Last night, as expected, Bernie Sanders’s status as the front-runner invited a pile-on of attacks from the other candidates for the Democratic nomination. The South Carolina debate showed Bernie’s opponents are desperate to stop the anti-establishment juggernaut, which is splitting the party into a #NeverBernie moderate base and a progressivist camp that is increasingly comfortable with embracing the socialist label as a badge of honor. They don’t know how to stop him.
The moderators kicked matters off by asking Bernie how a democratic socialist could do better than the incumbent given the strong current economy and record low unemployment. Without missing a beat, Bernie jockeyed into class warfare, retorting that the economy was indeed doing really well, but only for Mr Bloomberg and his billionaire ilk — ‘for the ordinary American, things are not so good’. He never really looked back.
You’d think Bloomberg would have learned from his last universally-panned debate performance. But he started by playing the Russia card, saying that Vladimir Putin wants Sanders to be the nominee because President Trump would easily beat him in the general elections. This felt contrived — a rehash of the old Russian interference blame game too often wielded against those who challenge the establishment. Pete Buttigieg joined in the fray, asking voters to imagine how chaotic a Bernie vs. Trump matchup would be. He promises to bring down everyone’s blood pressure.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who should have been going for the jugular, made some accommodating noises towards Sanders. This has lead many to speculate that she’s decided to she wants to be Sanders’s running mate. Her sales pitch came down to broadcasting just how much she and Bernie actually want the same things idealistically, but that only she can carry the progressive water and get things done because of a willingness to practice realpolitik.
Next, it was Biden’s turn to pummel the Bernie horse. His angle of attack was to go after Bernie’s record on gun control. Touting his personal victories against the NRA, his work on passing assault weapon bans and his support for the Brady Bill, Biden hyperbolically claimed that 150 million people have been killed since 2007.
You did not need the candidate-turned-CNN pundit Andrew Yang to put the math in context for us: the notion that about half the US population has been wiped out by gun violence, a loss for which Biden insinuated that Bernie is partially responsible for, is quite clearly ridiculous for being orders of magnitude off.
At one point, all the candidates turned on the dodgy calculations behind Bernie’s flagship healthcare program, Medicare-For-All. Sen. Klobuchar called out the exorbitant $60 trillion price tag of Sanders’s single-payer proposal as being equivalent to three times the value of the entire American economy while Mayor Pete cited how unreliable and unknowable his numbers were.
There was really not much that Bernie could do other than to shrug it off in characteristic deadpan: ‘I’m hearing my name mentioned a little bit tonight. I wonder why?’ It’s not a bad strategy, as it alludes to his dominant position as leader while giving him a pass to avoid addressing his rivals’ concerns adequately.
The moderators then steered the debate toward a topic that is highly apropos for a state in which black voters would be casting up to two-thirds of the ballots in just a few days’ time. Biden was asked to reflect on why he was losing some ground in black voter interest and Bloomberg was forced to address his stop-and-frisk policy, for which he apologized again, showing some signs of frustration as he described asking for atonement from black elected officials. He emphasized his achievements as mayor of New York City, offering his record on creating jobs and affordable housing for minority groups as a mea culpa. After agreeing that Bloomberg’s policy was indeed racist, Pete went on a patronizing spiel about ‘lived experience’ and acknowledged his own white privilege while Klobuchar opted for an inspiring Martin Luther King Jr. quote instead.
Sen. Warren, in her role as head Bloomberg badger, excoriated him for funding the re-election campaigns of many Republicans, including that of South Carolina’s long-time senator and former Trump skeptic, Lindsey Graham. She blasted Bloomberg as the riskiest, most untrustworthy candidate, accusing him of not doing anything to earn his Democratic party stripes. In a desperate move which drew jeers and boos from the crowd, Warren then pivoted to shining the debate spotlight on Bloomberg’s alleged history of making sexist remarks to his female employees and using NDAs to silence them. Bloomberg denied telling one of his pregnant employees to ‘kill it’, setting up an ugly confrontation around the theme of #BelieveAllWomen. Bloomberg was visibly frustrated by Warren’s goalpost-moving, having already publicly reversed course to release three women from their NDAs, which the senator then said was ‘not enough’. The former mayor also stumbled when grilled about his support for Xi Jinping’s authoritarian rule and the Chinese Communist party — a fault that seems more damningly immediate than Bernie’s nostalgia for the literary program of murderous dictator Fidel Castro.
Other odd moments stood out. Amy Klobuchar brought up her recurring version of Joe the Plumber, her unforgettable ‘Uncle Dick in the Deer Stand’, a Lyn abstract figure she uses to gauge how intrusive gun control legislation should be. Mike Bloomberg referenced the Naked Cowboy in explaining why policies like his soda ban could not be extrapolated to outside of New York City, which was a very meta-statement given that only those who have been to Manhattan would even know what he meant.
Joe Biden was in a forceful, belligerent mood, butting in at every chance to insert his own accomplishments and relevant experience into everyone else’s debate points in a desperate bid for oneupsmanship. But that 150 million whopper marred any real positives for him.
And so the battle lines are drawn, between the moderates and progressives, the dictator apologists and the ones with no such record, the billionaires and the ‘Eat the Rich’ idealists, the aww-shucks folksy midwesterners and the Northeastern elite representatives. Who will stay and who will go as we head towards the rose ceremony of the Democratic convention in Milwaukee? Stay tuned to find out next week.