CHARLESTON, S.C. — Bernie Sanders would rather be right and president.
In the most consequential moment of his political career to date, the front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination offered an undistilled version of his vision for America on a debate stage here Tuesday. In doing so, the senator from Vermont, who is hoping to reel off a third straight win in this state’s Saturday primary, brushed aside harsh criticism from rivals and scrutiny from moderators.
“The misconception, and you’re hearing it here tonight, is the ideas that I’m talking about are radical,” he proclaimed when asked what might be misunderstood about him.
For two hours, his opponents had taken turns trying to portray Sanders as an unacceptably risky pick for his party. They argued that some of his plans are bad policy, that he couldn’t implement his agenda if he won the presidency and that President Donald Trump would win re-election while Democrats hemorrhaged seats in Congress if the party nominates him.
They seemed to be saying — like Henry Clay, who famously said, “I’d rather be right than president” — that Sanders can’t win the White House if he sticks to his core ideology.
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None of it softened Sanders’ stances on the issues or his willingness to go headlong into fighting for them. He called Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government “racist,” cited similar remarks by President Barack Obama in reiterating his praise of the late Cuban leader Fidel Castro’s literacy program and, as usual, pummeled millionaires and billionaires with abandon.
In fact, he was so sure of his message that he defiantly and directly addressed members of the audience who jeered him.
“To get a [prime] ticket to the debate, you had to be fairly wealthy,” he explained later, saying he had read that seats up front cost $1,750. “That’s problematic.”
If Sanders is going to win the Democratic nomination — and party strategists say they will have a much better feel for the trajectory of the race after the March 3 Super Tuesday contests in 14 states — he’s going to do it his way.
“The one thing about Bernie that makes him strong in a Democratic primary is that he is consistent,” said Guy Cecil, chairman of the super PAC Priorities USA. “The Bernie that you saw 20 years ago is the Bernie you saw today. It’s the Bernie you’re going to see onstage if he’s the nominee.”
That thought is troubling for many Democrats, particularly those who worry that Sanders would harm down-ballot candidates across the country.
“I think Pete [Buttigieg] brought up one of the most important issues of the impact of Senator Sanders’ being at the top of the ticket for up and down the ballot,” said Robert Wolf, a top party donor.
Even Sanders’ ideological ally on the stage, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., contended that he wouldn’t be effective as president.
“Progressives have one shot,” she said, and it should be spent on a leader “who will get things done.”
Former Vice President Joe Biden, who had a solid debate performance in advance of a primary he needs to win, echoed Warren’s sentiments, noting that as Obama’s No. 2 he had helped implement progressive policies.
In the end, though, Sanders said he felt no worse for wear.
“I feel very good about the debate,” he said in a rare appearance in the post-debate spin room. “My opponents raised a whole lot of issues, and I think we were able to fight back. I’m still standing.”
And there was little doubt about what he was standing for.