NPI's Cascadia Advocate

Offering commentary and analysis from Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, The Cascadia Advocate is the Northwest Progressive Institute's uplifting perspective on world, national, and local politics.

Friday, February 28th, 2020

The tenth 2020 Democratic presidential primary debate was chaotic and messy

On Tues­day night, sev­en Demo­c­ra­t­ic can­di­dates met in Charleston, South Car­oli­na, for the tenth 2020 Demo­c­ra­t­ic pres­i­den­tial debate, host­ed by CBS News.

With only a few days until the South Car­oli­na pri­ma­ry, the debate was an oppor­tu­ni­ty for view­ers to look for clues to answers to sev­er­al ques­tions, chiefly:

  • How would Sen­a­tor Bernie Sanders engage with the oth­er can­di­dates, giv­en his new sta­tus as the undis­put­ed frontrunner?
  • Would Joe Biden demon­strate that he has cachet with black vot­ers in the first South­ern state to vote?
  • Would the oth­er can­di­dates be able to put a dent in the lead Sanders holds nation­al­ly, or the lead Biden holds in South Carolina?

Unfor­tu­nate­ly, the debate turned into a scrap.

The losers of the night were undoubt­ed­ly the CBS News mod­er­a­tors – led by Norah O’Donnell and Gayle King – who total­ly failed to keep the can­di­dates on-track, main­tain any sort of order among the crowd, or stop the can­di­dates talk­ing over each oth­er. At one point in the debate, Pete Buttigieg and Bernie Sanders talked over one anoth­er for almost a full minute before the mod­er­a­tors inter­vened. At anoth­er point, Gayle King had to cor­rect Norah O’Donnell’s claim that the debate was end­ing (they were in fact going to an ad break).

From the start of the night, Bernie Sanders was at the cen­ter of the debate, defend­ing him­self and his cam­paign against attacks from all the oth­er can­di­dates and – pre­dictably – the mod­er­a­tors, who act­ed like Repub­li­can oper­a­tives and con­front­ed Sanders with Repub­­li­­can-style “how do you pay for it” questions.

Sanders’ per­for­mance was effec­tive, but not pol­ished, and he stuck to his tried-and-true debate method of stub­born­ly grind­ing through uti­liz­ing well honed argu­ments with all the finesse of a bulldozer.

Out­side of pre­sent­ing his tried and test­ed argu­ments, his respons­es were more mixed. He prompt­ly returned fire when Michael Bloomberg took a cheap shot at him by claim­ing that the Rus­sians were sup­port­ing his cam­paign. Sanders declared he would take a tough stance against Putin as Pres­i­dent, then high­lighred Bloomberg’s inabil­i­ty to crit­i­cize China’s dic­ta­tor Xi Jin­ping.

On the oth­er hand, Sanders did allow Pete Buttigieg to get under his skin.

Buttigieg was anoth­er can­di­date who stuck to his pre­vi­ous debate strategy.

He made prodi­gious use of “soar­ing rhetoric” (as The New York Times’ Nicholas Kristof put it) – offer­ing lofty dec­la­ra­tions devoid of specificity.

The mean oppor­tunism that was on dis­play in the Neva­da debate also came out, as he con­sis­tent­ly inter­rupt­ed and talked over oth­er candidates.

He man­aged to rile up Sanders in a debate over Cuba (using sim­i­lar rhetor­i­cal tac­tics to those he has used in his appar­ent blood-feud with Amy Klobuchar).

War­ren also had a strong debate per­for­mance, large­ly by indulging her very obvi­ous dis­like of Michael Bloomberg. She ham­mered him once again for his non-dis­­­clo­­sure agree­ments in harass­ment cas­es and his fail­ure to release his tax returns, but the blows did not pack the same punch as in the Las Vegas debate.

War­ren also took a few swipes at Bernie Sanders, say­ing that she agreed with many of his poli­cies, but stat­ing that she believes she would make a bet­ter pres­i­dent due to her record of achieve­ments (a mantra sim­i­lar to Hillary Clin­ton’s “I’m a pro­gres­sive that likes to get stuff done” in 2016).

Joe Biden had a strong debate per­for­mance, one of his best so far.

He man­aged to large­ly avoid any slip-ups, and also man­aged to stand out from the oth­er can­di­dates more than he did in Neva­da. His per­for­mance was espe­cial­ly impres­sive for the fact that he often launched into pas­sion­ate tirades, yet nev­er devolved into the kind of gib­ber­ish such speech­es often seem to lead him into.

He was also helped out by Gai­ilard Cen­ter audi­ence that seemed both enthu­si­as­tic about him and hos­tile to his more pro­gres­sive rivals.

Biden was one of the can­di­dates to lev­el at Bernie Sanders, but he also took on an unusu­al tar­get: Tom Stey­er. Stey­er has per­formed well in polls in South Car­oli­na (with some recent excep­tions), and has invest­ed heav­i­ly in attract­ing black sup­port­ers – he could poten­tial­ly drain votes away from Biden on Saturday.

The for­mer Vice Pres­i­dent slammed Stey­er for his invest­ments in pri­vate pris­ons, and when Stey­er argued that he had sold his stock when abus­es were uncov­ered, Biden snapped back, “where I come from, that’s called Tom­my come lately!”

Stey­er tried to steer the con­ver­sa­tion towards a dis­cus­sion of the dis­as­trous 1994 crime bill – which Biden helped to write – but was shout­ed over by the oth­er can­di­dates and was unable to fin­ish his point.

Steyer’s inabil­i­ty to fin­ish his argu­ment was sym­bol­ic of the debate as a whole, and the inco­her­ence and mis­man­age­ment of the event prompt­ed a fresh round of Repub­li­can gloat­ing on social media. How­ev­er, it is unlike­ly that the debate will have much of an impact on the race. It was a sil­ly spec­ta­cle, to be sure, but nine tele­vised testy exchanges among these same can­di­dates had already aired before, and none of the lead­ing can­di­dates com­mit­ted any major gaffes in this one, so it is like­ly to be for­got­ten about fair­ly quickly.

The South Car­oli­na Demo­c­ra­t­ic pri­ma­ry and Super Tues­day are just ahead. Those nom­i­nat­ing events ought to help win­now the field and allow Democ­rats to move clos­er to their goals of even­tu­al­ly uni­fy­ing their party.

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