Bernie Sanders claims his Sister Souljah moment

Bernie Sanders claims his Sister Souljah moment
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Fox News is today’s Sister Souljah.

In a pre-primary season that sees Democratic candidates struggling to walk neatly along an ever-shifting party line, like some midnight motorist desperate to beat a DUI, showing up on Fox News has become the best way to break from the pack and prove your independence.

Suddenly, everybody’s doing it. And that’s the problem. 

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Quick historical re-cap: In June 1992, Democratic candidate Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonDavis: 72 hours cementing the real choice for November Top Democratic pollster advised Biden campaign to pick Warren as VP How Obama just endorsed Trump MORE spoke to Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition and blasted comments made a month earlier by activist rapper Sister Souljah, who had asserted it was a good idea to set aside a special week where blacks could kill whites. Said Clinton: “If you took the words ‘white’ and ‘black’ and reversed them, you might think David Duke was giving that speech.”

The candidate’s remarks lifted his profile and poll numbers, convincing what were then called “Reagan Democrats” that he was an independent centrist they could support.

Since then, intentionally breaking with party orthodoxy to plant a flag of autonomy has been dubbed a “Sister Souljah moment.”  (You can even look it up on Wikipedia.)

That’s what Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersOVERNIGHT ENERGY: Trump signs order removing environmental reviews for major projects | New Trump air rule will limit future pollution regulations, critics say | DNC climate group calls for larger federal investment on climate than Biden plan Google: Chinese and Iranian hackers targeting Biden, Trump campaigns Sanders: Police departments that violate civil rights should lose federal funding MORE (I-Vt.) did on April 15, when he went his own way and did a town hall on Fox News. Back in March, Democratic National Committee chief Tony Perez announced that Fox would not host Democratic primary debates. That then evolved into a de facto ban on any kind of special candidate appearances on Fox. Party insiders strongly criticized Sanders for deep-sixing this doctrine when he announced his event.

But then the ratings came in.

Sanders-on-Fox was the most-watched town hall of the 2020 campaign so far – more than 2.5 million people tuned in. (Second highest rated: Kamala HarrisKamala Devi HarrisPaul clashes with Booker, Harris over anti-lynching bill Rand Paul holding up quick passage of anti-lynching bill Minority caucuses call for quick action on police reform MORE on CNN with 1.9 million.)

And the reviews were right out of the Sister Souljah playbook. “Conservatives and Moderates Offer Rare Praise” was the headline in Newsweek.

Think of Sanders and the Sister Souljah moment as if you were a Hollywood executive. Conflict creates drama, and drama equals good television – this is what Fox and Sanders offered up to the audience. The Vermont senator was the protaganist, walking into unfamiliar territory, facing the unknown. It was, in the classic story-telling sense, a test of character.

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Viewers responded because, until Sander’s move, the parade of Democratic candidates doing town halls had become like a TV show that’s stayed on the schedule too long — the episodes are predictable, the conflict recycled, the star never in genuine danger. In fact, in a throwback to the pre-Trump political style, that seemed to be the whole idea: Avoid any controversy that could damage a campaign in the early going.

The audience caught on. After Harris and Sanders each appeared on CNN, town hall numbers began to slide. Yes, some of the later candidates are simply not as scintillating – Democrat John HickenlooperJohn HickenlooperJohn Hickenlooper defies subpoena to appear for virtual hearing on ethics complaint The 10 Senate seats most likely to flip OVERNIGHT ENERGY: Coal company sues EPA over power plant pollution regulation | Automakers fight effort to freeze fuel efficiency standards | EPA watchdog may probe agency's response to California water issues MORE of Colorado (750,000 viewers for his town hall) could never carry a show in primetime, even in a treasured timeslot with “This Is Us” as his lead-in. But none of them came to play, either; none dove into the arena the way Sanders did on Fox.

Now, of course, there’s an open casting call of Democratic candidates lining up outside Fox News offices in Manhattan. Sen. Amy KlobucharAmy KlobucharHillicon Valley: Conspiracy theories run rampant online amid Floyd protests | First lawsuit filed against Trump social media order | Snapchat to no longer promote Trump's account Derek Chauvin charge upgraded to second-degree murder; other officers charged Democratic lawmakers push leadership to ensure college students have internet access MORE of Minnesota signed on, South Bend Mayor Pete ButtigiegPete ButtigiegScaled-back Pride Month poses challenges for fundraising, outreach Biden hopes to pick VP by Aug. 1 It's as if a Trump operative infiltrated the Democratic primary process MORE is reportedly in talks, Sens. Kristen Gillibrand of New York and Cory BookerCory Anthony BookerPaul clashes with Booker, Harris over anti-lynching bill Democratic senators kneel during moment of silence for George Floyd Rand Paul holding up quick passage of anti-lynching bill MORE of New Jersey say they’re open to the idea.

But that’s not how it works – only one person gets to be the hero and break the mold the first time. Maybe other Democrats also went after Sister Souljah later, but history has no record of them. It was Clinton who made the moment.

Sanders did generate some real news during his town hall, but the biggest headline was simply showing up first. The other candidates won’t have that – they and their campaign media consultants need to figure out how to shape their own moments of drama on Fox News. They’ll have to decide how many chances they are willing to take. If they get it right, maybe they can move up out of the supporting roles they find themselves in today.

But Sister Souljah? That moment belongs to Bernie.

Joe Ferullo is an award-winning media executive, producer and journalist and former executive vice president of programming for CBS Television Distribution. He was a news executive for NBC, a writer-producer for “Dateline NBC,” and has worked for ABC News and as a reporter or essayist for such publications as Rolling Stone magazine, the New York Times, the San Francisco Chronicle and the Village Voice.