The Democrats’ latest debate, in Las Vegas, confirmed both that Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont is in the lead for the nomination and that he would be an extraordinarily risky nominee for the party he seeks to lead.
Sanders reiterated that he wants to ban fracking, and had no real answer when asked what that would mean for all the people employed in it. He stuck by a health care plan that would outlaw the health insurance coverage most people now have, offering no explanation for why union members should give up what they have won in negotiations. He re-affirmed that he is a “democratic socialist,” when socialist is a label from which most independent voters and a significant fraction of Democratic voters recoil. He is 78 and, as debate viewers were reminded, has recently had a heart attack.
But Sanders is now leading the national polls, and the other candidates are spending more time jockeying with each other than taking him on. At the debate, Michael Bloomberg was a bigger target for Elizabeth Warren and Joe Biden than Bernie Sanders was. (Disclaimer: Michael Bloomberg is the founder and majority owner of Bloomberg LP, the parent company of Bloomberg News.) Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar gave Bloomberg and Sanders equal time. Bloomberg didn’t have strong, succinct answers to the charges, especially in the early going.
Going after Bloomberg may make strategic sense for some of those candidates. Maybe Biden can consolidate an anti-Sanders vote if he first shoves Bloomberg — and Klobuchar and Buttigieg — out of the way. (I suspect the other candidates also resent the amount of money Bloomberg can effortlessly spend on ads, considering it an attempt to buy the election.) But while the candidates are executing that strategy, nobody is doing much to stop Sanders.
A further sign that Sanders is ahead: The candidates’ answers to moderator Chuck Todd’s question about whether whoever goes to the party’s convention with the most delegates should be the nominee. Several of them were willing to accept a contested convention, while Sanders expressed concern about letting Democratic superdelegates determine the nominee after a deadlock in the first round of voting. The shared assumption is that Sanders is the candidate most likely to have that lead.
Forget the arguments about whether a candidate with a plurality of delegates deserves the nomination. Would Democrats really be willing to deny it to that candidate? Especially if there is a danger that a decisive fraction of that candidate’s supporters will sit out the election if they consider the nomination to be stolen from them? They already think that some disappointed Sanders supporters cost Hillary Clinton the election last time.
The debate ended with no greater clarity about who will emerge as Sanders’s chief rival — or if anyone will. Biden probably did well enough to reassure supporters who were considering defecting. Bloomberg’s campaign will count on ads having a bigger impact than a weak debate performance. Buttigieg has more delegates than either one of them. His exchanges with Klobuchar, at least to my eyes, diminished both of them.
Sanders won the debate, and he won it easily — without the challengers making him work for it. He was one of two presidential candidates to emerge relatively unscathed from Las Vegas.
The other one, of course, was Donald Trump.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg LP and its owners.
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