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Who Went After Whom, and Why?

Lots of punches but no knockouts in the last presidential debate before Super Tuesday.
by Jim Swift
February 26, 2020
Who Went After Whom, and Why?
CHARLESTON, SOUTH CAROLINA - FEBRUARY 25: Democratic presidential candidates former Vice President Joe Biden (L) and Tom Steyer (R) debate as Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) reacts during the Democratic presidential primary debate at the Charleston Gaillard Center on February 25, 2020 in Charleston, South Carolina. Seven candidates qualified for the debate, hosted by CBS News and Congressional Black Caucus Institute, ahead of South Carolina’s primary in four days. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

If the Nevada Democratic debate was a nuclear wasteland, the South Carolina debate on Tuesday night was a loud and largely incoherent argument at a retirement home. My ears bled. But while it was not the best debate on the substance, it was arguably the most important so far—since we’re just days away from the last primary before Super Tuesday.

So, who won? Chaos—and, in a close second, Bernie Sanders.

If you were looking for the frontrunners to create some distance, that didn’t happen. It’s only partly the candidates’ fault; most of the blame lies with the awful moderators. (The CBS bumper music was cool, though, but more on that in a minute.) This was the worst-moderated debate of the twelve by far. The support staff deserves some criticism, too, as hecklers were able to boo candidates, Ben Konop-style, with seemingly no consequences whatsoever.

The moderators didn’t give Amy Klobuchar a chance to talk for the first 18 or so minutes. Yes, somebody has to go last when you have this many candidates on the stage, and life ain’t fair, etc. etc., but from the get-go, candidates routinely went well past their allotted one minute and fifteen seconds. Joe Biden was able to turn this to his advantage by acting frustrated in a gentlemanly way, but strategically he took the high road when nobody else did. This was probably a mistake.

The debate’s lack of moderator control was so bad that, at one point, the bumper music was more effective than the moderators were, with a commercial break cutting into a Biden response. (To be fair, the music was really good—it sounded like a riff from The Elder Scrolls—but still: Biden got hosed.)

It gets worse, though. At the end of the debate, just when you thought we were put out of our misery, the moderators said we’ll be right back because they apparently had extra time. A commercial break followed. We’d already completed the weird round of “what’s the biggest misconception of you, and what is your motto?” answers in lieu of closing statements. What else was left to do? If you live in a state with a vowel, it probably meant you watched another Mike Bloomberg ad. Awesome. But when the moderators returned, they just promoted their other programming and ended the show. Yep, they made all of the Democratic presidential candidates and millions of viewers wait around while they sold some ads and hawked their other shows. That’s it. That’s the joke. The debate was a joke.

But just because it was poorly run doesn’t mean we didn’t learn anything. Let’s break down what we learned, by candidate:

Elizabeth Warren. She didn’t say it outright, but she didn’t need to: She has subtly moved to the VP lane. Nobody goes up on stage and announces they’re there to be the running mate of somebody else, but that’s the takeaway. She attacked Bernie from time to time, but spent most of her fire on Bloomberg, almost drafting behind Sanders in a way that really worked out for Ted Cruz in 2016. She attacked Bloomberg again on his nondisclosure agreements with employees, accusing him of encouraging an employee to get an abortion, a claim Bloomberg categorically denied. She didn’t attack him because she is pro-life (quite the opposite) but because she thought the jab might work. But it was a risky move, since the only proof Warren had was the word of the woman who made the allegation. But the debate quickly moved on. Just as the party has from Warren. She’s done.

Amy Klobuchar. She actually had a solid night, even though she didn’t get much time. But the Minnesota Miracle has also moved into VP mode, and it’s clear that her horses are of the Biden/Bloomberg pedigree. I couldn’t help but get some 2016 flashbacks to John Kasich late in the game—the Midwestern “aw shucks” persona combined with a sort of surprise that she’s still there. It won’t matter, but this was her best debate. She was far less nervous than in any of her previous debate appearances and she had good, relatable answers for moderates on gun control, homelessness and housing, and drug legalization. Unlike a lot of the pie-in-the-sky stuff from Sanders, Klobuchar’s answers were realistic. When she was able to pick a fight with Bernie, she largely did a good job.

Tom Steyer. Oh, my my, oh hell yes, Tommy’s put on that Tartan-style dress. Sure, Steyer might be able to muster the 15 percent to qualify for the next debate, but this was effectively his last dance. There’s a reason that Biden was shooting down at him every chance he got. On the few occasions Steyer got an uninterrupted opportunity to talk, it didn’t go well. He had one big applause line, and that probably cost him ten times what Amy Klobuchar has spent to date. Even his Hail Mary of being the only candidate who is pro-reparations failed badly. He bought his time on the stage, and since the early debates last year he occasionally had chances to bring attention to climate change, the issue he cares most about. But Tom Steyer will not be the nominee. He will not be VP nominee. Every minute he talked during Tuesday’s debate was a minute wasted, and the biggest beneficiaries weren’t the voters, they were the moderators, who had a minute to regroup.

Joe Biden. The constant worry for Biden’s supporters: Will their guy say something stupid and tank it? He didn’t on Tuesday night. But he didn’t bring his fastball, either. His attempts to distinguish himself by his experience and relevance worked, although they were also sometimes annoying—he was acting as though every major political event of the last forty years flowed through him. (Except the bad ones.) Biden’s attacks on Bernie Sanders, mostly about guns, were not very effective. He pissed off Tom Steyer, which is probably not a winning strategy, either. Still, he was able, perhaps counterintuitively, to put charm over being a know-it-all jerk. But when a moderator opens a segment talking about your poll numbers, it’s not a good night.

Michael Bloomberg. I’ll give Mr. Mayor some free advice: humor is not your strong suit. Precisely zero of his jokes landed. I assume he was joking when he said he won the last debate, but with Bloomberg and his wry humor, you can never be sure. Bloomberg’s not on the upswing, but he’s not on the downswing, either. He didn’t end his candidacy Tuesday night, so in Bloombergian calculus, that’s a win. He only brought up 9/11 three times, and a couple of them were to reset after getting a tough question or critique from a competitor. Bloomberg is probably the last presidential candidate who will be able to invoke 9/11 having been there, but nearly 20 years on, it’s not a good look. He had better, more apologetic answers than he did last week for New York’s stop-and-frisk policy, and he stood by moderate positions on charter schools, did a good job of focusing positively on his record as mayor on race and life expectancy, and managed to distance himself from his fights against trans fats and sugary drinks. His answer on drug legalization will likely appeal to conservative Trump skeptics, but it probably alienated a large part of the progressive wing that thinks January 20, 2021 is going to be the next repeal of prohibition, complete with a sweeping expungement of criminal records. Still, it’s hard to imagine a path to the nomination for Bloomberg that doesn’t involve a brokered convention.

Pete Buttigieg. “Perfect Pete” showed up—but the moderators wouldn’t let him shine. If I were a campaign sommelier, I’d say his performance had strong hints of Robot Rubio in 2016, with a touch of Romneyesque perfection. Seemingly every time there was any uncertainty about who was to speak next, Pete got out his can opener and provided the first sentence of a canned statement. If it didn’t work, he waited and started again, almost like a Ted Cruz Chatty Cathy doll. This tactic failed for the first hour and a half of the debate, but it paid off with 25 minutes to go. Was it worth it? Probably not, but what do I know, I wasn’t a McKinsey consultant. Pete also made the mistake of trying to talk over Bernie, having previously attempted (and succeeded) to talk over Amy Klobuchar. You cannot talk over Bernie Sanders. It is not possible. At one point, Joe Biden was laughing at Buttigieg’s failed attempts. Bernie’s usual attack on Buttigieg—that he has been funded by billionaires—didn’t work this time, as Pete rebuffed it, quipping to the 600 or so billionaires in the United States (aside from the two on the stage with him) that he’d appreciate a $2,800 donation (the federal limit) but he is definitely going to raise their taxes.

Bernie Sanders. If I were a Bernie fan, I’d say Tuesday was a pretty good night. Aside from some challenges on how he’ll pay for his many big-government plans—plans that likely won’t pass Congress, but who cares about niggling details like that?—he did not take many hard blows. Sanders was the best mix of a formal debater and street-fighter on the stage, hands down. Biden was able to draw some blood on the question of gun-manufacturer liability. In a moment that felt like a rarity, Sanders said his position on that 2007 bill was a mistake—he had a “bad vote.” Politicians in the Trump era rarely admit mistakes. Sanders also doubled and tripled down on his nice words about Fidel Castro. Alas, this is not the kind of message that will attract moderates or Trump-skeptical Republicans. But it’s Sanders’s brand, and it’s authentic, and it’s consistent.

Jim Swift

Jim Swift is a senior editor at The Bulwark.