In a way, the only true winner of Tuesday night’s Democratic debate in Charleston, South Carolina, was chaos. The candidates talked over each other repeatedly, defied all attempts by moderators to impose order, and wasted plenty of time jockeying to be the next to get a word in. In the fleeting moments when only one person was talking, that person was probably unloading the harshest oppo research they could remember.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren went after former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg for allegedly telling a pregnant female employee to “kill it”; former Vice President Joe Biden connected Bernie Sanders’s past votes on gun control to the white supremacist attack on a Charleston church in 2015; even billionaire Tom Steyer got real criticism from Biden, so that he didn’t feel left out.
It was hardly the most illuminating event of the primary season so far, but it came at a crucial moment, mere days before the South Carolina primary and the last debate before Super Tuesday’s high-delegate contests in California, Texas, and other states.
Here’s who gained momentum going into one of the most important periods of the 2020 primary, and who lost ground.
Winner: Bernie Sanders
At the risk of repeating the obvious, Bernie Sanders is the Democratic frontrunner.
He won the popular vote in the first three caucus/primary contests, and pending a recount in Iowa, he might have won the delegate breakdown in all three, too. He has a double-digit lead in national polling, putting him in an excellent position for Super Tuesday. The anti-Bernie field is fragmented: Mike Bloomberg’s metric tons of baggage are proving too hard for his cash to overwhelm; former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Sen. Amy Klobuchar don’t appear able to extend their appeal beyond Iowa and New Hampshire; and while Joe Biden is in good shape in South Carolina, Sanders is hot on his heels.
So to win on Tuesday night, Sanders just needed to hold his own. And he did. Despite candidates lobbing attacks both familiar (abolishing private insurance, past anti-gun-control votes) and new (praising left-leaning dictators’ social programs) at him, Sanders didn’t lose his cool, and his opponents were never able to really dig into him.
By far Sanders’s most vulnerable moment came when moderator Norah O’Donnell brought up his kind words for Cuban literacy programs. Like many leftists, Sanders expressed heavily caveated solidarity for leftist regimes like that of Fidel Castro and the Sandinistas in Nicaragua in the 1980s, especially when those regimes were being threatened by right-wing authoritarian movements backed by the US. This is not particularly shocking for people who know where Sanders comes from, but a national audience is another story, and O’Donnell surfacing the matter was an opportunity to see how much this history could hurt Sanders.
Sanders passed this first test with flying colors, in part because the moderators threw it at him after asking Mike Bloomberg about his comments denying that China is a dictatorship. “I have opposed authoritarianism all over the world and I was amazed at what Mayor Bloomberg said a moment ago,” Sanders replied to O’Donnell. “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.”
It was a strong start, followed up by a satisfactory explanation of his comments on Cuba, situating them in the context of Barack Obama’s historic opening to the country as president. “Of course you have a dictatorship in Cuba. I said what Barack Obama said in terms of Cuba, that Cuba made progress on education,” Sanders said. “Occasionally, it might be a good idea to be honest about American foreign policy, and that includes the fact that America has overthrown governments all over the world: in Chile, in Guatemala, in Iran.”
“Being honest” about topics that politicians aren’t typically honest about is at the core of Sanders’s appeal as a candidate, and he showed he could take the same approach when asked about Cuba. It was a good audition for the general election, and, crucially for a frontrunner, he did no harm to his standing in the primary.
Winner: Donald Trump
If there was any single takeaway from Tuesday night’s debate, it’s that Democrats are still very far from united in their quest to beat President Trump.
For most of the debate, the candidates viciously sniped at each other — not just by criticizing each other’s policy proposals, but by repeatedly shouting and attacking one another in very personal ways. Warren criticized Bloomberg for allegedly making sexist jokes and remarks to his female employees. Biden suggested that Sanders is under the control of the National Rifle Association because of his voting record on gun control. At several points, the men on the stage yelled at each other and the moderators to demand a chance to talk and criticize the other people onstage.
Whether the attacks and yelling were warranted or not, it was very ugly (on top of being hard to follow).
There are currently eight Democrats running for president. Five of them are still polling, based on the RealClearPolitics’ average of the polls, at 10-plus percent. It’s not clear if anyone will even get a majority of the delegates once the primary process is over. The Democratic Party clearly has not decided yet.
This is what Trump wants to see. Some research suggests that tough, divisive primaries do hurt candidates in the general election. More than three weeks after the Iowa caucuses, this certainly looks like a tough, divisive primary — and that could hurt Democrats, and help Trump, in November.
Loser: Amy Klobuchar
It feels like just yesterday that Amy Klobuchar achieved a rare feat in American politics: a solid debate performance that actually mattered.
At the ABC News debate in New Hampshire on February 7, she kicked Pete Buttigieg in the shins, deriding the idea that another “newcomer” in the White House would do better than the one in there right now, and shot up in New Hampshire polling. She wound up in third place in the state ultimately, barely behind Sanders and Buttigieg and performing far better than anticipated. It was easily the biggest surprise of the state’s primary, one that Klobuchar fans thought could set her up for future success.
But sometimes you do well in New Hampshire and all it means is that you did well in New Hampshire. Klobuchar’s strength did not carry into Nevada. She is a non-entity in most South Carolina polling. She lacks the money and organization to compete with the likes of Sanders and Bloomberg on Super Tuesday. Her best hope of continuing her New Hampshire success was another breakout debate performance that could lead to a surprise in South Carolina that would then set up more surprises this coming Tuesday.
That, suffice it to say, didn’t happen. Klobuchar seemed barely present for most of the night amid the candidates’ screaming and arguing, despite speaking the third-most in the field. She barely registered in the long discussion of US relationships with dictatorial regimes, and while Mike Bloomberg got many minutes to defend his record in New York City, Klobuchar didn’t get a similar opportunity to lay out her record. Her final moment in New Hampshire’s debate was stirring and emotional; her final moment in the South Carolina debate was her telling the audience, “I‘d say the biggest misconception is that I’m boring, because I’m not.” If you have to tell people you’re not boring, you’re losing.
Let’s be clear: Even a pretty good night wouldn’t have been enough to propel her into Super Tuesday. She needed another game changer, and she didn’t get one.
Did you ever have a substitute teacher who was so mild-mannered, and commanded so little natural respect and authority, that you and the rest of your middle school class quickly realized you could just out-shout him until he agreed to just crawl behind his desk and read a book while you did whatever you wanted for 45 minutes?
That’s basically what Tuesday night’s debate felt like, except for two full hours. The candidates were so eager to get at each other’s throats (or to admonish each other for undermining party unity) that they gleefully steamrolled moderators Norah O’Donnell, Gayle King, Margaret Brennan, Major Garrett, and Bill Whitaker at every opportunity. They even took active pleasure in doing so — “I know how you cut me off all the time, but I’m not going to be quiet anymore!” Joe Biden exclaimed at one point. At another, he burst in, “I’m not out of time. You spoke overtime and I’m going to talk!”
Buttigieg was perhaps the worst offender, interjecting without being called on several times in a desperate attempt to center himself in the discussion. But just about every candidate jockeyed to interrupt at one point or another, often causing 10- to 20-second pile-ups where no one was saying anything intelligible at all.
“I would ask respectfully if you would all try to keep to the time,” King desperately requested at one point, as Klobuchar just laughed at her. It felt like a metaphor for the whole proceedings: one of the gladiators in the ring laughing off a would-be referee’s attempt to impose order on chaotic bloodsport.
Winner: Marijuana legalization
Eight years ago, the idea that any serious Democratic presidential candidate would back marijuana legalization was unthinkable. Four years ago, Hillary Clinton, the Democratic candidate in 2016, backed only legalizing medical marijuana and leaving legalization to states to decide (although Sanders, when he ran against Clinton in the primary, said he’d likely vote yes on legalization if it came up in Congress).
At Tuesday’s debate, the majority of candidates on the stage supported legalization — and even the moderates, like Biden and Bloomberg, backed decriminalization, which would remove criminal penalties for possession but typically keep a civil fine in place.
This is a remarkable shift from a “tough on drugs” paradigm that has dominated US politics for decades and maintained a harsh line of criminal prohibition of all drugs.
But it’s also a shift in line with where voters are going on the issue. According to polls from Gallup and the Pew Research Center, the majority of Democrats — 75-plus percent — support legalization. Even a majority of Republicans, who are more resistant to drug policy reform, back legalization. And 11 states have legalized, most of them with ballot initiatives.
Now it’s clear that, whoever the Democratic presidential candidate is, they’ll also back at least decriminalization, if not full legalization. It’s a huge win for advocates of marijuana reform.
Winner: New York City
Were you watching the South Carolina debate, and thinking, “Huh, there certainly is a lot of discussion about mid-2000s New York City policy?”
For this we can certainly credit former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg, whose quick rise in the polls and nearly unlimited budget has rattled the Democratic primary race. Stop and frisk, charter expansion, Bloomberg’s response to 9/11, affordable housing, the infamous attempt to ban soda, the smoking ban — even the fight for same-sex marriage in New York state — all came up before the candidates even got to the coronavirus, and often threatened to outshine issues important to South Carolina voters.
Bloomberg, like any other candidate on the debate stage, should be challenged on his record, including answering for policies such as stop and frisk. But not everything he did in New York can be repeated if he became president.
So when the moderators asked Bloomberg whether he would replicate his ban on trans fats in restaurants and attempt to ban soda on a national level, his response, though extremely canned, was right: “New York City isn’t like all other cities; otherwise, you would have a Naked Cowboy in every city. Let’s get serious. I think it’s good government to teach people good science and tell them how to extend their lives.”