Mark down the date: Tuesday, Feb. 25. That’s the day when the week of hell begins for Bernie Sanders. It’s the day he will begin to face down a hyper-concentrated form of the virulent opposition that Democrats have launched at him for five years, and it’s going to be a brutal onslaught. What he faces now will make 16 stories in 16 hours look like a meek Jeb Bush smirk, because along with the usual corporate media bias (always coupled with the insistence that nobody has vetted him yet), there is another potent ingredient in the air: Desperation. As much as anyone talks about a brokered convention, or a primary race that tightens once some of the moderates drop out, anyone taking a clear-eyed look at this understands the truth: If you don’t stop Bernie Sanders by Super Tuesday, you’re never going to stop him.
Here’s the schedule for hell week:
Tonight, Tuesday Feb. 25: The last debate before Super Tuesday
Saturday, Feb. 29: The South Carolina primary
Tuesday, March 3: The Super Tuesday primaries
Tuesday night’s debates are the last chance for the candidates to attack Sanders face to face, and after wounding Bloomberg in last week’s debate and tanking his approval numbers, there’s every incentive for all of them to sharpen the knives for the frontfrunner. And I do mean all—there’s little doubt that Elizabeth Warren’s people are telling her that her aggressive performance in the Las Vegas debate was the high point of her campaign, that she raised a ton of money in the aftermath and only fell below viability in Nevada because early voting came before the debate, and that she can win the nomination by scorching Sanders, watching his numbers drop, surviving South Carolina, and then shocking the world on Super Tuesday. It’s a complete fantasy, but after her Nevada results, fantasy is better than nothing, and she’s already showed a willingness to attack the race’s other progressive. She’ll come after him early and often.
The other candidates have learned some lessons too. Pete and Amy saw how useless it was to attack each other in a fight for some tiny slice of the moderate pie, so they’ll train their fire on Bernie. Bloomberg will need to go on the attack in an attempt to stave off a second straight humiliation, but he won’t be so completely in the crosshairs this time. And Joe Biden knows that his last sliver of hope comes from winning South Carolina, and there’s only one man who can stop him.
Which raises the obvious question: What will the attacks look like? Will it be more of the mild “how do you pay for your plans?” salvos—which Sanders has tried to fight off by releasing specifics in recent days—or will they go a little dirtier, knowing that the salacious stuff has a better chance to make an impact? If they choose the latter route, expect to see some or all of the following:
—The Russians want Bernie Sanders to win, and that means they think Trump will beat him, which means Bernie is weak, so don’t give the Russians what they want. (For bonus points, throw in his “honeymoon” trip to the USSR, and the nice comments he made about their artistic culture afterward.)
—Bernie’s supporters are rabid vicious hateful trolls and Bernie is a criminal for not singlehandedly stopping them.
—Bernie praised Fidel Castro, a murderous dictator, which means…well, take your pick. He’s a commie, a murderous dictator himself, someone who is easily duped, choose your own adventure.
—Bernie won’t release his medical records, which means he could drop at any minute.
—He’s actually a millionaire oligarch because he owns an extra cabin in Vermont.
—He’s a sexist who thinks a woman can’t win. (For bonus points, reference the infamous rape essay.)
None of these narratives are damning if you look at the truth behind them—Russians want to sow discord and undermine Sanders by seeming to visibly support him, his “praise” of Castro was limited to programs he implemented in Cuba that were actually beneficial, the Bernie Bro narrative is nonsense and nobody outside of Twitter cares, and as far as the sexist/millionaire/dying-candidate issues are concerned, they’ve already been tried and they’ve already failed.
But there’s no better option for his opponents if they really want to win, and time is running out.
The biggest pitfall for Sanders may be the South Carolina primary, where Biden has maintained his polling lead, just barely, despite abysmal performances in Iowa and New Hampshire and a distant second in Nevada. If Biden can hold on, he’ll have achieved something he’s never managed in multiple presidential campaigns, which is to win an actual state. Depending on how the win is framed, which largely depends on the tenor of media coverage and on the final margin, it could give him some momentum heading into Super Tuesday. If the MSNBCs of the world are eager to promote that narrative, it could work—all the attacks in the world aren’t worth as much as an actual win.
Aside from that primary and the debate, you can bet that there will be “blockbusters” dropping at some point this week or early next meant to slow Sanders down. Because if he survives, and does as well as he’s polling in the Super Tuesday states, it’s a wrap. After that, nobody can really challenge him, and he’ll likely pass the 50% threshold with ease. There will be a remote chance of a brokered convention, but if the Democrats are actually brazen enough to steal a nomination away from the plurality winner, it will guarantee a Trump victory and blow up the party for good. It ain’t happening.
Which leaves this week. It’s the last chance to wound the Sanders campaign, and it’s going to be vicious.