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Bernie lets his hair down

Bernie SandersBernie SandersThe Memo: The center strikes back Sanders against infrastructure deal with more gas taxes, electric vehicle fees Sunday shows - Voting rights, infrastructure in the spotlight MORE danced his way onto the stage of a daytime talk-show last week, one more incongruous happening in an election cycle that has already had plenty of them. 

But if Sanders’s appearance on Ellen DeGeneres’ eponymous TV show on Thursday had several light moments, it also served a serious political point.  

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Firstly, it connected Sanders, who is vastly less well-known than his main Democratic rival Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonThe Memo: The center strikes back Democratic clamor grows for select committee on Jan. 6 attack White House denies pausing military aid package to Ukraine MORE, with an audience beyond political obsessives.  

Secondly, it seemed to represent an acknowledgement on the Vermont senator’s part that voters expect more than the discussions of policy with which he has always seemed a lot more comfortable. 

“He is finding out that it is not sufficient in today’s politics to be smart,” said Hank Sheinkopf, a New York-based Democratic strategist. “You have to be able to perform…It’s the politics of entertainment.” 

For her part, Clinton has long made her own accommodations with that trend. She made her own visit to the Ellen DeGeneres show in early September and recently appeared in a Saturday Night Live skit that had a meta quality, with Clinton playing a bartender opposite Kate McKinnon playing “Hillary Clinton.”  

The former secretary of State will also appear on Stephen Colbert’s “Late Show” on Oct. 27.  

“Look, every candidate running for president has to stretch beyond their comfort zone,” said Democratic strategist Hilary Rosen. “For Hillary Clinton, her comfort zone is tough policy discussions; she needs to stretch into [delivering speeches] in big arenas. For Sanders, his comfort zone is the big arenas; he has to stretch into more intimate personal interactions.” 

The general consensus was that Sanders conducted himself perfectly well on “Ellen,” especially given how rare it is for him to venture into such venues. He gamely answered a series of rapid-fire questions (“Boxers or briefs?” and “Have you ever been in handcuffs?” among them) on the understanding that $1,000 for each response would be donated to breast cancer research.  

More vitally of all, Sanders avoided the big pitfall for politicians seeking to show a more humorous, human side of themselves — he didn’t embarrass himself. 

Democratic strategist Doug Thornell noted that, while such appearances can deliver a political dividend, “you don’t want to do anything that just makes you look silly or out of your element. There is a huge downside where you can just look un-presidential and more like a carnival act.”  

Sanders had seemed irked by these requirements of modern-day politics up until very recently. In August, for example, a New York Times Magazine question-and-answer session raised the issue of whether he thought it was fair that Hillary Clinton’s hairstyle got more attention than his own. 

“I don’t mean to be rude here,” Sanders responded. “I am running for president of the United States on serious issues, O.K.? Do you have serious questions?” 

He went on, “We have millions of people who are struggling to keep their heads above water, who want to know what candidates can do to improve their lives, and the media will very often spend more time worrying about hair than the fact that we’re the only major country on earth that doesn’t guarantee health care to all people.” 

Yet Sanders’ did, in fact, yield to a question about his hair from DeGeneres — asked whether he or mogul and GOP front-runner Donald TrumpDonald TrumpMaria Bartiromo defends reporting: 'Keep trashing me, I'll keep telling the truth' The Memo: The center strikes back Republicans eye Nashville crack-up to gain House seat MORE had better hair, he pointed to his own head and claimed the answer “goes without saying.”  

More to the point, he has been exhibiting a somewhat grudging acceptance that such inquiries — or equally personal but more serious questions about his upbringing or other personal areas of his life — have to be entertained and answered. 

In an extensive profile for the Oct. 12 edition of The New Yorker, writer Margaret Talbot noted that, “When I asked Sanders a question about his early years, he sighed with the air of a man who knows he can no longer put off that visit to the periodontist.” 

Sanders, in Talbot’s acccount, added, ‘I understand I really do. For people to elect a President, you’ve got to know that person—you’ve got to trust them.”  

But Talbot added that he went on to talk about the serious issues that he was running on before adding with obvious sarcasm, “I know those issues are not quite as important as my personal life.” 

“We have always had politics as entertainment but we’ve never had it quite so gossipy,”  Sheinkopf said. “It is hard to navigate that for any person, but it is more difficult for someone who is both ideological and intellectual.” 

“You can’t win the Democratic primary with just the far-left alone,” Rosen said. “He has to appeal to a broader swath of Democrats, and to do that he has to meet them on their terms — and sometimes that brings different demands.”