At the Democrats' South Carolina debate, all of Bernie Sanders' competitors finally acted as though they realized he is the front-runner. He took more criticism than ever. But he emerged victorious for the same reasons that he took the lead in the first place.
First, it's still not clear who, if anyone, will be his main challenger. Both Joe Biden and Michael Bloomberg performed better than they had at the previous debate in Las Vegas — the former New York City mayor had nowhere to go but up — but neither was spectacular. Biden leaned on his crutches too much. Every time someone tossed him an issue, he explained he had already sponsored a bill on it three decades ago. Then he worked in a reference to Barack Obama.
Bloomberg stood out as the candidate least willing to pander to the Democratic base: He expressed concern about marijuana's effects on young people and favored charter schools. Elizabeth Warren, by contrast, spoke as though every public-school teacher who ever lived is saintly and effective. She got more applause, which is why candidates do that kind of thing. Her criticisms of other candidates were cutting, as they have often been, but they never seem to redound to her own advantage.
Pete Buttigieg, another former mayor in the race, was as polished as ever. But he is still lagging in the national polls and especially in South Carolina. Amy Klobuchar continues to have all the attributes of the ideal Democratic nominee for the general election except the ability to win the nomination to run in it. Tom Steyer was also there.
Another reason Sanders made it through the night: the nature of the criticisms of him. Attacking him from the left, as Biden did on guns, may score a debate point but isn't going to convince people that Biden is the more committed progressive. Sanders owns that territory. While Biden's attack on Sanders over his praise for the Cuban government was correct in its gist — he has been an apologist and contextualizer for left-wing dictators — the details were mistaken and won't hold up as the argument is litigated in coming days.
Like Donald Trump in 2016, Sanders is also in the enviable position of being able to tell the voters he's courting that all the attacks on him are just proof that he is upsetting the establishment.
Buttigieg, especially, went after Sanders on electability. There are good reasons for doubting that he is an electorally wise choice for the Democrats. But Sanders effectively parried by noting the polls that show him beating Trump and being liked by the public. All the other candidates can offer to chip away at those numbers is supposition, even if it is well-founded. And there are electoral drawbacks to each of them, too.
For the most part, Sanders was able to avoid getting stuck defending himself. He answered nearly every criticism by returning to a familiar riff about billionaires. (He's against them.) That tack won't work if he's the nominee. Voters at large are much more hostile to socialism, at home and abroad, than Democratic voters are. But it was enough to keep him just as secure in the front-runner position as he was the start of the night.
Ramesh Ponnuru is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is a senior editor of National Review and the author of "The Party of Death: The Democrats, the Media, the Courts, and the Disregard for Human Life." To read more of his reports — Click Here Now.
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