As former Vice President Joe Biden looked to Saturday’s Democratic primary for a turnaround in his bid for the 2020 presidential nomination, Sen. Bernie Sanders finds himself facing intensive new pushback there from his old self-definition as a “democratic socialist.”
Tuesday night’s televised debate in Charleston disintegrated into a political food fight in which no one escaped unscathed. However, Biden still clung to hope by virtue of a strong performance and the endorsement the next morning by the state’s most prominent Democrat, Rep. James Clyburn, leader of the large African-American community there.
Opponents assailed Sanders for years-old praise of aspects of foreign socialist states such as Cuba, questioning whether he could beat Donald Trump in November, bearing such political baggage.
Former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, too, was again a target, if somewhat less so than in his debate debut in Nevada the previous week. He seemed more relaxed while still on the defensive against allegations of trying to buy the nomination with $400 million in television ads.
The other billionaire in the debate, Trump impeachment warrior Tom Steyer, who has spent heavily in South Carolina, was given inordinate time to speak by accommodating CBS News moderators, to the vocal irritation of Biden.
As Steyer, an extreme long-shot, and others talked past their allotted time, the former veep finally lamented: “I note how you cut me off all the time, but I’m not going to be quiet anymore.”
Still, with so much at stake for Biden, he neglected to emphasize perhaps his own strongest argument — his longtime advocacy and continuing defense of “Obamacare,” aka the Affordable Care Act, against the failed Republican campaign to “repeal and replace” it.
As a principal architect in the Obama administration, Biden has pitched building on Obamacare with coverage for pre-existing coverage and other improvements, rather than eliminating all private insurance-industry health care as Sanders’ Medicare for All eventually would do.
He also advocates but soft-pedals his call for a public health insurance option, now embraced by some Democratic rivals. Americans could elect to cover their families with this government-administered Medicare-style option, or they can choose to continue in workplace plans whose premiums are paid by employers or trade unions.
Biden has flatly predicted he will win Saturday’s South Carolina primary and will remain in the race. If so, the approaching March 3 Super Tuesday voting in 14 states, including delegate-rich California, Texas, North Carolina and Virginia, should clarify whether he can realistically do so.
The key to any prospect at this stage to deny Sanders the nomination depends on the willingness of other continuing Democratic contenders to fold their campaigns. Only then would it be possible to opening the door to a consolidation of moderates and liberals behind an alternative to the front-runner.
Increasing thought is being given by Sanders to urging the Democratic National Committee to change its rules for the national convention in Milwaukee mid-July in determining the nominee. As of now, a majority of the delegates is required and Sanders alone proposes that the candidate with the most delegates in hand at the time the convention opens be declared the winner.
Such a decision could signal the end of drawn-out smoke-filled room scenario. A strong argument is already being made for requiring that delegate majority to ensure that the collective will of all delegates is reflected.
Unless such a delegate majority is achieved on the first convention roll call of the states, with only pledged delegates voting, a second will occur open to 771 unpledged “superdelegates” appointed from among state elected officials and other party bigwigs.
Whether Sanders would still prevail would then be anybody’s guess, given his long outsider stature in the Democratic Party, of which he is not a registered member.
Jules Witcover’s latest book is “The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power,” published by Smithsonian Books. You can respond to this column at firstname.lastname@example.org.