In the wake of Wednesday night’s combative debate in Las Vegas, there’s a lot of second-guessing going on about the long-term import of the candidates’ strategic decisions — particularly the heavy barrage of attacks, questions, and criticisms aimed at Michael Bloomberg in his presidential debate debut, and the relatively light sledding enjoyed by budding front-runner Bernie Sanders. While the text of Ron Brownstein’s article on the debate was mostly analytical and did not make any clear strategic judgments, the headline The Atlantic chose for it reflected the gist of a lot of scuttlebutt: “Democrats Went After the Wrong Guy.”
Another Atlantic writer, Peter Beinart, did indeed reach something like that conclusion:
[T]he result of the Nevada debate is that Bloomberg, who was emerging as Sanders’s strongest rival, got knocked around. Which makes it harder to tell who is in second place. Which is great for the guy in first.
The Democratic establishment is both terrified of its front-runner and incapable of taking effective, unified action against him. Sounds a lot like the GOP in 2016.
In response, well — c’mon. Blooomberg was the new, menacing presence in the field, threatening with his vast resources to turn the race into an ideological cage match with Bernie — yet at the same time uniquely vulnerable in a debate because of his rustiness and the fact that vast warehouses of baggage about him had not been publicly aired. Confronted with an opponent wide open to challenges on Me Too grounds, public policy tone-deafness, insensitivity to racial justice, association with the GOP and as a symbol of Wall Street, were the candidates supposed to focus on Sanders instead? Bloomberg is like a caricature of everything Elizabeth Warren entered politics to fight. Was she supposed to give him a pass? This defies all the basic laws of politics.
Bloomberg, moreover, represented just as important a threat to Sanders’s rivals than did Sanders himself, as Brownstein recognized:
If Bloomberg’s unsteady performance reverses the gains he’s generated with his spending onslaught—as of Friday, he’d spent $100 million on TV ads in California, Texas, and Florida alone—the turnabout could help any of the other candidates regain ground in the race.
Seriously, think about it: Sanders and his intensely loyal following isn’t going anywhere no matter how many opponents gang up on him in a debate. The other candidates are struggling to survive, and perhaps one or two will be able to continue beyond South Carolina. But what’s the point if you’re just going to be instantly crushed between the Scylla of Sanders’s immovable bloc and the Charybdis of Bloomberg’s unfathomable wealth? Taking a big bite out of Bloomberg may have been the only way for the candidates who did so to create some breathing room for themselves down the road.
Having said all that, yes, sure, there’s a risk for the remaining candidates that Bernie’s just going to run away with this thing. But that’s been a risk all along, and if none of them can beat him in South Carolina, for God’s sake — a state whose rock star governor not that long ago told corporations to take their filthy liberal money elsewhere if they were going to allow unions — then perhaps it wasn’t fated to be. Yes, Sanders has some vulnerabilities that haven’t been fully exploited by other Democrats — even as they fear Republicans will exploit them to his perdition. Meanwhile, the candidate in the field most qualified to be president probably can’t be nominated because Democrats are terrified by swing-voter sexism.
There’s one more reason Democrats went after Bloomberg rather than Bernie. Yes, both of them have been career non-Democrats. But there’s not much question Sanders fits more comfortably into the folkways and mores of today’s Democratic Party than does the billionaire. If he conquers the party, some of his supporters won’t be happy unless there’s a good vicious purge and some unseemly gloating. But still, rank-and-file Democrats like him (as Peter Beinart pointed out recently), and in part it’s because there’s hardly been a Democratic event for the last 40 years where people like Bernie and his loyal troops weren’t present. He owns a ticket to the trust of Democrats that Bloomberg can only buy. And for all the jitters about Sanders as a nominee (many of which I share), selling that trust to Bloomberg might very well break the hearts of Democrats forced to hire an ex-Republican billionaire to take on his fellow crude-talking tycoon.
So for now, reducing the risk of that happening makes sense for the candidates who would like the opportunity to prove they offer a superior — and perhaps more unifying — option to either of these old men.