Desperate Dems Struggle to Slow the Bernie Train - OZY | A Modern Media Company

WHY YOU SHOULD CARE

Because it's getting late early.

The desperation was palpable on the debate stage in Charleston, South Carolina, last night. The MSNBC and Democrat-industrial-complex freakout over the prospect of a Sen. Bernie Sanders nomination has finally hit the candidates themselves. It resulted in Tuesday’s debate, where the volume was turned to 11, the transcript was littered with “CROSSTALK” notations, and the other Democrats — at long last — were training sustained attacks on the Democratic socialist front-runner.

“I’m hearing my name mentioned a little bit tonight,” Sanders said. “I wonder why?”

Even the audience got in on the act. “Joe has voted for terrible trade agreements,” Sanders declared, and as the crowd booed him, the candidate who had been rarely hit so far seemed surprised. “No, no, no,” he jumped back in, trying to finish the point. “Cuba has made progress on education,” he said, and the boos rained down again. “Really? Really?” he replied.

Yes, really. From 60 Minutes to the campaign trail, Sanders is finally in the hot seat.

The Cuba issue — as well as Sanders’ past praise for the Soviet Union — would seem to be the juiciest target, as Republicans will make this a Rocky IV general election. And after Sanders riffed on past CIA assassination campaigns in Chile and Iran, he came around to his point: “Authoritarianism of any type is bad. But that is different than saying governments occasionally do things that are good.” The response could probably use some work.

He was more forceful as his rivals sought to capitalize on the news that the Russians are seeking to boost his campaign. “Hey, Mr. Putin, if I’m president of the United States, trust me, you’re not going to interfere in any more American elections,” Sanders said.

He was standing in a state that’s his toughest test so far. Affection for former vice president Joe Biden runs deep here, and Sanders trails in the polls, though he’s closing the gap. The problem for his rivals, as Yogi Berra liked to say, is it’s getting late early. Sanders could amass a huge lead by Tuesday, when one-third of the delegates will be handed out. The candidates all know that, and Sen. Amy Klobuchar even skipped ahead at one point, asking the “Super Tuesday states” whether they “want to have someone in charge of this ticket who wants to put forward $60 trillion in spending, three times the size of the American economy?”

After the pile-on in Charleston, all signs still point to yes. A lot of it has to do with the inability of his rivals to shape an alternative.

Biden had his moments, but he kept stepping on himself. He unleashed an opposition research attack on Tom Steyer — a sign of Steyer’s gains in South Carolina, which have come at Biden’s expense — for the billionaire’s investment in private prisons. It was a rare onstage attack against the plaid-tied nice guy. Steyer turned it around to point out how he ditched the investment, worked against the private prison industry in California, and oh by the way, Biden helped write the infamous 1994 crime bill. Biden complained to the moderators frequently about not getting enough time to speak and even admonished himself on stage for it. “Why am I stopping? No one else stops. It’s my Catholic school training,” he said to awkward laughter.

Democratic Presidential Candidates Debate In Charleston Ahead Of SC Primary

Democratic presidential candidates take to the debate stage in Charleston four days before the South Carolina primary.

Source Win McNamee/Getty

Mike Bloomberg didn’t crash and burn quite as hard as his first outing, but Sen. Elizabeth Warren still brought out her baseball bat for the uber-billionaire and ex-Republican. Among other things, she needled him on nondisclosure agreements for employees who have accused him of sexual harassment. “And the trouble is, with this senator, enough is never enough,” Bloomberg replied, a line that could well wind up on a Warren T-shirt at some point.

But Bloomberg was the first candidate to bring the discussion to the news that has many Americans and financial markets freaking out even more than Sanders: the coronavirus. “The president fired the pandemic specialist in this country two years ago,” Bloomberg said. “So there’s nobody here to figure out what the hell we should be doing.”

Warren had her sharpest summation yet of why she’d be better than Sanders, her contrast focusing on her ability to spend time sweating the details and enacting policy. “Progressives have got one shot, and we need to spend it with a leader who will get something done,” she said.

While Warren’s most dominant debate of the cycle last week got her $5 million in new donations, it couldn’t move the needle much in Nevada. And there’s no indication she will have her breakout here, either. The gentle criticisms of Sanders at times seemed more like she’s playing for the vice presidency.

That’s not a concern for former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who has been the most willing to throw elbows at Sanders.

“If you think the last four years has been chaotic, divisive, toxic, exhausting, imagine spending the better part of 2020 with Bernie Sanders vs. Donald Trump,” Buttigieg said. “Think about what that will be like for this country.”

It’s not a theoretical question anymore.

Sign up for the weekly newsletter!