The Corner

Elections

The Highest-Stakes Moment Brings the Worst Debate

From left: Former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg, former South Bend mayor Pete Buttigieg, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Sen. Bernie Sanders, former Vice President Joe Biden, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, and activist Tom Steyer onstage before the start of the Democratic primary debate in Charleston, S.C., February 25, 2020. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

Tonight’s debate would have been only marginally less incoherent, noisy, and grating to the ears if CBS had broadcast two hours of static.

The last debate before the South Carolina primary featured so much shouting, you would think that the candidates had just been told their microphones weren’t working. This could well be the last debate for some of these candidates, and Amy Klobuchar, Pete Buttigieg, and Elizabeth Warren have rapidly shrinking paths to the nomination. Every candidate was itching to interject, interrupt, shout over, and have a dramatic moment.

If the polls are accurate, South Carolina will end with a Joe Biden win or a Biden tie with Bernie Sanders, and Sanders set to do well in most or all of the Super Tuesday states. Last week’s debate was Get Shorty. The mission of everybody on that stage tonight who wasn’t named Bernie Sanders was to go on stage and beat the tar out of Bernie Sanders. Bloomberg is not on the ballot in South Carolina, and he’s won no delegates so far.

Most of them didn’t do that. Elizabeth Warren spent her first comments discussing her differences with Sanders, but then settled into a campaign to be Sanders’s running mate, using every opportunity she could find to steer the conversation back towards attacks on Bloomberg’s record. Tom Steyer just took up space and called for racial reparations again.

Amy Klobuchar has hit her ceiling. She’s personable enough, she likes to position herself as the sensible pragmatist . . . but it’s hard to see how much of her performance broke through in the chaotic shout-fest. Arguments like “the math does not add up” and “we can’t afford it” are not going to be knockout blows against Sanders. The New Hampshire debate helped her to a surprisingly strong third-place finish, but we’re reaching the point in the race where surprisingly strong third-place finishes don’t get it done.

Joe Biden decided he could get the strong finish in South Carolina that he wants (and really needs) by shouting as much as possible. This led to some genuinely surprising and somewhat entertaining moments, like in the first hour, when Biden flashed some anger and more or less commanded everyone else to stop interrupting him. Or in the second hour, when he echoed the candidates’ complaints about inconsistent enforcement of time limits. “Why am I stopping? No one else stops. It’s my Catholic school training.”  You wonder how much the final numbers in South Carolina can be influenced by a debate. Those already inclined to like Biden will see him fired up, feisty, and passionate. Those who aren’t inclined to like Biden saw the same not-quite-clear word salad as before, only louder.

Tonight, Pete Buttigieg tried to shift from smooth-talking McKinsey consultant presentation to attack dog, and he scored some points here and there. He had a good line about Trump’s wanting to go back to the Fifties, Sanders wanting to go back to the Sixties, and Sanders “telling people to look at the bright side of the Castro regime.” It’s just hard to see that it was enough to make a difference in South Carolina — or in many other states.

Mike Bloomberg cleared the exceptionally low bar of, “better than last week.” He had some painfully unfunny planned jokes that landed with a thud, and when the topics turned to his weaknesses like stop-and-frisk and nondisclosure agreements with former employees, he looked tense. But Bloomberg had some good moments, and he’s getting a bit more comfortable as the capitalist defender of charter schools and skeptic on marijuana legalization. The mood of the rest of the field is forcing Bloomberg to be the contrarian, which fits him. And Bloomberg has probably the least at stake in the debates; he’s the other guy who’s pretty much guaranteed to do at least okay on Super Tuesday. Bloomberg has few problems that can’t be mitigated by another couple hundred million in television ads.

The funny thing about Sanders is that he’s not really a nimble debater. He mostly just sticks to his preferred issues and messages. At least twice, he said the only way to beat Trump was to bring out more voters than ever before; none of his rivals pointed out that Sanders isn’t doing that yet. But Sanders always comes back to his core message, that all of our problems lead back to billionaires and big corporations. Maybe he took some shots when he was left insisting that he has always stood up to authoritarians. Anyone who has looked back at Sanders’s comments about Daniel Ortega, Fidel Castro, Communist China, or the Soviet Union knows that’s nonsense.

Moderating a high-stakes debate is hard, particularly when each candidate is ravenously hungering to get in all their preplanned applause lines, jabs, and canned jokes. But CBS did not rise to the occasion. We heard a question about Bloomberg’s soda ban before we heard a question about the coronavirus; the virus is the preeminent issue of the moment, and the questions concerning it came about 80-some minutes in. The moderators lost control frequently, the candidates shouted over each other all night — the transcript is just going to be eighty pages of “CROSSTALK.” The cherry on top was when Gayle King and Norah O’Donnell appeared to contradict each other on whether the debate was over. CBS went to a commercial break, and then returned . . . to urge viewers to keep watching CBS News for election coverage.

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