Sen. Bernie Sanders may have emerged from the chaotic Iowa caucuses functionally tied with former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg but only the Vermont senator was on the receiving end of the frontrunner treatment early Friday night at St. Anselm College in New Hampshire.
The broadsides came quickly and from multiple directions, with rivals hitting both his signature policy initiative and his outspoken democratic socialism.
“Bernie labeled himself—not me—a democratic socialist,” said former Vice President Joe Biden, responding to moderator George Stephanopoulos’ first question about whether a socialist candidate would harm the Democrats. “That’s the label that's going to weigh on everybody's mind with Bernie if he's a nominee.”
Biden, who finished in a disastrous fourth place in the Iowa caucuses on Monday, said that while President Donald Trump would likely call any Democratic opponent a socialist, that was no reason to make his job any easier.
“Bernie says... you have to have Medicare for All, but Bernie says—and he says he wrote the damn thing—but can’t say what the damn thing is going to cost,” Biden said of Sanders’ health care proposal, before questioning how he could get it through Congress. "I busted my neck getting Obamacare passed. I know how hard it is!”
Sanders defended his self-identification as a democratic socialist, saying that Trump’s attack lines don’t matter because “Donald Trump lies all the time.”
Sanders countered that the only way to defeat Trump is by increasing voter turnout to its highest levels in American history—the kind of turnout that, he said, requires a radical political agenda.
“The way you bring people together is by presenting an agenda that works for the working people of this country, not for the billionaire class,” Sanders said, in response to a direct criticism by Buttigieg that characterized Sanders’ political ideology as “my way or the highway.”
But Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, who finished behind Biden by only a few points in Iowa, said that Sanders’ top agenda item, Medicare for All, is a political nonstarter—and that promising voters something that can’t be delivered is the opposite of a turnout plan.
“I think we are not going to be able to out-divide the divider-in-chief,” Klobuchar said. “I think we need someone to head up this ticket that actually brings people with her, instead of shutting them out.”
The field came to the debate stage amid an increasingly bleak backdrop for their political party. The Iowa caucuses earlier in the week were an unmitigated disaster. Though the results were officially 100 percent in, no campaign or candidate had confidence in the veracity of the final tally. Indeed, a recanvas was already being demanded by DNC Chair Tom Perez, sparking only additional questions about the party’s capacity to put together a nominating contest that would earn the trust of voters and inspire them for November.
On top of that, President Donald Trump was enjoying one of the better weeks of his presidency, having been acquitted in his impeachment trial in the Senate, and basking in the public polling boost that comes with a steady stream of economic news. It was enough to prompt serious fears throughout the party that the voter enthusiasm that seemed so palpable just a year ago was dissipating at the worst possible moment.
Adding to those concerns were renewed fears that the primary would continue on for months on end without any clear resolution. Two candidates —Buttigeig and Sanders—had laid claim to a victory in Iowa. The prohibitive frontrunner, Biden, was undergoing an internal campaign overhaul but still seemed well positioned for future states. And the candidate with the most money to spend, former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg, wasn’t even on the stage, having bet his billions on swooping in later in the primary to secure the nomination.
It was, in short, a night with more questions than answers; more uncertainty than inspiration; and more recriminations than anticipation.
“We’re talking about bringing about a revolution,” said James Carville, the longtime Democratic operative. “Fuck you. No. It's about winning. That's all it is about. As a Democrat who is ill about Trump, this thing is not going very well. Let's be honest with everybody. It is not going well.”