“In New York, you can be a new man.” So goes a line from the runaway Broadway hit “Hamilton,” which is sold out through January. Tickets, if you can find them, go for as much as $2,000. So how did Bernie Sanders, Man of the People, score two seats in the orchestra for $334 on Friday night?
By being a new man; how else? Landing in the section reserved for dignitaries, Sanders and his wife were surely in elbow-rubbing range of those for whom the game is favorably rigged — hazardous company for a populist. Being old, curmudgeonly and incorruptible is what’s won Sanders eight of the last nine contests. He can’t step out of character now, even for a few blissful hours in the orchestra.
Sanders was in the Empire State to woo voters ahead of its April 19 primary, as was Hillary Clinton. For a time, the contest for delegates devolved into a fight over which candidate could rightfully claim to be a real New Yorker. Consider their battle over local delicacies. On Sunday, Sanders enthusiastically dug into a hot dog at Nathan’s on Coney Island. The day before, Clinton admired — but refused to touch — the cheesecake put in front of her at Junior’s on Flatbush Avenue. Score one for Sanders.
Sanders initially fell short in the straphanger-knowledge department by not knowing that commuters last used subway tokens in 2003. But Sanders’s competitor had a blunder of her own: When she tried to get on the 4 line, the ever-prepared Clinton had her MetroCard ready but couldn’t get it to swipe. That gave “Saturday Night Live” its best Clinton skit yet: After trying every which way to get her card to work, the candidate (played by look-alike Kate McKinnon) tried to jump the turnstile. Failing, she concluded she’d just as well take a cab anyway.
The math says New York’s primary doesn’t matter, but it should and could if the Democratic Party weren’t less democratic in awarding its delegates than the Republican one. Sanders is way behind Clinton if you count elite superdelegates, but he is within striking distance if you count allocated delegates. In 2000, Florida revealed how error-prone vote-counting is; in 2016, we’re learning how flawed delegate selection is. Look at what happened on the Democratic side in Wyoming on Saturday. Sanders whomped Clinton by 12 percent, but the delegates were split 50-50. If that isn’t an example of the rigged system Sanders talks about, what is?
The rhetoric has heated up accordingly. On Wednesday, Clinton said Sanders hadn’t done his “homework” on financial regulation, after some critics unfairly panned comments he made during a meeting with the New York Daily News editorial board. Sanders fired back with his own hyperbole, charging that Clinton wasn’t qualified to be president. He changed his tune on Sunday’s “Meet the Press,” conceding that she’s qualified in terms of her resume. But “in terms of her judgment, something is clearly lacking,” he added, citing her earlier support of the Iraq War and ties to Wall Street and special-interest groups.
Clinton’s biggest problem last week was engendered by her prime surrogate, Bill Clinton. On Monday, he was still trying to walk back his confrontation with Black Lives Matter protesters in Philadelphia, who arrived at a campaign event bearing signs with slogans like “Black youth are not superpredators.” At issue was the 1994 crime bill he signed into law. In 1996, then-first-lady Clinton defended it as a way to bring “the kinds of kids that are called ’super-predators’ ... to heel.” And the Clintons did, accelerating a punitive law-and-order movement that led to so many arrests — particularly of young blacks — that two decades later, it spawned a counter-movement. Bill Clinton responded to the protesters by spewing a bunch of statistics in support of the bill, which the nonpartisan fact-checking group PolitiFact deemed “Mostly False.”
Sanders is largely the real deal, but still, corruption starts with a perk here and a perk there. The next thing you know, you’re dining with Goldman Sachs and collecting hundreds of thousands of dollars. We’ll never see the transcripts of Clinton’s schmoozing for dollars with the one-percenters, not because they show criminal conduct — what’s legal will astound you — but because they reveal purchased coziness. Bankers don’t spend money they don’t get a return on. It’s how it takes nearly a decade for Goldman Sachs to be fined a paltry $5.1 billion (likely to be reduced) for “serious misconduct” in selling mortgage-backed securities it knew were “likely to fail.”
In Albany on Monday, Sanders reminded thousands of cheering fans that after starting some 50 percentage points behind Clinton, he now beats her in national polls against the Republicans — all because he’s fighting against a “corrupt system” that undermines ordinary Americans. As a line from the song “Alexander Hamilton” goes: “Will they know you rewrote the game? The world will never be the same.” If that’s Sanders’s takeaway from his night on the Great White Way, his followers may forgive the moment he temporarily left Ordinary America for the Other America.
Margaret Carlson is a Bloomberg View columnist.