It's a packed house in Columbia, South Carolina, 2,000 clammy people in a hall better suited for half that number, with another 700 in an overflow room. They've come to hear Bernie Sanders rip the billionaires and Wall Street. He doesn't disappoint.
"The American people understand that corporate greed, this never-ending greed of wanting more and more no matter how much they have already, is destroying our economy," an angry Sanders declares.
The crowd roars.
"The American people also understand," Sanders continues, jabbing the air, "that at a time when this country faces so many enormous problems, when we need so much serious discussion, that much of the corporate media will talk about everything in the world except the most important issues facing working Americans."
This is why I came. Sure, I love a good Bernie speech, and I was curious how he'd draw in a red state in the Deep South. But mainly, I'm witness to the fact that, despite media pronouncements that this was the summer of Donald Trump, it actually belonged to the Democratic Socialist senator from Vermont, Bernie Sanders.
You want a presidential candidate who decries the mess we're in? Take your pick, Trump or Sanders. You want a candidate with a clue? It isn't Trump, whose only answer is that he's a bully and he'll be your bully. (If you're a white male.) Only Sanders—Bernie—offers a coherent, almost too detailed plan to fix the economy, promote renewable energy, attack racism and sexism, and put morality and democracy back at the center of American life.
This would be obvious, frankly, if the Democratic presidential candidates debated. Because Hillary Clinton, the frontrunner, isn't ready, however, the first Democratic debate won't occur until Oct. 13, with just three more debates slated before the Iowa caucuses (Feb. 1) and the first primaries in New Hampshire (Feb. 9) and South Carolina (Feb. 27).
It's astounding that Clinton thinks she should coast with the lead, because every day that her debates with Sanders are not in the news is a day when her private email server is. She is literally beating herself.
But the real loser is the American electorate, which tuned in en masse to watch the Republican candidates sow confusion on Aug. 6. (Round two is set for Sept. 16. Grab some popcorn.)
A record 24 million watched Trump and his foes "debate." But not one word was said about climate change, wealth inequality, student debt or the issue of cops shooting unarmed African-Americans, all of which deserve the kind of sustained consideration that presidential debates, if they're frequent and—Sanders' word—serious, can provide.
Clinton is cheating the country out of the hard look we need at the choices we face. Strangely, though, while her reticence keeps Bernie off TV and the Donald on, Bernie is surging anyway—refusing to be ignored.
So here's the Bernie news from South Carolina:
Bernie's drawing the crowds. Total audience for four events in two days: About 10,000. Not the 28,000 he drew in Portland, Oregon, or the 27,000 in Los Angeles, but as his supporters said, South Carolina's a red state and this was his first swing through. Trump's announced "30,000" at a Mobile, Alabama, football stadium? Maybe half that number, based on the photos.
Bernie's not too old. He'll be 74 in September. To demonstrate his stamina, he blasted through his full 75-minute stump speech twice on Friday and twice more Saturday. Trump, 69, should try that. Or Clinton, soon to be 68.
Bernie's supporters are white. In Columbia, perhaps one in 15 was African-American. Having been targeted by the #blacklivesmatter movement in recent weeks, Bernie hit hard at what he termed "institutionalized racism," including misguided drug laws. He attacked the militarization of police departments, while adding that most cops are honest and doing a tough job. But when any use lethal force that isn't warranted, he said, "that officer must be held accountable."
Bernie can't win without black support. Polls show him closing in on Clinton in Iowa and leading in New Hampshire, where black voters are scarce. Nationally, he's shaved Clinton's massive early lead in half. But when the nomination fight comes to South Carolina and, in March, to eight more Southern states including North Carolina, African-American voters will be pivotal.
Bottom line, the debates can't come soon enough for Bernie, Hillary or the country. She needs them to change the subject. And if she's as good at policy as her supporters think, she'll school poor Bernie, who, after all, is a socialist.
Bernie, on the other hand, needs them to carry his message from online media, where it's thriving, to mass audiences he hasn't yet reached and can't while the mass media ignores him. It's a message that, when heard, should be especially resonant with African-American voters interested in economic and social justice.
It was, anyway, to Mychael Strickland, a high school biology teacher from Laurinburg who discovered Bernie after reading that he was the most retweeted candidate following the Republican debate. She came to Columbia toting her 1-year-old son, Miciah.
"I was like, who is this guy? He really woke me up," Strickland told me. After studying his platform, she's been pitching Bernie to her friends in Laurinburg. Their response? "Not too many people know about him."
But then, three weeks ago, neither did she.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Bern notice"