Bernie Sanders Held the Line in Last Night’s South Carolina Debate

Bernie Sanders’s command of the agenda was on display again last night in South Carolina, as his challengers exhausted themselves trying to make their stale centrism seem compelling.

Democratic presidential candidates Pete Buttigieg, Elizabeth Warren, and Bernie Sanders participate the Democratic presidential primary debate at the Charleston Gaillard Center on February 25, 2020 in Charleston, South Carolina. Win McNamee / Getty

Equal parts debate and cable news fever dream, last night’s Democratic forum in South Carolina will probably be the last of its kind in 2020.

Despite the contest’s ranks having thinned since January, some seven candidates still featured in the chaotic affair held ahead of the critical vote in the state this Saturday. Though no one quite said it out loud, it was all but clear that the race’s structuring dynamic is now Bernie Sanders’s undisputed status as front-runner — a fact evidenced by the barrage of attacks he faced from all sides throughout the night, including several from the moderators.

In a partial pivot from recent posturing, Elizabeth Warren sought to portray herself as an equally progressive but less divisive figure who has a better grasp of details. Amy Klobuchar, as per usual, pitched herself as a hard-headed pragmatist with the courage to resist big and transformative ideas.

In what could well be one of the last debates of his political career, Joe Biden talked aggressively but blandly about his record and experience with various world leaders. Pete Buttigieg, who just months ago said that Republicans would call Democrats evil socialists no matter what, tried to red-bait Sanders over comments related to Cuba that are awfully similar to ones made by none other than Barack Obama.

Viewers were treated to an extra (and entirely unsolicited) dose of Mike Bloomberg, courtesy of a deluge of segments bought by the oligarch during ad breaks, which nonetheless did little to enhance a whiny and charmless stage presence that proved every bit as flat and unappealing as his last.

The overriding hostility to Sanders notwithstanding, it is increasingly clear that a fractured and exhausted Democratic establishment remains unsure of how exactly to arrest his momentum. Upcoming contests in South Carolina and across the country on Super Tuesday are liable to show much the same dynamic that’s already appeared in Iowa, New Hampshire, and Nevada.

Barring a radical shift in the coming days and weeks, it’s entirely possible that only the loathsome Bloomberg and his billions will really remain standing by the end of next month, leaving an anti-democratic brokered convention as the only glimmer of hope for elite Democrats determined to put the brakes on a Sanders nomination.

For his part, Sanders seemed to parry most attacks well, making use of his signature message discipline, where possible, to punch through the noise. Despite the eagerness with which centrist opponents are determined to caricature him as a divisive ideologue, none really seems to have an explanation as to how or why he’s triumphed in every primary and caucus so far in spite of the vast array of forces ranged against him.

The simple and honest truth is that Sanders is winning precisely because he remains popular with much of the Democratic electorate and is championing a policy agenda that commands widespread support throughout the country. Centrist liberalism, whatever its claims to the contrary, resonates little these days with the millions of Americans beset by high bills, faltering wages, mountains of debt, and a dysfunctional health-care system that allows thousands to die needlessly every year. A majority that is sick of brutal inequality, right-wing domination, oligarchic control of both economy and government, and decades of militaristic foreign policy is crying out for a transformative agenda — and only one candidate is meaningfully offering it.

It’s a lesson that establishment Democrats and their corporate patrons will almost certainly learn too late, if, indeed, they ever learn it at all. Make no mistake: when the next Democratic debate is held in mid-March, the stage will probably look a lot thinner — and the inevitable choice between Sanders’s working-class populism and the billionaire-funded alternatives determined to stand in its way will look even starker than it did in South Carolina last night.