Opinion

Fidel Castro was the biggest Super Tuesday loser

Turns out sympathizing with oppressive regimes is not a winning campaign strategy in America

Former Vice President Joe Biden clearly came out of Super Tuesday as its biggest winner. Despite having money troubles, organizational issues, and a tendency to spout gaffes nearly every day, Biden rolled to victory in nine — possibly 10 — of the 14 states up for grabs in the biggest night of the primary season. Biden shocked Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) even in Sanders' home state of Vermont, where Biden won enough votes (22 percent) to qualify for delegates, a feat Hillary Clinton couldn't accomplish in 2016.

Biden also stole Massachusetts out from under Sanders and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a stunning achievement in a state where Biden barely made an effort and ended up winning by seven points. The former VP also won in Minnesota by nearly nine points after an 11th-hour endorsement by Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who withdrew late last week, and despite spending a low five figures in the state. Stunningly, at least for those of us who live here, Biden even beat Sanders in all of the core metro counties of the Twin Cities, where Sanders had been wildly popular four years earlier and where the university electorate holds so much sway.

Even where Biden lost, he still won, because Sanders' wins were not the shutouts that he needed in order to maintain his momentum as the Democratic primary frontrunner. In Colorado and Utah, Sanders scored in the mid-30s, but in both states three other candidates appear to have qualified for delegates, limiting the size of his wins. It will take several days to fully count California, thanks to its byzantine electoral practices, but so far it looks like Biden finished a strong second with Michael Bloomberg in the money for delegates. Warren might still be in the hunt in the Golden State as well.

While waiting for California's delegate assignments, Biden jumped out in front in the primary race. He now leads Sanders in the delegate count, and no one else comes close to triple digits.

How did Biden manage to pull off this feat, especially with his underfunded organization and tendency to stick his foot in his mouth? He got a lot of help from Sanders, the media, and perhaps the biggest loser of Super Tuesday: Fidel Castro.

Until Sanders surprised everyone by jumping out into the lead in the early contests, the media focus on his campaign was generally softer and more positive. Once Sanders became the frontrunner, his past statements got a lot more scrutiny, thanks in large part to Bloomberg's oppo-research machine. Past statements got unearthed, mainly the same statements that got unearthed four years ago by the Clinton campaign but were never pressed by the media while Sanders remained in the underdog role. Those writings and remarks run the gamut from the weird to Wobblies nostalgia, but until a few weeks ago Sanders maintained the narrative that he was pushing for "Scandinavian" socialism.

That all came crashing down in a 60 Minutes interview when Anderson Cooper confronted Sanders over his support for Fidel Castro, the Sandanistas, and the Soviets. After playing some of his past public statements of support for these brutal dictatorships, Cooper asked Sanders to explain them. Rather than admit error, Sanders essentially doubled down by praising Castro's "massive literacy program," whose success and supposedly singular nature is a canard by any measure.

Two days later in a CNN town hall, Chris Cuomo tried to give Sanders an opportunity to respond to outrage from Florida Democrats over his praise for Castro. Rather than apologize, Sanders added Chairman Mao to his list of praiseworthy figures. "China is an authoritarian country," Sanders told Cuomo, "but can anyone deny — I mean, the facts are clear — that they have taken more people out of extreme poverty than any country in history?" One supposes that Sanders isn't counting the 45 million who died of starvation between 1959-1962 in Mao's Great Leap Forward.

By the next day, The Washington Post outlined just how fond Sanders has been of non-"Scandinavian" socialist regimes, which might have been useful earlier in the campaign. Leading Democrats, including Sanders' Senate colleague Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), wondered openly how their party could nominate Sanders as the leader of the free world. President Trump, who had set up the 2020 election in his State of the Union speech as a fight against socialism, presumably must have thought himself the most fortunate man in the country.

Biden's sudden resurgence might complicate that strategy for Trump going forward. If indeed Biden's rebound is attributable to a rejection of Sanders' socialism and apologetics for oppressive regimes, then it will be tougher to hang that label on whomever emerges as the nominee, except for Sanders himself. With Sanders at the top of the ticket, the argument is basic and undeniable; with another progressive, it becomes more nuanced and arguable, and Trump doesn't do nuance well.

If Sanders somehow comes back from this, then Trump can continue to use the "America vs. Socialism" theme his campaign and the RNC unveiled at CPAC last week. If not, though, Team Trump will need to ensure they don't fall into the same trap Sanders did in underestimating Biden. He might not generate the enthusiasm Sanders arguably does, but Biden just won a lot of contests without too much effort by being the safe choice in the midst of turmoil. While Trump's campaign high-fives over the Democratic disarray, they should consider that point very carefully.

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