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Wednesday 4 October 2023 Dublin: 12°C
Larry Donnelly Can Joe Biden – or anyone else – stop Bernie Sanders?
It’s looking like Sanders versus Bloomberg for the Democratic National Convention in July, writes Larry Donnelly.

UNSURPRISINGLY, GIVEN THAT it was the final round of sparring before Saturday’s South Carolina primary and Super Tuesday three days later, the televised debate this week featuring the main contenders for the Democratic presidential nomination was a combative and shouty gathering.

The improbable occupant of pole position, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, came under fire for past statements and votes.

His complimentary comments about Fidel Castro and other unsavoury figures were offered to show that he is too hard to the left to defeat Donald Trump, while his stances in Congress against gun control measures were cited as evidence of his willingness to elevate expedience (as the representative of a rural state where gun ownership is common) over principle, notwithstanding a reputation to the contrary.

It was inevitable that Sanders’ honeymoon trip to the Soviet Union and subsequent praise for what he discovered there, his remarks that he was “very excited and impressed by the Cuban revolution” yet “physically nauseated” after hearing a related speech delivered by President John F Kennedy.

Then, there were his bizarre musings about women’s rape fantasies in a piece he wrote about gender roles for The Vermont Freeman in 1972. Sanders’ campaign has since tried to distance itself, and its candidate, from the essay. In 2015, spokesperson Michael Briggs spoke to CNN, calling it a “dumb attempt at dark satire in an alternative publication”. The former mayor of New York and free-spending billionaire, Mike Bloomberg, has since tried to resurrect discussion around the article.

president-trump-campaign-rally-at-las-vegas Larry Burton Donald Trump holds campaign 'Keep America Great Rally' rally at Las Vegas Convention Centre last week. Larry Burton

Trump watching with glee

At the same time, however, President Trump and his re-election team must be collectively grinning from ear to ear at the current state of affairs. The importance of luck and timing in politics is oft referred to in this space. And both are apparently favouring him once again in 2020.

Returning to the debate stage – or, perhaps more aptly, the circular firing range – Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren launched an additional all-out assault on Bloomberg.

Joe Biden was assertive and aggressive, attacking those who pose a threat to what many have presumed would be a triumph for the former vice president in South Carolina.

Indeed, there is no coherent rationale for the man who had topped the polls for months to prolong the agony in the event that he loses a place where African Americans, who hold Barack Obama’s governing partner in very high esteem, constitute such a significant portion of the electorate.

election-2020-joe-biden Matt Rourke Joe Biden on the campaign trail. Matt Rourke

Biden finished terribly in Iowa and New Hampshire and managed only a distant runner-up showing behind Sanders in Nevada. When asked at the debate if he will drop out if he doesn’t prevail this weekend, his response was terse and telling: “I will win South Carolina.”

Biden not out, yet

The opinion surveys suggest that Biden will just about hang on, but that the surging Sanders will be nipping at his heels and collect a decent number of delegates, which are being allocated proportionately in all states, provided an aspirant receives at least 15% of the ballots cast.

In one way, a Biden victory could actually benefit the self-described Democratic socialist. With it, Biden is reinvigorated and stays in the race. He will be seeking the very same votes as Mike Bloomberg, who, having spent half a billion dollars already, will hope to join the battle with a bang on Super Tuesday next week when 15 states hold their primaries or caucuses. And a dozen others will have their say by St Patrick’s Day.

It is arguably to Sanders’ advantage to have as many centrist candidates fishing from the same pool and divvying up the backing of Democrats who believe him too liberal to get elected the 46th president.

In particular, the similarly minded Warren has failed to live up to expectations thus far. If there isn’t a dramatic improvement imminently, she may decide to abandon her campaign in the coming days. Sanders would then have the left lane pretty much to himself.

It could transpire that he will continue to hoover up delegates courtesy of his fully energised and committed base, which seems to be expanding as his proposals for “Medicare for All” and free, or quite substantially cheaper, college education attract attention and support.

Simultaneously, Biden, Bloomberg and the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, Pete Buttigieg (I don’t foresee Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar hanging on much longer), may keep on fighting among themselves to be the last man going toe to toe with Sanders.

Establishment is nervous

Should this approximate the scenario that eventually plays out, Bernie Sanders stands an excellent chance of being the Democratic standard-bearer. Many party grandees are envisaging this with extreme trepidation. For instance, President Bill Clinton’s former press secretary, Joe Lockhart, recently penned an op-ed piece that did not mince its words: “Bloomberg needs to take down Sanders – immediately.”

And individuals acting on Bloomberg’s behalf are reportedly utilising back channels to communicate with officials from other campaigns and influential donors to other candidates who may be willing to shift their allegiance, either before or during the Democratic National Convention in July.

The potential for a “brokered convention” – in which no candidate enters having won a majority of the available delegates – is repeatedly disputed by party apparatchiks. But if it does come to pass, Democrats could face an unenviable dilemma: either ratify as the nominee someone whose views are, by any objective measure, well outside the traditional ideological mainstream of American politics or authorise an inordinately wealthy man to buy the nomination.

Neither is an appealing option, though I would regard the first as the more likely of the two in the circumstances. This is especially the case if, as appears very plausible at the moment, Bernie Sanders is endorsed by a diverse coalition of Americans and earns close to 50% of the delegates. There is a considerable distance to travel before the party gets to that bridge, however.

The 78-year-old Sanders will require every bit of strength, courage and political acumen he can muster to overpower his determined foes. South Carolina and Super Tuesday should give us a good indication of how much of what is thrown at him by the party he temporarily belongs to he can dodge and how much of it sticks.

Larry Donnelly is a Boston attorney, a Law Lecturer at NUI Galway and a political columnist with

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