Last night’s Democratic debate has been widely panned as one of the worst debates of the year. The moderation was terrible, the candidates were uninspiring, and the audience was loud. At times, the candidates spoke over one another, but moderators failed to jump in and control them. When candidates spoke for longer than their allotted time, the moderators did nothing. The questions did not cover topics that Democrats care about, such as climate change, and the moderators jumped from topic to topic too quickly for any substantive disagreements to emerge between the candidates. Throughout the night, cheers and jeers from the audience gave viewers at home the impression that some candidates had somehow filled the room with their own supporters. There was even a false ending so that CBS could squeeze one more ad segment in before officially ending the debate.
The debate was bound to be contentious given where we are at this point in the race for the Democratic nomination. For some of the contenders, last night might have been the last time that voters got a chance to see them on stage, possibly ever. After all, with South Carolina’s primary just days away and Super Tuesday in less than a week, there is a good chance that several of the candidates who were on stage last night will not be on stage at the next debate. Feelings were raw, the stakes were as high as they can be, and time was short. Add to this the unskilled moderation of the CBS staff and the results were understandably messy.
As the current undisputed front runner, all eyes were on Sanders. Throughout the evening, the other candidates pummeled Sanders with attacks from all sides. Despite the expected onslaught, Sanders could have had a better evening. He knew the attacks were coming, and he had some good moments, but overall he did not demonstrate that he could unify the party or respond effectively to lingering concerns about his history of complimenting communist authoritarian regimes.
That being said, while he may suffer slightly in the polls, he did accomplish what any front runner sets out to accomplish at a debate - he didn’t have a bad terrible evening. From the reactions immediately after the debate, Sanders emerged largely unscathed. As one commentator put it: “He stayed on the offensive against Bloomberg’s immense wealth and withstood an onslaught of attacks from all sides — refusing to give his opponents the knockout punch they needed to slow his momentum.”
Warren had one of the better nights of all of the candidates on stage. Though her performance did not match her tour de force from last week’s debate, she did have some excellent moments during which she again eviscerated Michael Bloomberg and asserted herself as a progressive alternative to Bernie Sanders. If her goal was to demonstrate that she is a candidate around whom the left and the center of the Democratic Party could coalesce, then she succeeded handily.
In one particularly effective moment, Warren revived an account of pregnancy discrimination she claims she faced when she was a young teacher. "When I was 21 years old, I got a job as a special education teacher. I loved that job," Warren said Tuesday. "And by the end of the first year, I was visibly pregnant. The principal wished me luck and gave my job to someone else. Pregnancy discrimination? You bet. But I was 21 years old, I didn't have any union to protect me, I didn't have any federal law on my side. So I packed up my stuff and I went home."
Biden finally had a good night. In fact, he had possibly the best debate performance of his entire campaign so far. And not a moment too soon either. South Carolina is a must-win for Biden, who has yet to win a state primary. Last night’s debate will undoubtedly help him solidify his support in the state and add to growing hopes of a revival following his second-place finish in Nevada.
Biden scored points against Bernie Sanders on several topics, but perhaps his best line of the evening came in response to Sanders’ claim that Obama also praised Cubans for their literacy programs. “The fact of the matter is [Obama], in fact, does not, did not, has never embraced an authoritarian regime and does not now,” Biden said to applause.
Amy Klobuchar had a good night, but perhaps not a good enough night to expand her base of support. Her position on stage, far away from Buttigieg, meant that the two of them clashed less frequently than they had during the previous debate in Las Vegas. But the animosity between the two midwestern candidates was still palpable.
In one memorable back-and-forth, Klobuchar and Biden attacked each other over who authored which gun control bills:
“I am the author of the 'boyfriend loophole' that says that domestic abusers can’t go out and get an AK47,” Klobuchar said.
“I wrote that law,” Biden interjected.
“You didn’t write that bill. I wrote that bill,” Klobuchar said.
“I did. I wrote the bill the Violence Against Women Act that took out of the hands of people who abused their —” Biden said.
“We’ll have a fact check look at that,” Klobuchar fired back.
“Oh, let’s look at the fact check,” Biden said. “The only thing [was] that the 'boyfriend loophole' was not covered. I couldn’t get that covered. You in fact when you were as a senator tried to get it covered and Mitch McConnell is holding up on his desk right now and we’re going to lose the Violence Against Women Act across the board.”
According to the fact-checkers: “As a senator, Biden wrote the Violence Against Women Act, which stopped people who were convicted of misdemeanor domestic violence from buying guns. But it only covers certain relationships, like married couples or those who have children with their victim. Klobuchar wrote a bill that would close that loophole by including stalkers or dating partners who aren't already covered. So while Biden’s off the mark in the beginning, he catches up in the end.”
Buttigieg had a mixed evening. He was eloquent and clear in his speech as always, but in South Carolina, where Black voters are a key demographic, Buttigieg’s horrendously low levels of support among African Americans put him at a severe disadvantage compared to Biden and Sanders. And he did nothing to help his case last night. At one point, in an attack on Sanders’ support for Fidel Castro’s Cuba, he seemed to suggest that the 1960’s Civil Rights movement was not what the country needs right now: “I am not looking forward to a scenario where it comes down to Donald Trump with his nostalgia for the social order of the 1950s and Bernie Sanders with the nostalgia for the revolutionary politics of the 1960s.” His critics were quick to point out that those “revolutionary politics of the 1960s” included the Civil Rights movement, which enjoys high support among Black voters for obvious reasons, and which arguably paved the way for Buttigieg to live the life he has lived so far.
But in another, more successful exchange, Buttigieg successfully fended off attacks from Bernie Sanders regarding support from billionaires.
"I will tell you, Pete," Sanders said. "I will tell you Joe (Biden), what the American people want, they don't want a candidate to be running to billionaires for huge amounts of money."
Buttigieg said he has raised more from grass-roots contributions than the 50 or so billionaires who have contributed to his campaign: "Grass-roots donations are the lifeblood of my campaign.”
"If you're watching right now," he said, "and you're a billionaire, I will raise your taxes. But if you'd like to defeat Donald Trump, please go to PeteForAmerica.com and donate the maximum $2,800."
John Steyer continued to face questions about his viability as a candidate given his low support and reliance on his personal wealth for funding. He did not have any standout moments last night, and his path to victory remains as unclear as ever. He made several attempts to distinguish himself on issues such as civil rights and racial inequality, but the rest of the democratic candidates continued to largely ignore him as they have in previous debates. After all, if he weren’t a billionaire, he wouldn’t be on stage, and he hasn’t demonstrated any exceptional qualities as a candidate, so it’s not clear why anyone should pay attention to him. He certainly did nothing to answer these kinds of concerns last night.
Finally, Bloomberg had a terrible evening. Though he did not suffer as crushing a defeat as he suffered during the last debate, he still took blasts from all sides, and especially Warren, who continued her relentless deconstruction of his moral qualifications for leadership. Referencing the fact that, like Steyer, Bloomberg wouldn’t be on the stage if he weren’t a billionaire, Warren said, "the core of the Democratic Party will never trust him. He is the riskiest candidate standing on this stage." And she is right.
Warren also came back to her criticism of Bloomberg from last week’s Democratic debate for his use of non-disclosure agreements in settlements with female employees. Warren said that, in one incident, Warren suggested that a pregnant female employee should “kill it” — something that Bloomberg vehemently denied. “I never said it, period. End of story. I never said it,” Bloomberg said.
Bloomberg noted that he agreed to Warren’s demand from last week that he release women from existing NDAs. “We did what she asked,” he said, adding that his company has vowed to no longer use NDAs in settlements. “We probably changed the corporate landscape across America,” he said.
“If there is nothing to hide, then sign a blanket release,” Warren said. “Let those women speak out.”