The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Hey Democrats, you’re attacking the wrong candidate

Candidates, from left, Mike Bloomberg, Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar appear before a Democratic presidential primary debate Wednesday in Las Vegas. (John Locher/AP)
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As the Democratic debate in Nevada drew to a close, Pete Buttigieg peered into the camera and gave it a winsome look. “America,” he said, “is running out of time.” One wonders if he wasn’t, like so many presidential candidates, confusing “America” with himself. Because Buttigieg is definitely running out of time. So is Joe Biden. And Amy Klobuchar. And definitely Elizabeth Warren.

Two primaries in, a few things are now clear. The first is that Bernie Sanders owns the progressive lane of this race, with Warren at best a minority shareholder. The second is that the progressive lane isn’t all that wide; even if Warren dropped out and Sanders got all her voters (which he wouldn’t), he’d still have less than 40 percent of the Democratic electorate behind him — which means an even smaller share of all American voters. If someone can consolidate the non-Sanders lane, they can win it all.

The third clear fact is that no one can figure out how to do that in time to matter. At least not while still leaving himself or herself the last one standing. The result is a five-way standoff — though as I watched what happened on the debate stage Wednesday night, the metaphor that more often occurred was of a crowd of people squeezing into an old-fashioned telephone booth, all simultaneously trying to push past the others and surge through the door. With an hourglass rapidly flowing toward empty all the while.

In the Democratic debate in Las Vegas on Feb. 19, the six participating candidates went after health care, climate change, wealth inequality — and each other. (Video: The Washington Post)

To review: This was Mike Bloomberg’s first debate, and the other candidates gleefully gang-rushed him with the enthusiastic assistance of the moderators. Barely a minute into the debate, he was fielding pointed accusations about his stop-and-frisk policies as mayor of New York, on reported settlements with employees over alleged sexual harassment, and also on general billionaire-ness. Bloomberg, who hasn’t debated in more than a decade, and clearly hadn’t prepared to take a full-frontal assault mere seconds into his first day back in the saddle, stumbled badly and repeatedly.

It all made for great theater. But boy, it was lousy politics.

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There’s a time-honored logic to everyone in a debate ganging up on the front-runner. But why was everyone attacking Bloomberg, who isn’t the front-runner? And who — as everyone kept pointing out — is a BILLIONAIRE! Not just some run-of-the-mill billionaire, either, the kind who maybe has a nice private island and one of the smaller Learjets. Bloomberg has so much money that he could drop $5 billion on this race and still maintain his position as the 12th-richest person in the world.

Something that political professionals know, but readers might not, is that presidential candidates don’t drop out because they realize they can never win. The sort of people who can steel themselves for the grueling marathon of repetition, denunciation and pandering that is a modern presidential campaign don’t quit unless it is physically impossible to go on — which, in a modern presidential campaign, means that they can no longer pay enough staff or buy enough ads to stay in the race.

Everyone on that stage is a seasoned political professional who knows this all too well. So what did they think attacking Bloomberg would get them? Did they think they could scare off his donor?

After that, it inexplicably got worse, as the coordinated attacks degenerated into a Hobbesian war of all-against-all. Warren strafed everyone so indiscriminately that it was hard to remember any particular line of attack. Buttigieg and Klobuchar bickered with each other over trivia so arcane that it seemed as if they were really trying to settle which one Mom loved best. Biden circled the fighting and casually kicked anyone who seemed to have been knocked down.

The winner of all this was, of course, the guy who’s already winning: Sanders, who took only one serious blow, and ironically, from Bloomberg, who turned him near-apoplectic by pointing out that the United States’ most famous socialist has three houses. Buttigieg complained, once again, that Sanders is divisive, and not really a Democrat. Everyone else mostly left him alone, for fear of angering his dedicated and possibly vengeful supporters.

So the end result was that Sanders came out largely unhurt, while none of the moderates managed to help themselves much. The only person who really seemed to improve her position was Warren, who had been on the verge of getting forced out. Yet the dynamics of the race being what they are, this doesn’t actually mean Warren is noticeably more likely to be president. It just means the non-Sanders lane could get even more congested.

And if you think that Sanders is the best candidate to run the country, well, swell. On the other hand, if you think that an iconoclastic socialist radical might make a bad president, not so good. And if a majority of Americans share that opinion … well, congratulations, nominee Sanders, and hello, President Trump.

Read more:

Jennifer Rubin: Democrats just had the most exciting debate to date

Karen Tumulty: Bloomberg’s best debate moment came five minutes before it started. Then things went downhill.

Greg Sargent: Elizabeth Warren just tore apart a billionaire. Why not Trump?

Jennifer Rubin: Who benefits from Bloomberg’s troubles?

Winners and losers from the Nevada Democratic debate