Well, people think I’m grumpy.” True. “People think I am too serious.” Yes. “But I think what people don't see is I have seven beautiful grandchildren who are the joy of my life.” There ya go, Bernie.