A Few Thoughts on the Debate

CHARLESTON, SOUTH CAROLINA - FEBRUARY 25: Democratic presidential candidates Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and former Vice President Joe Biden speak during a break at the Democratic presidential primary debate at the Ch... CHARLESTON, SOUTH CAROLINA - FEBRUARY 25: Democratic presidential candidates Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and former Vice President Joe Biden speak during a break at 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) MORE LESS
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That was a pretty messy debate. The moderators managed to tsk-tsk the candidates without actually controlling the time or keeping people on point. Many of the questions were trivial, meant to trip up rather than illuminate or simply gross. Asking the two Jewish candidates about whether to move the US Embassy in Israel back to Tel Aviv was a good example of that of gross. Asking Amy Klobuchar whether she’d bar US citizens from returning to the US to prevent the spread of Coronavirus was both dumb and trivial: a question meant to put a candidate on the spot for purely theatrical reasons.

But if it was a messy debate it was still a pivotal one.

Especially on the first hour it felt like all the contenders finally understood the true terms of the contest and had been given one last two hour chance to level the attacks they wished they’d starting leveling three months ago. The mix of antic questions and desperate attacks made it feel like two hours packed with chaos and bad energy.

Debates only matter inasmuch as they affect the outcome of the race. The rest is just theater criticism about canned answers and yelling. The big question in this primary battle is whether Bernie Sanders builds on his momentum coming out of the first three contests and goes on to a string of victories in Super Tuesday which make it hard for any other candidate to overtake him.

Whether that happens or how quickly it happens seems to come down to how Joe Biden does in South Carolina. Biden has had an unbelievably bad month. Nothing is more demoralizing or destructive for a consensus, ‘safe’ candidate than losing badly again and again. South Carolina was always his supposed ‘firewall’. Now it also seems like the last possible obstacle between Sanders and the nomination. Despite his momentum and leads in most Super Tuesday states, Sanders’ support in most states doesn’t get above the high twenties. (One very big exception is California.) There are a lot of Democrats not yet sold on Sanders and there’s plenty of press hunger for a new turn in the story. If Biden can deliver a convincing victory in South Carolina he has a shot at using that 72 hours to pull support from other declining candidates and draw to ties or even leads in a number of states.

Everyone was attacking Sanders and at critical moments the attacks seemed to pull him into the rabbit holes which are strewn throughout his decades in public life. He also had good moments. He managed to take the incredibly dumb final question – what’s your motto and what is the misperception people have about you – and make it into an almost lyrical exposition of the meaning of his candidacy.

We can talk about who did well, who had what strategy, who should get votes. But this seems like the one operative question, which of these two scenarios happens: Sanders building on his momentum and moving into a dominating lead or Biden using a South Carolina win to check Sanders’ drive and shift the contest to something like a two or three person race.

On those terms I think Biden had about as good a night as he could have hoped for. He himself had a strong debate. But it was more the other things that happened – mainly, Elizabeth Warren continuing to savage Mike Bloomberg; everyone else beating up on Sanders; and Tom Steyer giving a mainly anemic performance. (Steyer may seem like an irrelevancy but he’s actually Biden’s biggest problem in South Carolina.)

Even though it’s usually hyperbole, the next seven days do seem critical for the whole contest.

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