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5 key moments from South Carolina’s otherwise very messy Democratic debate

From Elizabeth Warren’s “kill it” twist to Biden vs. Sanders on guns, here are the highlights of Tuesday night’s debate. Also, there was a lot of yelling.

Members of the media watch the Democratic debate in the press room in Charleston, South Carolina, on February 25, 2020.
Scott Olson/Getty Images

There was a lot of yelling at the Democratic debate in South Carolina on Tuesday, to the point that sometimes it was really unclear what was going on.

And we’re not talking about a lively debate, like the one in Nevada a week ago, when elbows were sharp and conversation was sharper, or at least made sense. Tuesday’s showdown sort of started that way — candidates took a lot of opening shots at Sen. Bernie Sanders early on, hinting that they might train their fire on the Vermont independent instead of on billionaire and former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg, who was the main target last time around.

Bloomberg hit Sanders on reports that Russia is backing him, Sen. Elizabeth Warren said she’d be a better president, and even billionaire Tom Steyer, who seems to have been pursuing a bromance with Sanders, said that while Sanders’s “analysis” might be right, he doesn’t like his solutions — all within the first 15 minutes.

“I’m hearing my name mentioned a little bit tonight,” Sanders joked.

But the debate went off the rails pretty quickly, and it never really got back on track. The all-white candidates awkwardly talked a lot about people of color. Bloomberg was asked a lot of questions about his mayoral record — even his attempt at a ban on giant sodas came up. There was a pretty substantive debate about guns, but it was often hard to follow — was it about Sanders’s National Rifle Association record, former Vice President Joe Biden’s gun control work, or whether Congress will do anything with the filibuster still in place?

This is the last debate before a lot of voting, and the stakes are high. South Carolina votes in its primary on Saturday, followed by Super Tuesday just three days later on March 3, when more than a dozen states will vote. Then the next Tuesday, six more states head to the ballot box. By that point, nearly half of the national delegates at stake in the primary will have been won. We won’t see the candidates on the debate stage again until March 15 — by then, it’s likely that multiple contenders who appeared on the stage in Charleston will have dropped out.

Tuesday’s debate was messy, and it’s not clear whether it’s going to make much of a difference for anyone. But if you missed it, here are a handful of moments that stood out:

Elizabeth Warren hits Mike Bloomberg on another part of his employment record

Warren’s story about being let go from a teaching job when she was pregnant as a young woman is a familiar element of her presidential campaign: She was in her early 20s and visibly pregnant with her daughter, Amelia, and the principal at the school where she worked told her someone else would have her job the following year. On the debate stage, Warren recounted the story — but ended it with a twist: She referenced an allegation that Bloomberg once told one of his employees to have an abortion.

“At least I didn’t have a boss who said to me, ‘Kill it,’ the way that Mayor Bloomberg is alleged to have said,” Warren said.

Vox’s Anna North explained what Warren was referring to:

She was talking about allegations by Sekiko Sakai Garrison, a former employee at Bloomberg’s company, Bloomberg LP. In a 1998 lawsuit, Garrison said that when she told Bloomberg she was pregnant, he told her to “kill it.”

When she asked him to repeat himself, he said it again: “kill it.” Then, according to her suit, he mumbled, “Great! Number 16!” — a reference to the number of women at his company who were pregnant or on maternity leave.

Bloomberg has denied the allegation, and he did again on Tuesday. “Never said that,” he said, trying to pivot to discussing New York City’s school system.

Warren wouldn’t let it go, continuing to push Bloomberg on his history with women and insisting he go further than releasing three women who have made complaints against him from nondisclosure agreements. Bloomberg became visibly agitated. “I don’t know what else she wants us to do,” he said.

When the moderators asked Warren what evidence she had of the allegation she’d made, her response was quick: “her own words.”

“When I was accused of doing it, we couldn’t figure out what she was talking about. But right now, I’m sorry if she heard what she thought she heard or whatever happened, I didn’t take any pleasure in that,” Bloomberg said. “And we just have to go on. But I never said it.”

Despite Bloomberg’s efforts to move on from the issue, Warren managed to turn a staple of her stump speech into one of the most memorable moments of the night.

—Emily Stewart

An all-white stage of candidates talks about people of color

Tuesday’s debate was just the latest one that didn’t feature a single person of color — a dynamic that was painfully apparent as candidates sought to discuss racism and discriminatory policies like “stop and frisk.” Much as in the Nevada debate, even as candidates tried to call out disparities, none were able to speak directly about their own experiences, as candidates including Sens. Cory Booker and Kamala Harris were able to in the past.

Pete Buttigieg attempted to address the lack of diversity at the Democratic debate. “None of us have the lived experience of walking down the street ... and feeling eyes on us, regarding us as dangerous, without knowing the first thing about us because of the color of our skin,” he said.
Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images

Former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg said as much in a striking exchange with Bloomberg when both were confronted about their missteps with black and brown constituents in their communities.

“I come to this with some humility because I’m conscious of the fact that there are seven white people on this stage,” Buttigieg said. “None of us — none of us have the experience, the lived experience of, for example, walking down the street, or in a mall, and feeling eyes on us, regarding us as dangerous, without knowing the first thing about us just because of the color of our skin.”

It was a good point — and one that Buttigieg made even as he’s been called out for his record in South Bend, where he’s gotten pushback about his decision to dismiss the city’s first black police chief and an effort to implement a revitalization initiative that demolished deteriorating homes. In a New Hampshire debate earlier this month, Buttigieg struggled to respond to a question regarding South Bend’s disproportionate arrests of black residents for marijuana possession during his tenure.

He wasn’t the only candidate to attempt to awkwardly address the lack of diversity onstage.

“I know if I was black, my success would have been a lot harder to achieve. And I know a lot of black people, if they were white, it would have been a lot easier for them,” Bloomberg said. “That’s just a fact, and we’ve got to do something about it rather than just demagogue about it.”

—Li Zhou

Democrats split on whether China’s Xi Jinping is a dictator

Mike Bloomberg has a China problem, mainly in that he refuses to condemn Chinese President Xi Jinping — who made himself leader for life — as a dictator.

In an interview last year, Bloomberg told Margaret Hoover, the host of PBS’s Firing Line, that the Chinese president “was not a dictator.”

“He has to satisfy his constituents or he’s not going to survive,” Bloomberg said.

Mike Bloomberg speaks during the Democratic debate.
Win McNamee/Getty Images

Asked about those comments, Bloomberg touched on China’s lack of a free press and human rights problems before returning to the question at hand. “In terms of whether he’s a dictator, he does serve at the behest of the Politburo” — an official leadership group that oversees the country’s Communist Party. “But there’s no question he has an enormous amount of power, but he does play to his constituency.”

It’s a fair point. There’s no question dictators have to play politics, too. Despite their immense power, they still have to keep other elites and certain parts of the citizenry happy. That’s still not a good enough excuse to keep qualifying statements about Xi’s politicking when he’s, say, putting more than 1 million Uighur Muslims into concentration camps — something former Vice President Joe Biden pointed out.

“This guy doesn’t have a democratic bone in his body,” he said. “He’s a thug that has a million Uighurs in reconstruction — I mean concentration — camps. This is a guy who you see what’s happening right now in Hong Kong,” he added, noting he had nevertheless worked with Xi when the administration deemed it necessary, pointing out his part in convincing Beijing to join the Paris climate agreement.

Sen. Bernie Sanders, who has previously been criticized for qualified statements about despots, even got in on the action: “He said that the Chinese government is responsive to the Politburo, but who are they responsive to? Who elects the Politburo? You have a real dictatorship there.”

This moment is more important than just marking a clear difference in the debate. The US-China relationship is arguably the world’s most important one. How the next American president thinks about Xi and his leadership has major ramifications for the next administration and the globe. We all just got a glimpse of what that future might look like with one of these Democrats in office.

—Alex Ward

Joe Biden hits Bernie Sanders for his record on guns

At Tuesday night’s debate, Biden hit Sanders — from the left.

The former vice president pointed to his decades-long record on gun control, reminding viewers that he helped pass bills that implemented national background checks and banned assault weapons (for 10 years) in the 1990s. Then he shifted to an attack on Sanders:

But my friend to my right and others, in fact, also gave in to the gun manufacturers — absolute immunity … 150 million people have been killed since 2007, when Bernie voted to exempt the gun manufacturers from liability. More than all the wars, including Vietnam, from that point on. Carnage on our streets.

Biden is right here: Sanders did vote for a 2005 bill that protects gun companies from lawsuits if their products are used in crimes. Then-President George W. Bush signed that NRA-backed bill into law.

Joe Biden argued with Bernie Sanders about his record on gun control during Tuesday’s debate.
Win McNamee/Getty Images

That’s only one part of Sanders’s moderate record on guns. He also voted against a bill in 1993 that established national background checks. Even after Sanders came to support universal background checks and other gun control measures that Democrats and some Republicans backed in the aftermath of the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, Sanders raised doubts about the efficacy of gun control — telling Vermont’s Seven Days in 2013, “If you passed the strongest gun control legislation tomorrow, I don’t think it will have a profound effect on the tragedies we have seen.”

But Sanders has tried to shift on this, particularly after the 2016 primary election in which Hillary Clinton and Martin O’Malley hit him on the issue. He has backed all sorts of bills in Congress that would strengthen gun laws and emphasized that he’s backed an assault weapons ban for decades. His campaign’s gun safety platform promises to pursue a series of stricter measures on guns. In his campaign announcement speech, he cited gun violence as one of his top issues, stating, “I’m running for president because we must end the epidemic of gun violence in this country.”

Still, Sanders’s more moderate record on gun control has kept him vulnerable to attacks from the left, even from moderates like Biden, as we saw on the debate stage on Tuesday.

—German Lopez

Warren and Buttigieg back getting rid of the filibuster

Democrats have talked a lot this election about what they want to do in the White House — Medicare-for-all, the Green New Deal, etc. — but not how they’re going to do it, namely, how to get anything through Congress. In the midst of discussions about gun control Tuesday evening, Warren pointed that out, and noted that unless they get creative with some procedural rules, they’re not going to get very far.

Pete Buttigieg and Elizabeth Warren both advocated for getting rid of the filibuster during the Democratic debate.
Win McNamee/Getty Images

“What I’ve seen is gun safety legislation introduced, get a majority, and then doesn’t pass because of the filibuster,” she said. “Understand this: The filibuster is giving a veto to the gun industry. It gives a veto to the oil industry. It’s going to give a veto on immigration.”

The filibuster debate among Democrats has been a hot issue at different times throughout the primary, as Vox’s Matt Yglesias explored last year. “Progressive politics right now is very focused on broad ideological visions. It hasn’t grappled with the reality that progressives are at a massive disadvantage in the upper chamber of Congress and no bold idea will make it through without a change,” he wrote.

Warren, however, was interested in grappling with that Tuesday. Democrats, she said, have to understand that what Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell did under President Barack Obama — stopping so many things from passing — is going to happen under the next Democratic president unless the rules of the Senate change. To try to get anything accomplished, Democrats need to be “willing to roll back the filibuster, go with the majority vote, and do what needs to be done for the American people,” Warren said.

The remarks were a contrast with Sanders and Biden, who don’t support getting rid of the filibuster, which requires anything to pass a 60-vote threshold in the Senate.

Pete Buttigieg followed Warren in making the filibuster point on Tuesday and taking a swipe at Sanders over his position. “How are we going to deliver a revolution if you won’t even support a rule change?” he asked.