It’s tough being a pollster in New York: “Excuse me, sir, will you tell me your preference for president? Or should I just go (expletive) myself?” Yes, that is a somewhat cleaned-up version of an old joke — one of my favorites, by the way. But like so many, its humor comes from truth: New Yorkers are not known for their genteel civility.
Cut to the Democratic debate in Brooklyn. Bernie Sanders has abandoned his phony politeness, and Hillary Clinton has had it with Sanders standing in the way of her march to the party nomination. She had spent all that effort to not look like she felt entitled to it, and suddenly there was Bernie to demonstrate time after time that her nonpretender pretense was, in fact, for real. She’s not entitled; she’s had to work at it.
Meanwhile, Sanders is not someone who suffers fools very well, which he defines as anyone who dares question his policies. To quote Hillary from the debate: “If Sen. Sanders doesn’t agree with how you are approaching something, then you are a member of the ‘establishment.’” She has a point there. The truth also is she has tight connections to the money people he demonizes, and when she’s reminded of that, we’re treated to the famous Hillary glare.
The evil eye was on full display during their confrontation, with both showing that they know how to hold a conversation employing NYC etiquette, which is to say none whatsoever. It got raucous enough at one point that CNN moderator Wolf Blitzer admonished, “If you’re both screaming at each other, the viewers won’t be able to hear either of you.” Wolf, you’re a friend and I admire you as a consummate professional, but I must respectfully disagree: In Brooklyn, where the altercation was held, if you’re not screaming, no one pays attention to you.
The candidates didn’t disappoint. Not that they broke any new ground: They simply squabbled face to face over each other’s judgment, over her coziness with the rich and powerful, over his anti-gun-control votes, over Israel and over fracking (no expletive necessary). When they weren’t bobbing and weaving, dissembling and distracting, they were heaping scorn on one another. It was perfect for a city whose slogan should be: “If it ain’t scorny, then it’s corny.”
Remember the pollsters? Well, when they haven’t been told what they can do to themselves, they’ve accumulated numbers that show Hillary is leading Bernie in New York, although her lead is dwindling. Over on the Republican side, they put Donald Trump way ahead. And why not? He’s in his element, claiming to be the personification of “New York values.” Of course, Ted Cruz used that expression back in the outlands, and he’s been trying to explain himself since. It doesn’t seem to be working.
Meanwhile, the national polls show that Hillary has a “likability” issue, meaning a lot of people aren’t fond of her: CBS News shows her favorable rating at 31 percent, with 54 percent unfavorable. That’s a net 23 percent negative. Of course, when it comes to “likability,” she’s downright personable compared with Donald Trump. He rates 25 percent favorable and 63 unfavorable. He’s down 38 percent. In real estate terms, he’s way underwater. Cruz is only somewhat better. Those holding him in low regard outnumber those who admire him by 26 percent.
By comparison, Sanders and Kasich are Mr. Congenialities. Both of them net 5 percent favorable. It should be pointed out that both are trailing in their parties’ presidential races. That perhaps gives new meaning to the expression attributed to Leo Durocher: “Nice guys finish last.” Did I mention that Durocher managed baseball teams in New York?
Soon civility might return, but it’s been refreshing to watch the candidates take off the gloves in their battle for votes. It brings to mind a common saying about New York: “It’s a nice place to visit, but you wouldn’t want to live there.”
Bob Franken is a longtime broadcast journalist, including 20 years at CNN.