South Carolina Dem debate reflects different approaches to defeating Trump
South Carolina Democratic debate | Patrick Semansky/AP

CHARLESTON, S.C.—After they trooped onto the stage in Charleston, S.C., most of the other Democrats jumped on Bernie Sanders over the cost of Medicare For All. Although it’s almost impossible to pick a debate “winner” after the heated exchange of barbs against one another it is clear that the biggest tactical difference in the primary continues to be between those who believe moderation on the issues is called for in order to win over swing voters and even some Republicans and the Sanders approach of expanding the electorate to bring in millions who didn’t vote last time around.

Elizabeth Warren jumped on Michael Bloomberg’s history of sexism and disclosure agreements but unlike all the others she did not attack Bernie Sanders, saying instead that she agreed with him on issues but thought she would make the better president and be able to work with others to achieve more of those goals. She attacked Bloomberg for allegedly having told a female employee that she should terminate her pregnancy if she wanted to keep her job. Warren made a convincing argument about how personal that issue was to her when she described how she lost her first job as a special education teacher when the principal fired her after she became visibly pregnant.

The Feb. 25 debate came as Sanders, the longtime independent senator from Vermont, assumed national front-runner status, though he still trailed Biden, the former vice president, by four percentage points in the latest South Carolina primary poll. Sanders has a substantial lead in pledged delegates thus far.

It was clear last night that those pushing to stop the Bernie Sanders momentum are far from settling on any one candidate they think can do that and that no one can be expected to pull out before Super Tuesday is over and perhaps even after that.

Former Mayor Pete Buttigieg focused all of his attacks last night on Bernie Sanders painting an almost cataclysmic picture of what would happen if Sanders wins the nomination. He repeatedly condemned Sanders for having made a positive statement about Cuba’s literacy campaign.

Although most observers think Buttigieg can’t compete with Sanders in the coming Super Tuesday votes his strategy appears to hang in and accumulate as many delegates as he can for the national convention in June, giving him leverage there to stop Sanders if there is a contested convention and perhaps to emerge as a “consensus” candidate.

The debate also came as the seven hopefuls – Sanders, Sens. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and Amy Klobuchar, DFL-Minn., multibillionaire Bloomberg, Buttigieg, Steyer, and Biden – looked ahead to Super Tuesday, March 3, when 15 states, including the two largest, California and Texas, hold primaries. Those tilts will allot one-third of all Democratic delegates and several of the hopefuls pitched their claims to those voters, too.

The South Carolina outcome may well affect Super Tuesday, particularly if tallies show Sanders continues strong showings among people of color. Biden considers African-Americans, some two-thirds of South Carolina Democratic primary voters, his strongest voting bloc, but he’s been losing ground with them.

As a result, after the initial barbs, many of the questions and answers focused on issues pertinent to African-Americans, and that let the others put Bloomberg on the defensive.

“Yes, in effect it was” racist, Buttigieg said of Bloomberg’s infamous stop-and-frisk program when the multibillionaire was Mayor of New York City for 12 years. “It was about profiling people because of the color of their skin.” Bloomberg again tried to apologize. His effort drew his first of many boos.

But the Indianan also pointed out one failing among the hopefuls on the stage: In a political party ever more known for its diversity, all seven were white. “None of us have lived the experience of feeling eyes on us because we’re supposed to be dangerous because of the color our skin,” Buttigieg noted. The only person of color still in the race, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii, did not make Democratic Party criteria to join her colleagues.

“Every single policy area” being discussed “has the gigantic subtext of race,” added Steyer, citing housing discrimination, racism in the criminal justice system and lack of credit for women- and minority-owned businesses. “And I’m the only person up here who believes in reparations” for the nation’s years of slavery from 1619-1865, starting as British colonies. None mentioned the ensuing decades of Jim Crow laws, racist violence, and political repression.

Biden chastised Steyer for having purchased a private prison notorious for abuse of African American prisoners. Steyer protested that he sold the prison when he found out what was going on in there.

Racial questions let Biden tout his Senate record in passing a 25-year extension of the Voting Rights Act – the extension before the one which the GOP-named majority on the U.S. Supreme Court gutted several years ago. Biden did not, this time, promise legislation to restore the law’s strength against racist state voting actions. He has done so in past debates, and on the stump.

Restoring full voting rights is a key part of HR1, the comprehensive election reform package the Democratic-run House passed last year. Trump’s poodle, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has pigeon-holed it – and 400 other House-passed bills, including comprehensive pro-worker labor law reform. He calls them all, including voting rights, “socialism.”

Race also let Biden get in one of the best barbs of the debate, aiming not at the others but at the radical right politically powerful gun lobby, the National Rifle Association. Shootings disproportionately wound and kill people of color nationwide. “If I’m elected, NRA, I’m coming for you,” Biden said.

What Biden didn’t mention: His votes and congressional leadership for the infamous “three strikes” crime law of a quarter of a century ago. The law disproportionately jailed people of color. Biden also didn’t mention his terrible treatment of an African-American woman, Anita Hill, during hearings on Clarence Thomas’s Supreme Court nomination almost 30 years ago.

Hill detailed how Thomas, the right-wing Republican nominee for the High Court at the time,  had sexually harassed her. Between GOP lobbying and Biden’s mistreatment of Hill, Thomas wound up on the court. He’s still there.

But before they jumped on Bloomberg, the other hopefuls slammed Sanders, and particularly his Medicare For All plan, which he has championed for decades in Congress.  It’s also a major part of his campaign and his signature issue against the 1%, which he – and Warren – say have taken over politics and the government. Warren has her own version of Medicare For All.

At least a dozen unions, led by National Nurses United – it’s their signature cause, too – campaign for Medicare For All. It would eliminate the private insurers, their high co-pays, premiums and deductibles and denial of care. Biden charged Sanders’s plan would cost $60 trillion, double Biden’s prior estimate, without citing his source for that figure.

And Buttigieg, continuing to attack Medicare For All and Sanders all the way through the debate, said it was so unpopular it would divide Democrats and hand a second White House term to Trump. So did Steyer.

“This conversation” about Medicare For All “shows a huge risk for the Democratic Party,” Steyer said.

He claimed Sanders’s Democratic Socialism is as unpalatable to voters as Bloomberg’s “long history of being a Republican.”

Warren did not limit her attacks on Bloomberg to his history of sexist disregard for women. She scored the former New York mayor, a Republican-turned-independent, for financially supporting GOPers, too – including the senator she beat, despite Bloomberg’s money. She noted too Bloomberg’s financial support for Trump’s South Carolina toady, Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham.

Klobuchar didn’t go as far as Buttigieg in her attack on Sanders. She just said Sanders’s numbers “don’t add up,” before adding: “Expanding medical coverage would be useless with no providers,” especially in rural areas. She touted her legislation to expand federal subsidies for “critical access hospitals” in those regions and sometimes in low-income areas housing people of color in U.S. cities.

“And we’re going to have a shortage of one million home health care providers and more than 100,000 nursing assistants,” Klobuchar added. Her solutions: Comprehensive immigration reform, to let people with those jobs stay in the U.S., and making community colleges and technical schools, for the first year or two, tuition-free, to entice more students into those occupations.

The problem with all the attacks on Sanders and Medicare For All was that they didn’t work well in Nevada caucuses the week before. The Vermonter won a near majority of the votes, doubling the total of second-place finisher Biden, and walked away with most of the Silver State’s delegates. And 60% of Nevadan caucus-goers supported Medicare for all.

And a pamphlet slamming Medicare For All circulated in the prior week’s Nevada caucuses, allegedly from the most-powerful union there, 50,000-member Culinary Workers Local 226, apparently backfired.

It said Medicare For All would take away workers’ hard-won excellent private health insurance. But exit polls and interviews showed the unionists, most of them people of color, worried about not just themselves but people they knew without such plans – and backed Sanders.

Sanders retorted by once again emphasizing that Medicare For All would save U.S. workers and families far more in premiums, co-pays, deductibles, and out-of-pocket expenses – costs that produce up to 500,000 bankruptcies per year – for denial of care. He also said it would save lives. Harvard Medical School studies and a recent study in Lancet magazine, out of Yale, calculate insurers’ denial of payment for care causes up to 68,000 needless deaths yearly.

Sanders also pointed out, countering charges from the others that he’s so inflexible he wouldn’t be able to get anything done, that he got Congress to increase spending on local health care centers by $11 billion “and that I put $2 billion for (student) debt forgiveness for doctors, nurses and dentists” in legislation, though he was not specific about which bill contains those two sums.

He also declared Medicare For All would solve the health care provider problems Klobuchar raised, but he didn’t say how because the moderators cut him off by going to another topic.

A short opening discussion on the economy let Sanders raise the issue of income inequality, which has grown to a chasm unequaled since the 1920s. Trump makes a big deal out of the economy, including a 3.6% jobless rate, leading Sanders – and unions – to point out that many workers must hold two or three jobs to try to make ends meet.

“The economy is doing really great for people like Mr. Bloomberg,” Sanders declared, an oblique reference not just to Bloomberg’s billions but to his willingness to spend a lot of his fortune — $400 million and counting – on ads to help propel himself into the Oval Office.

Bloomberg shot back that “Russia is helping you get elected so you lose” to Trump. U.S. intelligence agencies told lawmakers last week the Russians are again interfering in the election, through cyberwarfare, agitating for both Trump and Sanders. Trump, disliking that news about Russian President Vladimir Putin, fired his own intelligence chief.

Foreign policy also gave several of the others the chance to jump on Sanders for his recent remarks citing educational and health care improvements in Cuba. The others blasted Sanders’ past positive remarks about limited aspects of everyday life in Cuba, Nicaragua and the former Soviet Union.

Sanders shot back that he criticized dictatorships and dictatorial tendencies in those governments and elsewhere, and that he was quoting Obama about the Cuban improvements. He also noted the U.S. itself does not have clean hands, as it – the CIA, though he didn’t say so – overthrew popularly elected, and independent, governments in Guatemala and Iran in the 1950s, among others.

Once again, the contestants agreed on a few issues, mostly the need to beat Trump. They faulted the president for ignoring science — and the facts – on everything from the coronavirus to climate change.

They slammed Trump for endangering U.S. security through his “go it alone” decisions, his “cozying up” to China and North Korea, his alienation of allies, his unilateral support of right-wing Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu and his dismissal of Palestinian aspirations, and for Trump’s Middle East war-mongering.

That also let Sanders, the only hopeful who’s ever lived in Israel, say he’s proud to be Jewish but hates the right-wing Bibi and his government. The Israelis need secure borders and the Palestinians need a real state for themselves, Sanders said. Trump cooked up a Palestinian swiss cheese “semi-state” plan for Bibi.

Bloomberg was the exception to general criticism of Trump’s war-mongering and willingness to deploy troops abroad. Bloomberg also differed from the others on China. He supports Trump’s overall troop buildup, which produced record U.S. military spending. And Bloomberg said the U.S. must both call out and negotiate with Chinese President Xi Jinping.

All seven agreed on legalizing marijuana – which drew big cheers — though Bloomberg favored continuing criminal penalties for dealers and scientific study of pot’s impact, which he called problematic.

By contrast, Sanders zinged Biden for the former veep’s votes, as a senator, for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Sanders led the fight against GOP President George W. Bush’s Iraq conflict and is co-leading the Senate fight against Trump’s saber-rattling and war threats against Iran.


Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.