A Bad Night for Democrats

Candidates at the Democratic primary debate in Charleston, S.C., February 25, 2020. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)
The debate diminished everyone who participated in it.

The CBS-moderated debate on Tuesday was bad.

The topic choices were bad: We heard yet another litigation of barely different visions of never-gonna-pass health-care policy an hour before we heard a question about coronavirus and pandemics. The moderation was bad: Bernie was attacked by five candidates consecutively and got about 45 seconds to respond. Meanwhile, Warren was allowed long soliloquies just because Michael Bloomberg passingly referred to her. The crosstalk was bad. Oh, and as a viewer, it seemed to be bad for all the candidates involved.

Let’s start with the two poll leaders heading into South Carolina. This was Joe Biden’s best debate performance so far, and it was pretty bad.

Biden clarified once again his one insistent message: “I’ve already done this. This is part of a larger campaign of returning to normalcy and nostalgia.” Biden’s answer to questions about constitutional reform to create more legislation in Congress was that he knows how to pass bipartisan legislation; he’s already done it. His answer on foreign-policy challenges that are unique to the moment was that he’s the only one on stage to deal with world leaders before; he’s already done it. In this debate, he never put this message about his qualification into a larger story about the political moment we’re living in, or the aspirations of Democrats for the future. And so his constant harping that he’s “already done it” felt like a weak man’s plea for recognition and respect from the ingrates. Here’s something Joe Biden hasn’t done so far in three separate presidential campaigns: won a single caucus or state primary.

Biden’s problem in this debate has clarified why he is consistently losing to Bernie Sanders, and why the black vote is slowly abandoning Biden for Bernie: Bernie talks in an aspirational way about the kind of country he wants the United States to become in the future. He responded to a barrage of attacks by returning to his message of Medicare for All. He dismissed concerns about his voting record as trivialities compared to his larger vision of a country that works for working people instead of working just for billionaires. But this more inspirational Bernie only peaked for a few moments at the beginning and very end of the debate. His very last answer, in which he said that the most common misconception about him is that he’s a radical — as he only demands what is just and normal for modern democracies — was one of his best of the campaign.

But overall, it was a bad night for Sanders. It may not change the dynamic of the race, where he is on track to become the favorite of a majority of his party, but his colleagues finally went after him. They called him unelectable, extreme, a tool of Vladimir Putin who is trying to sow chaos in America. Sanders got defensive about his past comments on socialist nations around the world. Instead of issuing clear and unambiguous present-tense denunciations of dictatorships, he merely asserted that he always opposed authoritarianism, but then he seemed anxious to defend the good things that happened underneath those dictatorships. He made no logical argument about why Cuba needed a tyranny to raise literacy rates, because there is no logical argument for it. The palpable anxiety to defend the honor of Cuba or China was absurd and ugly. And it will hurt Democrats down the ballot in Florida. Sanders had a strange answer that seemed halfway between ill-conceived radical pandering and a condescending view when he said he was “going to provide help to the African American, Latino, Native American community to start businesses to sell legal marijuana rather than let a few corporations control the legalized marijuana market.” What? And by the way, how many vice businesses should Native Americans be shunted into?

Elizabeth Warren dominated the first hour by interrupting so much that clearly CBS started to demand their hosts enforce the rules. But the problem for Elizabeth Warren is that the more people actually hear what she has to say, the fewer support her bid for president. She did nothing to stop her sinking candidacy.

Mike Bloomberg had a better night than his first debate, but not one that will win him many friends. I appreciated his caution on legal marijuana, but his argument is that the party is about to go over the cliff with Sanders and only he and his billions can save it. You don’t have to love or even like him, but he seemed to say, “You just have to use your head.” This is not the man from Hope. He’s the man from Desperation. And he may yet thrive.

Pete Buttigieg had his prepared attack lines and zingers but wasted them in the interminable crosstalk. Amy Klobuchar was also present. And billionaire Tom Steyer once again proved that even though he is a billionaire and possesses amazing common sense, he is also deeply moved by all the segments about social issues he hears on NPR.

The debate diminished everyone who participated in it. And it made Sanders a weaker general-election candidate without giving momentum to anyone else.


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