While the recent Republican presidential debates have been disgraceful by the standards of rhetoric and decorum, some of the post-debate commentary following last night's showdown between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders may be nearly as embarrassing. The hypersensitive condemnation of the Vermont senator's mere words and gestures makes you understand what so many Americans like about Donald Trump. We are being told now that it is wrong (and probably sexist) for Sanders to point his finger at Clinton and tell her not to interrupt his answer to a question, and that it is wrong (and possibly racist) for him to describe black neighborhoods as "ghettos." As an old white guy, Sanders is presumed guilty of "patronizing" attitudes and postures even when he attempts to empathize with people or defend his own rights against an aggressive rival. It should be clear by now that there are many Democrats with whom Sanders literally can never win. Before I get jumped myself, let me make clear that "many Democrats" do not include "all blacks" or "all women." But there are many Democrats of all ethnicities and gender identities who apparently cannot look at or listen to Sanders without having their antennae out for signs of anything "patronizing," or cannot think of Hillary Clinton as anything but the representative of all women.
Amid ongoing speculation about the biases or pathologies of so-called "Bernie Bros," I think I see a definitive difference between Sanders supporters and Clinton fans. "Bernie Bros" are resented for assuming that many Clintonites support Clinton only because she's a woman, but it doesn't follow from that that they oppose her because she's a woman. Instead, while Clinton supporters can't keep themselves from thinking of Hillary as representative of women -- if they don't support her solely because of her gender, they assume that people oppose her because of it, and they see Sanders' behavior toward her as representative of his attitudes toward women -- Sanders supporters, male and female, see her only as Hillary Clinton, a public figure with a specific record of policies, opinions and actions that make her less suitable than Sanders for the highest office in the land. Of course, if so that will only convict the Sandersites of insensitivity in the eyes of their opponents, who themselves are arguably guilty of a sort of bigotry if they presume, as their criticisms imply, that Sanders' "patronizing" attitude is characteristically if not exclusively male and/or white. Since Barack Obama was accused of being "patronizing" toward Clinton at times in 2008 (e.g., "You're likable enough.") I think this "patronizing" thing is more gender-based than race-based, despite some resentment of Sanders' "ghetto" remark. If the "patronizing" issue hurts Sanders in the Democratic primary, however, it's just as likely to bounce off whichever battle-hardened Republican emerges with the presidential nomination. Whether the GOP nominee is Trump or not, he will certainly campaign against "political correctness" in a way that will preempt all protests, at least for his own supporters if not also the undecided, against his attitude or demeanor during debates with Clinton.
As for Sanders, I worry that one lapse into political correctness of a sort months ago will prove his undoing this spring. That lapse, for a time the most memorable utterance of his campaign, was when he said that no one -- meaning Democratic primary voters and himself -- gave a damn about those State Department e-mails. I don't actually think he was being chivalrous toward Clinton then -- for wouldn't chivalry be "patronizing?" -- but I do suspect that Sanders reflexively took the party line that Clinton scandals are fake issues counterfeited by Republicans and thus not worthy of discussion in Democratic debates. But by granting Clinton partisan immunity on the e-mail issue Sanders arguably condemned himself to battle her with one arm tied behind his back. Still, it's hard to know whether he could have done otherwise, since it seems politically incorrect to question Clinton's personal integrity among Democrats -- apart from criticizing her speaking fees and who paid them. Of course, Sanders could renege on whatever promise he made to himself at any time, but by now it may too late to start that attack, just as Sen. Rubio seems to have discovered the scandals of Trump University too late to help his own cause. Still, it might be worth Sanders' while to throw the long bomb. It could well blow Clinton up, and it would also signal, for those looking for signs of strength this year, that Sanders doesn't plan to be "politically correct" with Trump or whomever the Republicans vomit forth. Unfortunately, Sanders has to make his case now with possibly the most "politically correct" part of the electorate, the Democratic primary base, and when you're "politically incorrect" with them, you can actually pay a price -- as may the rest of us.