Welcome to “2020 Vision,” the Yahoo News column covering the presidential race with one key takeaway every weekday and a wrap-up each weekend. Reminder: There are 126 days until the Iowa caucuses and 400 days until the 2020 election.
Over the weekend, various 2020 Democrats fanned out to various early primary states, where they made various cases for their candidacies. In Oakland, Calif., Kamala Harris was railing against the perception that she lacks “electability.” In South Carolina, Elizabeth Warren was courting black voters. And in New Hampshire, Bernie Sanders was breakfasting with Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez before addressing college students.
But the real 2020 action might have been Saturday night on NBC.
“Saturday Night Live” returned this weekend for its 45th season, renewing a tradition of lampooning presidents (and would-be presidents) that stretches back to the show’s earliest days. In a sharp 10-minute sketch, cast members and guest stars playing the various Democratic candidates “united together and decided,” in the words of Cecily Strong, portraying CNN anchor Erin Burnett, to “handle the impeachment the only way they know how — with a muddled 10-person town hall debate.”
The real candidates took notice.
“That girl being played by @MayaRudolph on @nbcsnl?” Harris gamely tweeted. “That girl was me” — repeating the line she used to skewer Joe Biden in an exchange about school busing during the first Democratic debate, which was the basis of the sketch in which Rudolph appeared.
Presidential hopefuls aren’t wrong to keep tabs on how “SNL” is (or isn’t) caricaturing them. For much of its history, “SNL” has powerfully shaped public perception of the personalities of our presidents. Today, millions of Americans remember Gerald Ford as the doofus who looked like Chevy Chase and tripped over his own feet. Jimmy Carter is that Dan Aykroyd-like figure delivering smooth technocratic answers to citizen questions on live radio. George H.W. Bush is a vague, feckless Dana Carvey shaking his head and saying “Na ga da it.” And so on.
The internet, meanwhile, has only enhanced the political potency of “SNL.” Now that its funniest moments can go viral, the show has the power to define candidates much earlier and more indelibly than ever. Just look at what Tina Fey did to Sarah Palin: Research has shown that in 2008, Republicans and independents who watched Fey spoof John McCain’s running mate were more likely than nonviewers to see her negatively.
So what did we learn from the first round of 2020 impersonations? Should the candidates be afraid?
For most of those polling in the single digits, the answer is yes. Dismissed by Strong’s Burnett character as the “guy who tragically misread our enthusiasm for him,” Beto O’Rourke (Alex Moffat) was portrayed as a pathetic Gen X lightweight (“Thanks for, like, still having me around, this is rad!”) desperate to show off his “eighth-grade Spanish.” Andrew Yang (Bowen Yang, no relation) complained that he’s “literally giving free money to people and I’m still in sixth place.” Cory Booker (Chris Redd) was a bug-eyed, low-polling oddball who was allotted only five words before Burnett (Strong) allowed him to “leave now to beat traffic.” A slowly gyrating Marianne Williamson (Chloe Fineman) appeared via “astral projection” and offered to “trap” Donald Trump’s “soul inside this crystal.” Pete Buttigieg (Colin Jost) confirmed the pronunciation of his name.
“And now let’s meet the actual candidates,” Burnett said.
The damning message from “SNL”: None of these people has a chance.
The show wasn’t much kinder to at least two of the “actual” upper-tier contenders: Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders. Larry David again played Sanders as a cranky senior citizen who “takes 40 minutes to figure out how to turn on the TV” and “sometimes” sits “on the porch” and does “literally nothing for six hours.”
“I’m so excited to be back and to ruin things for a second time,” Sanders said in a line clearly meant to reflect the criticism from establishment Democrats that he damaged rival Hillary Clinton in 2016 and is running again only out of vanity. “Let’s Bern this place to the ground!”
Biden (Sanders’s fellow white male septuagenarian) didn’t fare any better, with Woody Harrelson portraying the former vice president as even more out of touch than the senator from Vermont. “As I ask anytime I walk into a room,” Biden said, ‘Where am I and what the hell is going on here?’”
Again and again, the joke on Biden was generational. “Daddy’s here, America,” Biden said, teeing up a punchline about his pre-#MeToo handsiness. “I see you. I hear you. I sniff you. And I hug you from behind.”
“The year is 1962 — I’m lifeguarding,” Biden continued, teeing up a parody of his oft-told story about confronting a black Delaware gang leader named “Corn Pop” (and some of his other pre-“woke” comments on race). “Oh, and I should point out that it was a segregated pool, just to put everyone on edge for the rest of the story.”
“Look, I’m like plastic straws,” Biden concluded. “I’ve been around forever. I’ve always worked. But now you’re mad at me?”
Harris and Elizabeth Warren got off easier. Kate McKinnon’s Warren was basically her boss-bitch Hillary Clinton with a Dust Bowl accent and “the energy of a mother of five boys who all play a different sport.” Tellingly, Warren had the fewest lines, and when she did, they were more complimentary than anything else.
“I’m focused on the small donors,” she said. “Three dollars from Andrew at the Circle K. Fifty-three cents from a third-grader in Illinois. Eight hundred dollars from an immigrant and stay-at-home mom named Melania.”
As for Harris, she appeared with the “actual candidates” and got a marquee guest star to portray her as a “smooth-talking lady lawyer” who could “successfully seduce a much younger man” and headline her own “TNT show” — despite the fact that she’s trailing Buttigieg in the polls.
No wonder she tweeted a GIF of Rudolph saying “No one is above the law” to her followers.
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