By this point in the Democratic nominating contest, there’s a basic blueprint for how to publicly dress down an opponent on stage: identify the target, mount the prosecution against a perceived deficiency, and deliver the kill shot.
Think Kamala Harris on Joe Biden; Pete Buttigieg on Elizabeth Warren; and Julián Castro on everyone else. The methodology, which nearly every 2020 aspirant has attempted with varying degrees of success and failure, has played out over the first five debates against all contenders on the rise, save one: Bernie Sanders.
Since the first debate in June, Sanders has largely escaped the high-velocity attacks that plagued his fellow frontrunners. Instead, the battles have raged above and below his steady second place position in the polls. When Harris, who ended her presidential bid earlier this month, accused Biden of being on the wrong side of desegregation issues, he visibly froze. And when Buttigieg sought to poke holes in Warren’s vague outline to pay for health care, it teed off a months-long proxy war over transparency—a feud that’s expected to continue on Thursday night.
“We stay ready!” a senior Sanders 2020 adviser told The Daily Beast about the prospect of fresh, from-the-side hits from his competitors. Lest anyone think he’s coasting, the adviser added: “it is fully expected” that Democrats will start pouncing.
The fact that it hasn’t happened yet is curious, but not without reason.
Some allies point to the shifting nature of the primary conversation, where progressive policies have become more broadly accepted in the party post-2016. Multiple aides and allies of Sanders told The Daily Beast his rivals may have a harder time criticizing some of his policy prescriptions that they have adopted in their own campaigns. Others note the potential overlap in support bases. While some suspect their opponents are merely waiting for the right time.
“The reality of the Democratic primary is [that] the Bernie Sanders agenda is being debated to one degree or another. Period,” a senior Sanders adviser said.
Currently occupying the top slot in New Hampshire and polling in a close second in Iowa, Sanders’ rivals have turned away from taking him on directly, typically favoring critiques on Biden, Warren, and more recently, Buttigieg.
“I don't think anyone is going onto the debate stage looking to go after Bernie,” one progressive strategist told The Daily Beast. “But many people are willing to engage Pete.”
Another operative directly familiar with Sanders-world put it all on the candidate himself: “You shouldn’t come into it needing a moment,” the operative said. “And I don’t think Bernie does.”
After suffering a heart attack in October, Sanders has largely been on an upward trajectory—securing the coveted endorsement of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez (D-NY) and continuing to raise large sums of money, most recently posting $25.3 million in third quarter fundraising numbers, second only to billionaire Tom Steyer, who is self-funding. In California, the state that holds a treasure trove of delegates on Super Tuesday and site of the debate Thursday night, he’s tied with Biden at 21 percent.
But as the sub-primary between Buttigieg and Warren over financial issues has escalated in recent weeks, some Sanders allies are wondering why his turn hasn’t come yet.
“Some people are easier to hit than others,” Keith Ellison, Minnesota’s Attorney General who endorsed Sanders, told The Daily Beast. “Bernie is Bernie.”
The concept of Medicare for All—known on the debate stage by Sanders’ own rhetoric as the “damn bill” he first introduced in the Senate—enticed several of his Hill colleagues enough to co-sponsor his legislation, including Warren, who has since offered a version to fit her own campaign.
But as Warren faced increased scrutiny over the financial details of her plan, Sanders’ opponents have largely given him a pass, leaving an opening for the senator to restate his own talking points—ranging from Medicare for All and tuition-free college, to the billionaires and the like—without sustaining wounds.
At times, they’ve even praised him. Throughout the seven months of debate seasons, several opponents have spontaneously declared “I agree with Bernie,” as Biden and Sen. Michael Bennett (D-CO) did, respectively, or have given a nod to his honesty, as Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) acknowledged in October, with the caveat that she thinks his plan is all wrong.
“At least Bernie's being honest here and saying how he's going to pay for this and that taxes are going to go up,” Klobuchar said in the Ohio debate about Medicare for All while attempting to draw a contrast with Warren.
Those Democrats who have offered praise, albeit sometimes wrapped in firm disagreement, are not likely to pull a 180 now. Indeed, multiple senior aides and allies to rival campaigns told The Daily Beast their candidates are not planning full throttle attacks on Sanders for Thursday.
Still, some progressives see attacks on Warren and other liberal Democrats as also trickling down to Sanders.
“We want Sen. Sanders to see an attack on other progressive candidates as an attack on him,” Jennifer Epps-Addison, co-executive director of the Center for Popular Democracy Action, which represents 40 progressives organizations and 600,000 members and recently endorsed Sanders, told The Daily Beast.
“Every single time Pete Buttigieg or Joe Biden tells hard working people in this country that there isn’t enough money to ensure that everyone has health care or housing, it is an attack on Sen. Sanders and an attack on people who believe much more is possible in this country.”
Sanders’ campaign did not return multiple requests for comment. But they have nonetheless dropped clues of what the Vermont Independent might throw down on the Loyola Marymount University debate stage, the site of the sixth contest, if prompted. In particular, he’s started calling out Buttigieg by name, publicly mocking his penchant for flashy fundraisers.
“I am not entirely sure what happens when people pay huge sums of money to have dinner with a candidate at a wine cave with ‘1,500 Swarovski crystals,’ but I would guess they are not talking about standing up to the greed of the billionaire class of this country,” Sanders wrote in an email to supporters, referencing the extravagance of a recent Buttigieg fundraiser.
“Needless to say, we will never have a fundraiser at a wine cave.”
For Sanders’ observers, it’s a line of contrast worth pursuing.
“I’ve personally been really happy to see them going on the offensive on that stuff,” one progressive strategist familiar with Sanders-world said. “They have been effective in reminding people who maybe have strayed away in the last several months why they were drawn to Bernie in the first place.”
Buttigieg’s campaign declined to comment on the record about their debate strategy, but the mayor’s own messaging indicates Sanders is, for now, second fiddle to Warren, often placing his name behind hers on campaign materials and grouping the Vermont senator as just one of other progressives in the race.
“I know Pete,” said Ellison, who unsuccessfully ran against Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez for party leader in 2016. “He openly touts himself as ‘the millennial,’ he went on, before adding a hypothetical come-back for Sanders: “And Bernie’s like, ‘I’ve been around the block a few times and the young people like me,’” he said, with a laugh. “It’s really ironic.”