Democrats who don't want Sanders will have to sort out a muddle in the middle

First Read is your briefing from "Meet the Press" and the NBC Political Unit on the day's most important political stories and why they matter.
Image: Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., jokes with his wife, Jane, during a campaign stop late Sunday, Feb. 16, 2020, in Denver.
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., jokes with his wife, Jane, during a campaign stop late Sunday, Feb. 16, 2020, in Denver.David Zalubowski / AP

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By Chuck Todd, Mark Murray and Carrie Dann

LAS VEGAS — All of the remaining Democratic presidential candidates have their own individual flaws, but Dem voters who don’t want Bernie Sanders as their nominee are going to have to pick — and probably pick decisively — if they want to stop him.

Pete Buttigieg has built an impressive organization (overperforming his polling in both Iowa and New Hampshire), and he gives the party its one true young, outside-Washington voice.

But it’s a huge question mark how well he can perform in more diverse states like here in Nevada, as well as South Carolina next week.

Amy Klobuchar surprised the political world in New Hampshire, hails from a geographically important part of the country (the Midwest), and has proven she can win statewide there.

But she appears to be lacking a political organization that can capture lots of delegates in the 16 Super Tuesday contests that are just two weeks away.

Joe Biden has the established ties with African-American voters, and he represents (on paper at least) the clearest Obama-era alternative to Sanders’ democratic socialism.

But his fourth-place finish in Iowa and fifth place in New Hampshire have sounded alarm bells about his candidacy; these Iowa and New Hampshire voters were the ones who saw him more than in any other state.

Elizabeth Warren still remains an option for these moderate/pragamatic voters: If you don’t want Bernie, why not go for the progressive who’s a capitalist, who is inside (instead of outside) the party, and who might be able to unify the moderate and progressive wings?

But in addition to her third- and fourth-place finishes in Iowa and New Hampshire, respectively, she’s so far only overperformed in highly educated, liberal areas.

And that brings us to Michael Bloomberg. He’s got the money (!!!!), organization and managerial experience.

But he also has problematic quotes and past actions; his stop-and-frisk record in New York could turn off African-American voters; and he spoke at George W. Bush’s convention in 2004.

So moderate Democrats across the country: You’ll need to choose your fighter by Super Tuesday. Who’s it going to be?

Mayor Bloomberg vs. Philanthropist Bloomberg

On “Meet the Press” yesterday, panelist Maria Teresa Kumar sized up the Bloomberg quandary for Democrats.

Which Michael Bloomberg would be president: Mayor Bloomberg or Philanthropist Bloomberg?

“I say this because Philanthropist Bloomberg is the one that has invested heavily on electing women through his Emily's List, has invested heavily through Planned Parenthood for women's choice, has invested heavily on gun reform, has invested heavily when it comes to basically every single issue that technically will expand the base and bring in a bigger tent,” she said.

But she added, “Mayor Bloomberg, when he talks about what happened with redlining, when he talks about, you know, stop-and-frisk, has been incredibly damaging with some of those policies. And so as he rolls out his person and his persona, he's going to have to be able to answer directly of what is happening and who is going to show up.”

2020 Vision: Biden blames being outspent for his losses

Last week, after his fifth-place finish in New Hampshire and his retreat to South Carolina, we asked the question: What happened to “Middle Class” Joe Biden?

On “Meet the Press” yesterday, one of us got to ask him the question.

Chuck Todd: "I was stunned that you didn't do as well in Manchester and Dubuque. You're Middle Class Joe. You're the guy of these working class — you didn't do well in Dubuque and Manchester."

"Why is that?"

Biden: "I did better in Dubuque, but I got outspent overwhelmingly in both places."

Todd: "And this is what has your supporters anxious. You're the former vice president. How are you getting outspent? How are you getting outspent by Bernie and by Buttigieg? You shouldn't be."

Biden: "No. I shouldn't be, because ... I haven't spent the time going out doing the fundraisers, and moving the way I have. Well, now online we're raising about 400,000 bucks a day, and we have a lot of fundraisers that are online."

There are two problems with Biden’s lack-of-money explanation above. One, it ignores the Super PAC cavalry he had in Iowa kept him pretty much at parity with Sanders and Buttigieg in Iowa.

And two, unlike Sanders, Warren and Klobuchar, he didn’t have an impeachment trial that kept him away from Iowa in the final weeks of that contest.

On the campaign trail today

Two days before the NBC debate in Las Vegas, most of the activity is in Nevada: Pete Buttigieg stumps in Reno, Carson City and Elko before heading to Salt Lake City… Elizabeth Warren visits Henderson and Las Vegas… Joe Biden hits Reno… Elsewhere, Bernie Sanders campaigns in California and Washington State… Tom Steyer is in South Carolina... And Tulsi Gabbard is in Northern Virginia.

Dispatches from NBC’s campaign embeds

Bernie Sanders is using his latest national endorsement — from NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio — to continue going after the former Mayor Michael Bloomberg, NBC’s Gary Grumbach reports. “Sanders went after Bloomberg for not campaigning in any first in the nation states, ‘I didn't see Mike in Iowa when we were holding town meetings with folks there. Didn't see him in New Hampshire, hey you know what, I didn't see him here in Nevada. Didn't see him in South Carolina. But he thinks he can buy this election. Well, I got news for Mr. Bloomberg and that is the American people are sick and tired of billionaires buying elections.”

And while in Nevada, Pete Buttigieg sharpened his answer on concerns about his mayoral tenure and race, NBC’s Priscilla Thompson reports: “’We had several situations come up, especially in my first year, that caused a tremendous amount of pain, and I was laser focused on making sure that we did the right thing legally,’ he said reflecting. ‘And I didn't always hear the voices of those who were talking about the story behind the story.’ He spoke about focusing more on measurable outcomes than the unquantifiable pain of the black community, and also expressed that he’s grown and evolved since then. ‘I wish I knew in my first year what I had come to know by my eighth year,’ he said.”

Talking policy with Benjy

Medicare for All has been the biggest dividing line in the Democratic debates. But if Sanders wins, Democratic critics are going to have to find a way to reconcile that stance, and Sanders supporters will have to find ways to help them along, NBC’s Benjy Sarlin writes.

One potential way forward is a split message of “Vote for Bernie, we need Medicare for All” for the base and “Vote for Bernie, don’t worry about Medicare for All because it won’t pass” for his center-left critics.

The Intercept’s Washington Bureau Chief Ryan Grim made the case explicit last week, when he dismissed criticism of Sanders’ bill by the Nevada Culinary Workers Union on the grounds the bill was DOA in the Senate.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y. bluntly acknowledged to HuffPost that Medicare for All might end up as a starting point to secure something more like what Sanders’ rivals are campaigning on.

The math is rough for Sanders: Only 14 senators are co-sponsoring the Sanders bill, and even that support may be softer than it looks. Several Medicare for All co-sponsors who ran for president disavowed the bill’s ban on competing private plans, including Senators Cory Booker and Kamala Harris and Representatives Tim Ryan and Eric Swalwell.

Sanders isn’t intractable on health care. He voted for the ACA and co-sponsored rival public option legislation in 2017 in a show of party unity on health care. Indeed, many single-payer supporters have long argued Medicare for All should be seen as an aspirational rallying cry that improves the left’s bargaining position in a more realistic health care deal.

But this is notably not the message Sanders has delivered as a presidential candidate. Instead, he’s argued a grassroots revolution could change the math in Congress, that a public option “doesn’t work,” and that even Warren’s plan to split his bill into two was a “major difference.” Is HE willing to tolerate a moderate case for his presidency?

Data Download: The number of the day is … $12 million

$12 million.

That’s how much Amy Klobuchar says she’s raised since the New Hampshire debate and primary, more than she brought in for the last three months of 2019.

Tweet of the day

The Lid: They love him, they love him not

Don’t miss the pod from Friday, when we looked at whether Democrats are really into Bloomberg or if he’s just a placeholder for those unhappy with the field.

ICYMI: News clips you shouldn’t miss

Bernie Sanders’ relationship with the Iraq War vote may be more complicated than how he’s described it.

There’s increasing worry about the Nevada caucuses being as much of a mess as Iowa’s.

Amy Klobuchar and Joe Biden both went after Mike Bloomberg’s record on “Meet the Press” yesterday.

Is Elizabeth Warren a “fighter” or the “unity candidate” ?

Mike Bloomberg once compared teachers unions to the NRA.

The New York Times reports on how Bloomberg built his network of influence for Democratic causes around the country.

Trump Agenda: “Hand in glove:”

Kellyanne Conway says Trump works “hand in glove” with Bill Barr.

Tom Cotton is repeating a conspiracy theory about coronavirus.

NPR is taking Trump’s threats to its funding seriously.

More than a thousand former Justice Department employees have signed on to a petition to urge Barr to resign.

2020: De Blasio backs Bernie

Bill de Blasio endorsed Bernie Sanders.

Michael Bloomberg’s past remarks are giving his rivals lots of fodder for criticism.

Primary turnout for Trump is massive despite his lack of real opposition.

The DNC has announced the criteria for the South Carolina debate.

Some progressive lawmakers say that public transit should be free.