Bernie Sanders earned quite a few mentions in the second round of Republican debates, which at the very least offers a measure of the extent to which the senator from Vermont has become a factor in the 2016 presidential race.
Sanders was not generally referred to by name, but his democratic socialism came up frequently enough.
Republicans in both debates on Wednesday night noted the fact the Democratic presidential race has been shaken up by “a socialist”—employing a term that at the Reagan Presidential Library is still considered a choice epithet.
“I’m delighted to be on this stage with some remarkable fellow Republicans,” announced former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee at the opening of the main debate. “None of us are a self-professed socialist.”
In the earlier “kids’ table” debate, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal noted how well Sanders is doing in the race for the Democratic nomination and told the crowd: “They have got a socialist that is gaining on Hillary Clinton. Folks, you can’t make that up. A socialist is doing well in the Democratic primary.”
Not all the references were entirely negative, however.
South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham politely included Sanders on the list of Democrats who might become president. Arguing that Republicans must win the 2016 election in order to fill Supreme Court vacancies with right-wing judicial activists, Graham said, “To the Republicans, the biggest prize on the table in 2017 is the presidency. If it is Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden or Bernie Sanders, they are going to pick people that we will disagree with all the time.”
Later, Jindal—who in the past has griped that President Obama’s advocacy for making healthcare available to those who need it is “making a moral case for socialism”—described Sanders as the rarest of all political players: an honest candidate. Indeed, the Louisianan seemed to suggest that the Vermonter was more honest than at least some self-professed conservatives.
“You’ve got a choice between honest socialists on the left, like Bernie Sanders, and lying conservatives on the right,” announced the governor.
Asked about Jindal’s remarks on CNN’s New Day program, Sanders seized the moment to offer perspective that was entirely missing from the Republican debate.
“I know for Governor Jindal it is easy to try to frighten people—we throw out a word, ‘socialism,’ oh my goodness we’re all supposed to be shaking in our boots. But I think that if you look at some of the real success stories in many of these countries, there’s a lot that we can learn,” said Sanders, referencing the accomplishments of European social democracies. “Countries like Finland and Denmark and Sweden are much more homogeneous than we are, they are much smaller than we are, but there are lessons that we can learn. Why are we the only major nation on earth that doesn’t guarantee health care to all people? Forget Scandinavia, I live a hundred miles away from Canada; all of their people have health care and they do it much more cost-effectively than we do. Why are we the only major country on earth that doesn’t guarantee paid family and medical leave, so when a working-class woman has a baby she’s not forced to be separated from her baby and forced to go back to work a week or two weeks later?”
Serious talk like that has gotten Sanders a long way in the race for the Democratic nod; he still trails in national polls, but he now leads in surveys from first-primary state of New Hampshire and is highly competitive in surveys from the first-caucus state of Iowa. It has also given him standing as a potential nominee; recent polling suggests that Sanders could beat several of the top Republican contenders, including Donald Trump and Jeb Bush.
Sanders followed the debate on social media. His humorous, mildly sarcastic tweeting of the main Republican debate went viral. And his Facebook post on the debate “garnered over 176,000 likes and 35,000 shares,” which according to The Hill was better than for any of the Republican contenders.
“The evening was really pretty sad. This country and our planet face enormous problems. And the Republican candidates barely touched upon them tonight. And when they did, they were dead wrong on virtually every position they took. The Republican Party cannot be allowed to lead this country,” observed Sanders on Facebook. “That’s why we need a political revolution.”