Democrats Need to Attack Sanders Head On

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Moral fervor and personal integrity are central to the political brand of Senator Bernie Sanders. If the other Democratic presidential candidates want to stop him before it’s too late, they need to attack that brand head on — and the best opportunity is next week’s debate in South Carolina.

They missed their chance at this week’s debate in Nevada, where Sanders was asked about transparency but was allowed to mostly avoid the issue. The question needs to be revisited, with force and repetition.

The subject matter is delicate but relevant: Sanders had a heart attack in October, and his campaign kept it secret for three days, revealing it only after he was released from the hospital. So the issue is not just health but honesty. Eventually, bowing to the reality that the presidency is a stressful job and the consequences of impairment or death are vast, the 78-year-old vowed to be forthcoming about his health. He would release “comprehensive” records, he said, “probably by the end of the year.”

He didn’t. Now Sanders says the records won’t be released at all. Instead, Sanders pulled a modified Trump — releasing letters from doctors in lieu of medical records. Before the debate, a Sanders spokeswoman had claimed that Michael Bloomberg had had a heart attack, a falsehood she later had to correct. During the debate, Sanders was quick to point out that Bloomberg had also had heart surgery, prompting Bloomberg to note that the operation was 25 years ago. (Bloomberg is the founder and majority owner of Bloomberg LP, the parent company of Bloomberg News.)

The debate featured far more attacks on Bloomberg than on Sanders. There was logic to that, especially from the perspective of the attacker-in-chief, Senator Elizabeth Warren. Sanders supporters tend to be sticky and hard to pry off. Bloomberg supporters are newer and so may be less attached to their candidate. As Ronald Brownstein noted in the Atlantic, the attacks on Bloomberg “reflected an undeniable imperative” for his opponents to counter his argument that he is the only alternative to Sanders.

Sanders has benefited from years of other candidates taking the heat. His opponents have repeatedly deferred when they might have attacked. Hillary Clinton had little incentive to blister him in 2016, as she knew she would need his supporters in November. Nor did Democrats heap blame on Sanders for contributing to Clinton’s subsequent defeat, though such a narrative might well have helped marginalize Sanders and reduce the risks he now poses — which include the potential loss of Congress as well as the presidency if he is the party’s nominee.

“The conventional wisdom was that he wasn’t going to be a threat in 2020,” said Jim Manley, a former top aide to Democratic Senate Leader Harry Reid. “So why pay attention to him?”

Likewise, Sanders’s October heart attack appeared likely to deflate or even end his candidacy. Instead, he chugged along. Now he is the front-runner. In South Carolina next week, his opponents need to make Sanders’s integrity the centerpiece of the evening.

The problem of collective action is no longer an excuse for enabling Sanders’s march to the nomination. His medical cover-up undermines the essence of his candidacy and opens the way to other dormant issues. Chief among them is the very foundation of his campaign. How, exactly, does a candidate lead a democratic “revolution” when he struggles to win support from even half of the liberal party?

Donald Trump’s presidency poses existential risks to American democracy. If Democrats believe that a Sanders candidacy would increase the chances of a second Trump term — especially one with a compliant GOP House and Senate aiding and abetting Trump’s corruption and authoritarianism — then Sanders, too, is an existential risk. At next week’s debate in South Carolina, the remaining candidates need to sound the alarm. It may be their last chance.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Francis Wilkinson writes editorials on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg Opinion. He was executive editor of the Week. He was previously a writer for Rolling Stone, a communications consultant and a political media strategist.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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