So how are the Democrats doing?
The Charleston, S.C., debate certainly focused more on Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) than the previous debate, although Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) remains unwilling to challenge face-to-face the one person who blocks her advance (spawning speculation she is running for VP or lacks the fire in the belly to take Sanders down). By contrast, former vice president Joe Biden and former South Bend, Ind., mayor Pete Buttigieg certainly got the message and laid into Sanders.
Biden kept up the barrage on Wednesday. The New York Times reported:
“I think we ought to level with you all,” Mr. Biden said. The former vice president wasn’t “picking on” Mr. Sanders or other supporters of Medicare for all, he said, but he believes there should be “a little bit of honesty” about “what things are going to cost, who’s going to pay for it.”As he did on the debate stage on Tuesday, Mr. Biden also criticized Mr. Sanders for his past votes on issues like background checks for gun purchases.
While most candidates have turned their fire on Sanders, the Democratic establishment remains largely mute.
Biden, the subject of the scheme to smear him with a bogus Ukrainian investigation, got another backhanded compliment from President Trump in the form of a deceitful ad. My colleague Greg Sargent reported, “The ad hitting Biden from the Committee to Defend the President is a remarkable piece of work: It weaponizes audio of former president Barack Obama against Biden, in what is clearly an effort to turn African American voters against him.”
Obama’s office denounced the effort — a rare intrusion into the campaign — as an attempt to “sow division and confusion” and “suppress turnout among minority voters in South Carolina.” Nevertheless, he felt compelled to reiterate he was not going to endorse.
It was up to the Biden campaign to defend itself. “Donald Trump and his allies are absolutely terrified that Joe Biden will defeat him in November. Trump even got himself impeached by trying to force another country to lie about the vice president,” said the Biden campaign. “This latest intervention in the Democratic primary is one of the most desperate yet, a despicable torrent of misinformation by the president’s lackeys.” (Meanwhile, Republicans are publicly encouraging crossover votes for Sanders, dubbed “Operation Chaos,” another sign Trump is desperate to choose Sanders over Biden as his opponent.)
There are opposing schools of thought about Democratic leaders remaining neutral in the race, at least for now, when there are multiple contenders still campaigning. One says this is repeating the error of the Republican establishment in 2016. However, there is a compelling argument that this would simply add fuel to Sanders’s fire and encourage his voters not to support the nominee if it is someone else. Perhaps the former president cannot officially endorse, but both he and former first lady Michelle Obama could defend Biden a bit more vigorously when Sanders is not being honest. The Obamas could, for example, have spoken up directly when Sanders denied trying to primary him. Is that too much to ask, especially if the race gets down to two or three choices?
In addition, more senators and congressmen running in red and purple locales, who would be pummeled should Sanders win the nomination, need to speak up. Over 40 House members (e.g., Democratic Reps. Sylvia Garcia of Texas and Chrissy Houlahan of Pennsylvania) have endorsed Biden. Biden also got the most consequential House endorsement Wednesday, the dean of South Carolina Democratic politics, Rep. James E. Clyburn (S.C.). However, if congressional incumbents and candidates fear a wipeout with Sanders at the top of the ticket, more need to go on record opposing him. (It is telling that only eight congressmen and his fellow home state senator have endorsed Sanders.) After the fiasco with both AIPAC and Cuba this week, the entire Florida delegation has reason to speak up. Endangered House and Senate members might even consider an “anyone but the socialist” endorsement.
In sum, the candidates have figured out they need to focus on Sanders, but too many prominent figures in the party appear too timid to signal their concern. Their worry that he might win anyway and turn on them (or lose and leave the party) is telling and should underscore the urgency of picking a unifying nominee. We might not yet know who the best one might be, but we sure can spot the worst.