Will the Democratic Debaters Attack the Guy It’s Fun to Attack or the Guy They Need to Take Down?

The seductive pleasure of elbow-dropping Michael Bloomberg may distract from the urgency of poking holes in the rapidly inflating Bernie Sanders parade balloon.

A cameraman trains across empty seats and onto the stage, where a red, white, and blue CBS News backdrop has been set up.
The stage in Charleston, South Carolina, that will be used for Tuesday night’s debate. Logan Cyrus /AFP via Getty Images

Here are the current Democratic primary news cycle’s stories and controversies, rated on a 10-point scale of how much the non–Bernie Sanders/Michael Bloomberg Democrats in Tuesday night’s South Carolina debate (Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren, Pete Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar, and Tom Steyer) should bring them up, for their own self-interest, and then how much they’ll want to bring them up, for pleasure. (The debate is at 8 p.m. Eastern on CBS and it will run for two hours, an amount of time that is blessedly one hour less than three hours.)

Does Sanders believe the United States should adopt a governing system of Soviet-style police-state communism? On Sunday’s 60 Minutes, the Vermont senator defended past comments he’d made about literacy gains in Cuba under Fidel Castro. This could be a liability with older and independent voters who retain Cold War memories of authoritarian socialism, and Sanders is the race’s front-runner, so bringing up the issue is probably a 10 on the should-do scale. The non-Warren candidates are all probably personally annoyed that they’re getting beaten by a socialist, too, particularly one with a history of this kind of pandering to the Che Guevara T-shirt community, so let’s give it an 8 as far as the want-to factor. (Buttigieg—whose father, incidentally, was a literal academic Marxist— was so eager to get his shots in that he posted a Twitter attack insinuating that Sanders had defended communist human rights violations. Which he did not.)

Should Bloomberg drop out of the race immediately, in shame? On Monday, CNN archives sleuth Andrew Kaczynski published an audio recording of Bloomberg opining, at a 2016 Goldman Sachs event (LOL) held in Yankee Stadium (LOLOL), that Mitt Romney would have been a better president than Barack Obama. Come on! Just … come on, man. This is a 10 for dunking potential, and there will be a race to bring it up first, but only a 6 on the importance scale given that Bloomberg’s candidacy seems much less threatening this week than it did last week, after the many dunks and self-dunks that were had at his expense at the Las Vegas debate.

Will Sanders ever rein in his toxic jackass supporters on Twitter? On Monday night, the Daily Beast reported on a Sanders “regional field director” in Michigan who had made a wide variety of exuberantly offensive comments about other candidates using a private Twitter account with 4,000 followers. The staffer has been fired, but his existence—plus the apparently retaliatory mass-spamming of the Daily Beast reporter who filed the story—is likely to be used as a peg by other candidates to discuss the harassment in which some Sanders supporters are known to engage online. This is a middle-ground 5 or so on the pleasure scale; smug Twitter partisans are irritating, but the other candidates probably don’t blame Sanders himself too much for his bros, given that he has repeatedly disavowed online aggression and rarely if ever gets nasty or personal himself. But it’s up there—let’s say an 8—as a matter of urgency, because it could segue into an electorally useful critique of democratic socialism as an extreme, exclusionary purity-test ideology.

Is Bloomberg a sex creep? Last week, Warren hammer-murdered Bloomberg over the existence of sexual harassment lawsuits, sealed by nondisclosure agreements, which accuse him of personally contributing to a hostile work environment at his company. Afterward, Bloomberg announced he would be willing to release the women involved in a certain subset of the suits—he says there are three that fit his chosen definition—from their NDAs. This damage control may have been undermined Monday by his girlfriend, Diana Taylor, who appeared as a campaign surrogate at an event and then told CBS that her advice for those women is to “get over it.” This is a 9 for schadenfreude but a 4 for relevance given how much the subject was already litigated.

Is Sanders a sex creep? On Tuesday, investigative reporter Tim O’Brien, who is for some reason now a snippy Bloomberg 2020 spokesman, appeared on CNN to bring up a column about gender roles and rape fantasies that Sanders wrote for an alternative newspaper in the 1970s. This piece’s existence came up during the 2016 cycle, and it’s really more weird than it is offensive, so, a 4 for urgency. The less nakedly desperate and sanctimonious candidates (i.e., not Pete) might enjoy bringing it up for a laugh, though … so maybe a 5 for entertainment value.

Those are only some of the subjects that could lead to shankings. As last week’s sudden Warren crime spree goes to show, the nice thing about eleventh-hour debates is that candidates are at last motivated to explain how they’re different from their competitors, even at the cost of seeming not so nice. Anyone could be a victim at any time. Biden and Bloomberg aside, there’s also a lot of verbal dexterity and sharp wit to go around with this crew, which means that confrontations can escalate in exciting ways after the prepared zingers are unveiled. Have fun out there, everyone!