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It was a disaster of a debate, and the CBS moderators knew it. The Democratic candidates shouted over each other, ignored time limits, and resisted any TV anchor’s feeble attempt to make them stop talking or take turns in an orderly fashion. It felt more like a morning in kindergarten than a proving ground for a future leader of the free world.
But it wasn’t entirely CBS’s fault. This debate was going to be a mess no matter what.
This was a night of desperation, after all: four days before the South Carolina primary, a week before Super Tuesday, with Bernie Sanders on track to gain a possibly-insurmountable lead in delegates. It was make-or-break for four to five of the candidates on stage, who thus had to find ways to turn every answer into a closing argument.
And nine previous debates have taught them that, as far as spin goes, you “win” by coming off as the one who delivers the best attack on someone else.
That someone in the crosshairs, by rights, should have been Sanders, the clear frontrunner and existential threat to the moderates of the party. And the candidates did spend the first few minutes in joint-attack mode, pummeling Sanders for the cost of his domestic program; for being anathema to moderates; for voting, years ago, against gun control bills; for once saying something positive about Fidel Castro.
But as the night wore on and the decibels rose, the candidates — who seem to have grown to truly dislike each other over the past few months — lost their focus, raised their hands wildly, and turned their manic energy on each other. Elizabeth Warren attacked Mike Bloomberg. Joe Biden attacked Tom Steyer, who is spending heavily and polling decently in South Carolina. Biden and Klobuchar fought over who deserved the credit for a bill protecting women from gun violence. (Biden, with his “I passed that bill!” refrain, took personal credit for ample legislation and foreign policy.)
How their efforts came across will largely depend on how you felt about them going in. Klobuchar and Steyer didn’t hurt themselves, but they didn’t have breakout moments. Biden was amiable sometimes — and passionate, as always, in his defense of the Obama administration — but he also got visibly angry at the moderators, refusing, several times, to give up the floor.
Pete Buttigieg was the most consistently focused on Sanders, whom he accused of having “nostalgia for the revolutionary policies of the 1960s;” he had a charming moment early on when he broke the fourth wall, asking billionaires to send campaign contributions. But when he delivered a mini-lecture on white privilege and went head-to-head against Sanders on health care — at one point, they yelled at the top of their lungs simultaneously for what must have been a full minute — he risked looking more like a high school debate champion than a warm-blooded politician.
Warren, so effective against Bloomberg last week, came after the former New York mayor again for allegedly creating a toxic workplace for women, then muzzling their complaints with non-disclosure agreements. Her supporters will cheer her fighting spirit and her rehashing of damning facts. But Bloomberg, largely in response to Warren’s prodding, had a different answer: he’s releasing three women from their NDAs. He faced Warren’s grilling last week with a deer-in-the-headlights stare; this time, it was more of an eye-roll.
When the dust settles and ringing in everyone’s ears finally stops, it might turn out that Bloomberg had the second-best night of them all. With the exception of some clunky jokes, he did far better than in his disastrous performance six days earlier. (It helped that, Warren notwithstanding, he weathered far fewer attacks.) On policy issues, he found a few ways to set himself apart, sounding a note of caution on marijuana legalization, praising the Trump administration on some aspects of military planning.
This debate was going to be a mess no matter what.
And his demeanor, which last week seemed lethargic, came across this time as more unflappable. In a room full of relentless shouters, that made him perhaps the starkest contrast to Sanders on the stage: his opposite in policy and tone, and a billionaire to boot.
Still, Sanders didn’t allow anyone an outright win, by the standards of previous debates. He parried the attacks with confidence and demonstrated, toward the end of the night, why he’s currently the most effective campaigner on that stage. The moderators delivered an Oprah-esque personal question — What’s the biggest misconception about you? — that prompted most candidates to turn inward; Biden talked about his hair, Klobuchar her personality, Warren her diet. Sanders diverted the question into a statement about why his policies on health care, climate, and criminal justice are resonating so much, so far, with primary voters. The biggest misconception, he said, is “that the ideas that I’m talking about are radical. They’re not. In one form or another, they exist in countries all over the world.” Asked for his personal motto, he quoted Nelson Mandela: “Everything is impossible until it happens.”
In primary races, the impossible sometimes happens. That could mean a big surprise in the South Carolina primary on Saturday, breathing new life into a Biden or Warren or Buttigieg campaign. Or it could be that Sanders keeps prevailing — leaving the loud Democratic Socialist and the laconic billionaire as the last ones standing.
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