Opinion: Came for the Clinton, stayed for the Bernie

At the first Democratic presidential debate Tuesday night, a cranky, septuagenarian, slightly deaf socialist owned the stage. Clutching the podium, U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont railed against the ills of capitalism while explaining the concept of democratic socialism to the roughly 9.2 million Americans who tuned in. More than a decade after Republicans savaged John Kerry for speaking French, Sanders unabashedly praised Denmark and Sweden for providing universal health care, paid leave and free education for all.

And he did so in that unmistakable Brooklyn accent, unvarnished even after his 30 years in Vermont politics as a mayor, congressman and senator. I half expect to see Sanders on the subway tomorrow, reading the Daily News and wearing a Mets cap. He is who he is, and there is no question that he means what he says. And therein lies his appeal.

Unlike the bumbling Lincoln Chafee or the wooden Jim Webb, Sanders cannot be easily dismissed. He is literally calling for a political revolution, one that actually makes sense. His rival Martin O’Malley has many of the same ideas, but lacks Bernie’s ability to raise fire and brimstone. O’Malley is Sanders’ angel-faced foil, but so far Democratic voters seem to prefer the latter’s scruffy, blunt-force liberalism to the former’s silver-tongued polish.

I watched the debate at a party organized by the Hillary Clinton campaign. Although the audience initially booed Bernie, they were soon cheering him on in spite of themselves. Hillary delivered a strong performance, deflecting weak attacks from O’Malley and outright ignoring Chafee, who, despite having close to zero name recognition, chose to repeatedly remind the audience that he’s never been involved in a scandal. Sanders rendered Chafee’s potshots moot in the biggest moment of the debate when, after Clinton was berated for her email debacle, he defended her: “This may not be good politics … but Americans are sick of hearing about your damn emails!” he cried, as a raucous ovation ensued.

Hillary shook his hand, and proceeded to hammer Republicans on abortion, make a bold case for paid family leave and demonstrate her mind-bending fluency in all things policy.

As I headed home in a cab later that night, I struck up a conversation with my driver, Mr. Moy, who had been listening intently to the debate. He likes Bernie, but doesn’t think he’s a realistic candidate. He’s loved Hillary ever since she said, “It takes a village to raise a child.”

“To me, that means that in order to govern a country you should be able to govern your own family,” he explained. Of course, Mr. Moy isn’t necessarily even voting in the primary.

“I vote in the end,” he said. “I don’t want to reveal myself. I may change.”

Alexis Grenell (@agrenell on Twitter) is a Democratic communications strategist based in New York. She handles nonprofit and political clients.