Wherever you may be, take note that Tuesday, 8 pm US East Coast time, is “High Noon” for the Democratic Party.
Senator Bernie Sanders made his career as an independent socialist. He joined the Democratic Party briefly in 2015 to run for the 2016 nomination and then rejoined last year to run in 2020.
His race to become the nominee of the party could be virtually sewn up if the centrist candidates debating that night – there are four of them – once again leave Sanders, the junior senator from Vermont and presidential front-runner, relatively unscathed.
They’re all approaching the South Carolina primary on Saturday, Feb. 29, then “Super Tuesday” three days later on March 3 when 14 primaries – 15 counting American Samoa and 16 counting Democrats Abroad – will be held and one third of convention delegates decided.
The debate, the 10th in the tortuous process that began last June, will be held in Charleston, the city that’s notorious for being the starting point of the American Civil War in 1861. The state of South Carolina, of course, was part of the confederacy and a leading proponent of slavery.
Today, more than 150 years later, an estimated 60% of Democratic voters in the state are black.
Sanders has now opened up a more than double-digit lead over his nearest rival, former U.S. vice president Joe Biden; 12 percentage points, according to the RealClear Politics average. He has also pulled ahead in the delegate count and has opened a substantial lead over the field.
US Representative James Clyburn, the most respected Democratic politician in South Carolina and an African-American, is expected to give Biden his endorsement on Wednesday, the day after the debate. His endorsement should give Biden, who is maintaining a narrow lead, a boost – but there are reports that many younger blacks prefer Sanders.
Other centrists include former New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg, former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Minnesota’s Senator Amy Klobuchar. It is not clear where billionaire businessman Tom Steyer fits into the mix.
The centrists, who are basically supported by the party establishment, theoretically possessed the wherewithal to block a Sanders candidacy from the moment Elizabeth Warren, the junior senator from Massachusetts, decided to run and split the progressive vote.
But ironically the immediate problem for the party establishment has arisen because there are too many centrists splitting the centrist vote, which still accounts for half of the total, and, under primary rules, the votes of any candidate who fails to reach 15% in a particular state or territory are divided among the candidates who exceed 15%.
Thus it is technically possible if Sanders gets 30% of the vote in delegate-rich states like California and Texas and everyone else 14% that he would get 100% of the delegate total. A recent poll raised this concern when no candidate, except Sanders, had broken the 15% threshold.
The combined delegate total of California and Texas is 656 (416 for California, 240 for Texas), nearly one third of the 1,991 delegates needed to win the nomination on the first round of voting at the convention to be held in Milwaukee in July.
The convention math: 3,979 pledged delegates are decided by way of the primaries and caucuses; 1,991 are needed to win on the first ballot. From the second ballot, 775 so-called “superdelegates” are added, raising the total to 4,750; 2,376 are needed to win the nomination.
Superdelegates, who are free to vote for any candidate (that is, are not pledged) include elected officials and party activists who tend to be more in line with the centrist position. They are seen as the enemy by the Sanders camp.
The centrists missed an opportunity to press Sanders on his record at the Feb. 19 debate in Las Vegas and, more importantly, on his ability to deliver on his promise to overhaul the nation’s health-care system (basically, the Affordable Care Act or “Obamacare”) with a more comprehensive system known as Medicare for All.
There is no practical way to get Medicare for All through Congress, in particular the Senate. Even liberal commentator Lawrence O’Donnell has called it a “fantasy.”
Part of the blame for not pressing Sanders about the feasibility of his health-care proposal during last week’s debate falls on the team of MSNBC/NBC moderators who were more concerned about Klobuchar’s inability to name the president of Mexico at a Town Hall meeting and Michael Bloomberg’s history of making inappropriate comments about women.
Not that Bloomberg’s past isn’t relevant, but it is hardly the only issue, especially when more than half of the party’s rank-and-file, according to almost every poll, support candidates who are running as Democrats and not socialists.
The panel last time didn’t ask any questions about gun violence, although two years earlier the worst mass killing in the country’s history occurred less than five miles from the debate hall.
They also didn’t ask any questions about the humanitarian crisis at the border involving family separations in the Latino community in Nevada.
And, amazingly, they didn’t ask anything about President Trump’s assault on the criminal justice system, playing out that very day with his handing down of 11 pardons of mostly rich white guys and against the backdrop of speculation that he’s laying the groundwork to pardon his friend, Roger Stone, who’s been sentenced to 40 months in prison for witness tampering and lying to federal prosecutors during the Mueller probe.
And as someone who’s managed more than 100 press conferences, I noted that the moderators did not enforce their own time limits. Elizabeth Warren was a chronic violator of the rules, particularly as she set out to slay the billionaire – namely, Michael Bloomberg.
As a result, Sanders was not pressed to answer key questions about his record and his ability to legislate if and when he is elected.
He wasn’t asked, for instance, about his gun record. Biden made a feeble attempt to raise the issue, but Biden is no longer an effective communicator.
For the record, Sanders voted multiple times against the Brady act, which mandated background checks on gun purchases. He also voted in support of a bill to shield gun manufacturers from lawsuits.
He also wasn’t asked about his flirtation with radical socialism in the 1980s when he traveled to Nicaragua, as mayor of Burlington, to meet with Daniel Ortega and effectively conduct a foreign policy mission outside the official foreign policy of the United States.
In a long-ago interview, he spoke favorably of the Cuban revolution and its leader Fidel Castro.
Right or wrong about his views of American foreign policy – it’s for others to judge – the idea that the mayor of a small city would interject himself into the foreign policy of the U.S. and seemingly take sides with a Cold War adversary raises red flags at least to me. He apparent support of Castro will surely damage him with the Cuban population in Florida, a key swing state.
Arguably the biggest omission was any serious discussion of Sanders’ virtual lack of a legislative record in the form of sponsoring laws in the Congress since his 1990 election to the House. According to govtrack.us, he sponsored a total of seven bills over the span of nearly 30 years including naming two post offices.
Medicare for All, which would be Sanders’ signature legislation, has virtually no chance of ever coming before the Senate for a vote under existing Senate rules which require 60-vote supermajority to overcome an almost certain Republican filibuster even if the House approves the bill and the president uses his bully pulpit to support it.
At present, there are only 47 Democratic and Democratic-leaning Senators in the U.S. Senate, thus 13 short of the 60 threshold.
There is, of course, popular support for Sanders’s vision. Note that more than 60% of caucus-goers in Nevada, based on entrance polls, supported “replacing all private health insurance with a single government plan for everyone.”
If the centrists hope to derail the Sanders Express, they must press him to show how he intends to move this bill through the Senate and also how he plans to pay for it. Otherwise, from my vantage point, he’s selling snake oil.
And if they can’t get the message out to voters – that his Medicare for All plan is not serious policy, because it can’t get through Congress and because he’s yet to put a price tag on it – they will lose and Sanders will roll through Super Tuesday, building a potentially insurmountable delegate lead.
Warren, despite her liberal agenda, is a Democrat and capitalist. Sanders is neither. Thus Warren is considered more acceptable by many centrists. I count myself as one.
However, I expect Warren to go after Michael Bloomberg again about his boorish comments and alleged workplace discrimination toward women.
Bloomberg, responding to Warren’s demand that he provide details about a series of accusations, has agreed to free anyone who signed a nondisclosure agreement to come forward if they wish
Early signs are that won’t be enough for Warren who appears ready to have another go at him.
I would expect Bloomberg, who reportedly has spent more than $350 million on campaign ads, and who performed dreadfully in the Las Vegas debate, his first, has been boning up on debate technique. It is unlikely he will allow himself to be a punching bag again.
In an interview that ran on Sunday, he wouldn’t tip his hand about how he plans to respond if the same sort of attacks persist.
Since Warren said the public has a right to know about his past since he’s running for president, I would expect Bloomberg to reciprocate and ask for details about her past if the occasion arises.
Warren’s biggest vulnerability, of course, is that she made false representations about being a “minority” or “native American” on university and job applications.
I never gave much credence to the charge, which was made initially by her Republican opponent in her first Massachusetts Senate campaign and then by the president – who repeatedly has called her “Pocahontas,” meant as a slur
Without belaboring the issue, this has potential to blow up into another ugly scene if Warren focuses all of her fire on Bloomberg as well as being a distraction from the issue of Sanders’ record and the viability of his proposals
Meanwhile, for anyone who wants to hear in condensed form the reasons for worrying about a Sanders presidency, I recommend watching Sanders’ 60 Minutes Sunday interview by Anderson Cooper.
A veteran Tokyo correspondent who covers the automobile and auto parts industries, Roger Schreffler honed his head-counting skills in the knock-down-drag-out political arena of the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan. Currently he uses his other home, Providence, Rhode Island, as a vantage point from which to observe US politics.