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The SMOD Debate

It could have been worse. Just kidding.
February 20, 2020
The SMOD Debate
(GettyImages / Shutterstock)

The Sweet Meteor of Death finally arrived Wednesday night. But the earth was, temporarily, spared, because it was aimed directly at Mike Bloomberg.

Sure, Mayor Mike still has $60 billion to fix the mess, but five minutes into the debate, Bloomberg had been transformed from possible centrist savior to an extra in Night of the Living Dead.

It was that kind of night: a six way clusterfork, with moderates attacking moderates, geriatrics talking about their stents, Pete on Amy, Amy on Pete, and Liz Warren lashing out at everyone except Bernie. Which was an odd choice for Warren, who needs to win the progressive lane against Bernie Sanders, but devoted most of her considerable energy to attacking the late Mayor Bloomberg, Amy Klobuchar, and Pete Buttigieg (in that order).

At a moment when Democrats needed to focus on derailing the prospect of a Trump-Sanders death march they spent the night lacerating one another with various degrees of relish.

It was a murder-suicide worthy of an Agatha Christie novel. The one where everyone ends up dead.

Let’s put this in perspective: It’s true that last night’s debate was unusually entertaining, which would be great if our democracy was a reality television show. I had actually planned to only watch the first hour, since I hate debates and find them mind-bendingly boring. But I decided to stay on for the whole damn thing. And I have some contrarian thoughts.

The conventional code of punditry requires us to make judgments about which of the candidates on the stage won or lost. But that seems to miss the point rather dramatically, because at the end of the night, the only candidate for president standing relatively unscathed was the one person they should have been talking about: Donald Trump.

Consider that Trump’s impeachment trial was just last month; that he has launched a revenge tour that includes daily attacks on the rule of law; is in open conflict with his attorney general; and that he has just handed out pardons to a bunch of sleazy cronies. None of these things—none of them!—were even mentioned. How is that possible? It was as if the Democratic debate took place in an alternative non-Trump universe where the word-count on Amy Klobuchar’s healthcare plan was more important than breakdown of the republic.

Trump was barely mentioned and when he was, he existed mostly as a prop for the candidates to claim they were the best equipped to beat him.

As I clicked off the TV, I made one last note: “We are so fuqqed. As in royally.”

Some random takeaways:

It was an awful, awful night for Bloomberg. There’s no sugar-coating it. What he lacked in charm, he made up for with tone deafness and a sprinkle of arrogance. It turns out that $60 billion doesn’t buy effective debate prep. You knew it would a bad night for Bloomberg when Warren opened with: ‘I’d like to talk about who we are running against: a billionaire who calls women fat broads and horse-faced lesbians. And no I am not talking about Donald Trump. I am talking about Mayor Bloomberg.”

The four hours that the candidates then spent pummeling the mayor about NDAs was the political equivalent of an especially brutal stop-and-frisk. How bad was it? The stop and frisk joke is already old and busted.

But enough dunking on Mike.

Liz came to play. Say what you will, but Warren came with a fully-operational plan to take out each and every one of the moderates onstage. She’ll get good buzz, but what was the strategy here, other than buzz? Progressives still prefer Bernie and that’s her constituency, unless her plan is to nuke the field and be the last non-white male candidate standing.

Bernie still leads. In retrospect, Bloomberg’s grand plan to derail Sanders seems to be backfiring. Bloomberg drew fire that should have been aimed at the socialist from Vermont. Bernie got off relatively unscathed over (1) his flip flop on releasing his medical records; (2) the cost of his Medicare for All and other free-stuff-palooza; and (3) the other baggage that Trump will wrap around his neck in the fall.

Pete and Amy really don’t like each other. In that alternative universe we all fantasize about, the nation would be turning its eyes to the youthful Midwestern centrists. Democrats would recognize that Pete is the most gifted politician of his generation and see that Amy is the most electable candidate they could put up in the general election. Instead, we got the mean girls thing. Klobuchar actually had a pretty good night until she was visibly rattled by Buttigieg’s gibes. “Are you trying to say that I’m dumb? Or are you mocking me, here, Pete?” Cringe.

What Amy could have said. Klobuchar should have known that she’d be asked why she didn’t know the name of the Mexican president. Her answer was defensive and forgettable. I offered a modest suggestion…

And yes, I’m available for debate prep.

Joe Biden was there. I’m sure the former vice president enjoyed having a debate where he was not the primary target, but that’s only because he’s not the frontrunner anymore. I like Biden and thought he did okay, but honestly, I can’t remember anything he said.

Donald Trump had to love it. He knows that he doesn’t have to win this election. All he needs is for the Democrats to lose it. Last night, they showed exactly how they’ll do it.

Charlie Sykes

Charlie Sykes is a founder and editor-at-large of The Bulwark and the author of How the Right Lost Its Mind. He is also the host of The Bulwark Podcast and an MSNBC contributor.