To avoid November catastrophe, Democrats have to KO Sanders

Democratic rivals got Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersBiden campaign: Trump and former vice president will have phone call about coronavirus Judge slams Wisconsin governor, lawmakers for not delaying election amid coronavirus outbreak The Hill's Campaign Report: Biden offers to talk coronavirus response with Trump MORE (I-Vt.) on the ropes last night but didn't come close to finishing him off.

The Vermont socialist, the front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination, was grilled on his "radical" notions ranging from eliminating private health insurance to a massive expansion of federal spending and taxes, former support for the gun lobby, modified praise for authoritarian left-wing governments like Cuba and his coolness to Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaPoll: More Republican voters think party is more united than Democratic voters Can you kill a virus with a gun? Biden's pick for vice president doesn't matter much MORE.

The most telling point may have been scored by former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete ButtigiegPete ButtigiegThe Hill's 12:30 Report: Pence defends response, says Trump never 'belittled' virus threat Reuters poll finds Sanders cutting Biden national lead to single digits Biden says he'll adopt plans from Sanders, Warren MORE, who noted that Russia's election meddling isn’t as much about party as it is sowing chaos and said, “If you think the last four years has been chaotic, divisive, toxic, exhausting, imagine spending the better part of 2020 with Bernie Sanders versus Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpBiden campaign: Trump and former vice president will have phone call about coronavirus Esper: Military personnel could help treat coronavirus patients 'if push comes to shove' Schumer calls for military official to act as medical equipment czar MORE.”

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Yet the format and other candidates militated against sustained attack. Sanders took some blows and was on the defensive more than usual — but he left the stage standing.

Billionaire former New York City Mayor Michael BloombergMichael BloombergFormer Bloomberg staffer seeks class-action lawsuit over layoffs Bloomberg spent over 0M on presidential campaign The Hill's Campaign Report: Officials in spotlight over coronavirus response MORE recouped a little from a dreadful performance in the Nevada debate a week earlier, while still taking hits. He displayed keen knowledge on an issue like education and remarkably was the first candidate to mention the coronavirus epidemic an hour and seven minutes into the debate. He also parried assaults from Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenHillicon Valley: T-Mobile, Sprint complete merger | Warren pushes food delivery apps to classify workers as full employees | Lawsuit accuses Zoom of improperly sharing user data Warren calls on food delivery apps to classify workers as full employees Biden confirms he's considering Whitmer for VP MORE, who didn't match her forceful presence of the previous debate.

The two most forceful advocates were Buttigieg, who consistently returned to Sanders's deficiencies as a general election candidate, and especially former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenBiden campaign: Trump and former vice president will have phone call about coronavirus Overnight Health Care: Trump resists pressure for nationwide stay-at-home order | Trump open to speaking to Biden about virus response | Fauci gets security detail | Outbreak creates emergency in nursing homes 16 things to know today about coronavirus outbreak MORE, who was on fire — going after Sanders's earlier opposition to gun control measures and offering an appealing message to African Americans who'll comprise over half the Democratic electorate in Saturday’s primary in South Carolina.

South Carolina is must-win for Biden to remain competitive three days later in a semi-national primary, Super Tuesday: 14 states — from California to Texas to Massachusetts — electing over one-third of the delegates to the Democratic national convention in July.

It's also essential to stop the momentum of Sanders, who won two of the first three contests and seems well-positioned in a number of Super Tuesday states.

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Many top Democrats, including congressional leaders, are wringing their hands over Sanders winning the party nomination. They fear, with cause, that it will mean four more years of Donald Trump, Republican control of both houses of Congress and Republicans in a position to dominate redistricting after the 2020 census.

If that nightmare occurs, it will have been facilitated by other Democrats. The 77-year-old Biden's candidacy blocked other mainstream progressives from getting into the race or advancing. 

Minnesota Sen. Amy KlobucharAmy KlobucharBiden confirms he's considering Whitmer for VP Democratic senators call on domestic airlines to issue cash refunds for travelers Biden's pick for vice president doesn't matter much MORE's hyped New Hampshire debate performance catapulted her into third place, but also enabled Sanders to deny Buttigieg a victory. Or suppose Warren and others had focused as much fire in the Nevada debate on Sanders, the front-runner, as they did on Bloomberg. 

The narrative would be different today if Sanders had won Nevada but only after losing the first two contests. Or if this week billionaire Tom SteyerTom SteyerProgressive advocates propose T 'green stimulus' plan Candidates want data privacy rules, except for their own campaigns Budowsky: Biden should pull together a 'dream team of rivals' MORE, who has advertised significantly in South Carolina, had thrown his support to help Biden deal a critical setback to Sanders in the Palmetto State.

Everyone has a right to run for president and to campaign as they see fit. But there have been consequences.

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After South Carolina, Democrats then have to figure out how to stop Sanders from getting anywhere close to a majority of delegates going into the July Milwaukee convention. 

If Biden doesn't win South Carolina, what's the best alternative? If Bloomberg remains a pedestrian candidate, is his money better spent on an anti-Sanders campaign than for his own candidacy? If either of the first two are not the case, should Buttigieg bow out for one of the others? If the goal is to stop an unelectable Sanders, is it better for Warren to stay in or get out?

Ganging up on Bernie won't look good and may cause left-wing defections. It's better than a November catastrophe.

The case against Sanders is compelling if made forcefully and substantively. First, dismiss the polls that show today he's running as well against Trump as any of the others, a point Sanders made during the debate. Those polls are before the Republican attack machine kicks in, which will make the Democrats look like Quaker pacifists. 

The Russians probably are interfering again, this time on behalf of Trump and Sanders. They are evil, but not stupid, and see the Vermont socialist as weak against their preferred candidate, the incumbent. (Sanders, to his credit, told the Russians to stay the hell away, in contrast to Trump.)

Then consider the mainstream Democratic candidates, House incumbents in competitive districts and Senate challengers who will determine whether Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellOvernight Health Care: Trump resists pressure for nationwide stay-at-home order | Trump open to speaking to Biden about virus response | Fauci gets security detail | Outbreak creates emergency in nursing homes McConnell: Pelosi trying to 'jam' Senate on fourth coronavirus relief bill On The Money: House Dems push huge jobs project in wake of coronavirus | Trump leans on businesses in virus response | Lawmakers press IRS to get relief checks to seniors MORE (R-Ky.) keeps his Republican majority — they represent the districts and states that a Democrat has to carry to win the presidency. None, Buttigieg noted, are supportive of Sanders heading the national ticket.

The leftist myth that the energy and enthusiasm of young and disaffected voters for a radical agenda will produce a record turnout surge? Forget it. Ruy Teixeira, a liberal Democrat and student of voting patterns, labels this the “magical … pixie dust” theory; overwhelming data from elections, he notes, including the big Democratic victories in 2018, are attributable to persuasion — getting independents and soft Republicans — not a turnout surge.

To take on the Vermont socialist, Democrats need to stick with the facts: His proposals to end private health insurance, impose big taxes (on the middle class, not just the rich), ban all fracking, give convicted murderers and rapists the right to vote, his empathy for some left-wing dictators, changing positions on gun control and immigration and what experts he turns to for advice.

It should not be ad hominem attacks like one bloviator who likened Bernie taking over the Democrats to the Nazis conquering France in 1940. And Democrats should sharply take issue with right-wing demagogues like White House national security adviser Robert O'Brien, who while pretending he knows little about Russian help for Trump, charged it's not surprising they're helping Sanders, who he observed took his honeymoon in the former Soviet Union.

Sorting all this out will test whether they've changed from a century ago when Will Rogers declared, "I am not a member of any organized party. I am a Democrat."

Al Hunt is the former executive editor of Bloomberg News. He previously served as reporter, bureau chief and Washington editor for the Wall Street Journal. For almost a quarter century he wrote a column on politics for The Wall Street Journal, then the International New York Times and Bloomberg View. Follow him on Twitter @AlHuntDC.