Last night in South Carolina, Michael Bloomberg righted his listing ship, Joe Biden made what might be his last stand, and Bernie Sanders handled his turn in the bullseye well. This may have been the night that race took on its final shape.
More than a whiff of panic was in the air last night in South Carolina.
Since the last debate – just this past Thursday night -- the entire calculus of the Democratic nomination was wrenched upside down and inside out by Bernie Sanders’ unearthly annihilation of his competitors in the Nevada caucuses. Sanders absolutely crushed every one of his competitors, and did so by virtue of dazzling support among Latino and African-American voters, sending a badly wounded Vice President off to fight desperately to preserve his South Carolina firewall in a potential end-game of Biden go seek.
Wrap your head around this: Bernie Sanders won twice as many delegates in Nevada as all of the other candidates combined. Suddenly Super-Bernie was able to pass by the entire centrist lane as easily as flashing his turn signal.
In the span of a few short days, the narrative of the race shifted completely from Bloomberg the Conqueror to Bernie the Unstoppable. Suddenly, in wine caves from Sand Hill all the way to Sagaponack, it dawned on the Democratic Establishment that the Centrist Lane may not hold.
That very aromatic whiff of panic was evident in an often out-of-control shouting match in which the loudest voice and most determined shouter prevailed over insufficiently assertive CBS moderators. The first 45 minutes were particularly savage, and the candidates, perhaps exhausted by the bloodletting, then settled in to a classic Democratic wonk fest, tackling important but occasionally tedious topics that left little room for the type of inspirational oratory that changes minds.
And the whiff of panic was clear in the fact that by next Tuesday – just one week away – every candidate other that Sanders and mega-billionaire Bloomberg – may find it hard to justify continuing their campaigns, particularly as the party centrists feel an urgent need to pick one horse as the only possible way to stave off a Sanders nomination.
It was this context that shaped the script for the South Carolina debate, the last debate before Super Tuesday next week.
Bernie Sanders settled into his role as the front runner, and therefore spent the night absorbing incoming from all sides. Sanders held up well, taking it and dishing it out, never knocked off his game. He gave no reason for anyone who supports him to turn away. When you are the front-runner and you suffer no major calamities or significant wounds, that’s what’s called a win.
Michael Bloomberg improved dramatically over his disastrous debate in Nevada, performing well enough that he may well have regained the confidence of those who had been eager to crown him as the centrist savior. This was absolutely essential to restoring the full power of his ad budget, which means that he is once again poised to claim leadership in the centrist lane by the time polls close on Super Tuesday.
It is worth noting that both Sanders and Bloomberg have the serenity of men whose candidacies did not face an existential threat on this debate stage. One – Sanders – has already claimed victory in two caucuses and a primary, and the other has billions more to spend than his competitors, and can carry on his race as long as he wishes. The same serenity did not exist for any other candidate.
Joe Biden may have flashed just enough alpha to halt the erosion of support that threatens his lead in South Carolina. Biden knows that if he is beaten in South Carolina, his candidacy – and his career in elective politics – is effectively over. He fought hard enough to keep the people who are leaning his way in South Carolina – give him an “A” for effort -- but there was little in his debate performance that would reverse the long, steady decline in his popularity.
Perhaps the two candidates who were in the toughest position last night were Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar. Both have made enormous progress against great odds, but each had bet their campaigns on the idea that strong showings in Iowa and New Hampshire would be slingshots that propelled huge surges in nationwide name recognition and support in time for Nevada, South Carolina, and Super Tuesday. Some would say that Klobuchar’s 4% showing in Nevada was an engraved invitation for a graceful exit. Buttigieg has more evidence for the slingshot theory than Klobuchar, but the particular Goliath Mayor Pete is facing on Super Tuesday has billions of dollars to spend. Pete had to have an overwhelming win in the debate to offset that kind of impact.
Tom Steyer is an appealing guy – a billionaire whose heart is in the right place – but it is time for him to get out of the way.
The evening began with fireworks.
Michael Bloomberg lobbed the first incendiary device with an all-too-predictable borderline cheap shot, noting that U.S. Intelligence services had reported that Russia was attempting to interfere with the Democratic nomination process in order to help Bernie Sanders win. This, Bloomberg noted, was clearly because the Russians wanted the Democrats to nominate the candidate that they felt certain Trump could beat.
O'DONNELL: Mayor Bloomberg, I'll let you respond to that. Do you think Senator Sanders' economy would be better for America than President Trump's?
BLOOMBERG: I think that Donald Trump thinks it would be better if he's president. I do not think so.Vladimir Putin thinks that Donald Trump should be president of the United States. And that's why Russia is helping you get elected, so you will lose to him.
A low groan cascaded across the arena as the crowd realized that it was in for an evening of low blows.
Last week in Nevada, Elizabeth Warren nearly destroyed Michael Bloomberg. Last night in South Carolina, she attempted to reprise her role, doubling down on a brutal assault on Bloomberg. But in her seeming obsession to take down Bloomberg, she may have gone too far. The single most riveting moment in the entire contentious evening was when Warren accused Bloomberg of demanding that a female employee have an abortion.
WARREN: ... and (Bloomberg) referred to what I talk about as a "sideshow." You know, this is personal for me. When I was 21 years old, I got my first job as a special education teacher. I loved that job. 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 a union to protect me. And I didn't have any federal law on my side. So I packed up my stuff, and I went home. At least I didn't have a boss who said to me, "Kill it," the way that Mayor Bloomberg is alleged to have said...
BLOOMBERG: I never said that. Oh, come on.
WARREN: ... to one of his pregnant employees. People want a chance to hear...
It is worth mentioning that the actual CBS transcript of the evening then notes “AUDIENCE BOOS.”
CBS moderator Nora O’Donnell asked Warren for the proof of her stunning allegation, and Warren shot back that she was merely quoting an accuser in “her own words.” The former New York City Mayor vehemently denied ever had made such a comment.
Suddenly the audience was confronted with a real time “he said, she said,” echoing almost precisely Warren’s allegation that Bernie Sanders had told her that a woman could not win the Presidential election in 2020.
Somehow, in the cascade of boos that descending onto the stage, it seemed that the audience was uncomfortable that Warren was making such a sensationalist accusation in the face of Bloomberg’s emphatic denial. But the net effect was clear: once Bloomberg navigated this new wave of attacks from Warren, he was more confident on the stage, and proceeded to have a very solid debate performance.
Warren would actually continue her attacks on Bloomberg throughout the debate on the topics of red-lining and releasing his taxes, but after a point, it began to look petty and puzzling. Why is Elizabeth Warren spending all of her time ripping into Bloomberg instead of talking about her own plans? Perhaps she felt that she had to have another strong night of attack to replicate her Nevada fundraising triumph, but that she would alienate progressives if she went after Bernie. There was little evidence that her Nevada debate performance actually helped her win votes. Indeed, Kamala Harris proved that extreme attacks on front runners can backfire badly. But here is the ironic result: Warren’s withering attacks on Bloomberg may have helped him steady his debate performance, and given his campaign new life.
Last night, Bloomberg’s performance was much more in line with what one was expecting from a highly seasoned politician and business leader. He was knowledgeable on a broad range of topics, notably about the success of educational policy in New York City under his leadership:
“…When I came into office, zero New York City schools were in the top 25 of the state. When I left, 23 out of 25 were from New York City. We've cut the gap between the rich and the poor. We've made an enormous difference in all of the options that parents have.
I raised teacher salaries by 43 percent. I put an extra $5 billion into our school system. I value education. It is the only way to solve the poverty problem is to get people a good education. And rather than just talk about it in New York, we actually did it…”
Bloomberg also offered the definitive “centrist” rationale for his candidacy:
BLOOMBERG: Let's just go on the record. They talk about 40 Democrats; 21 of those were people that I spent $100 million to help elect. All of the new Democrats that came in and put Nancy Pelosi in charge and gave the Congress the ability to control this president...
(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)
BLOOMBERG: ... I -- I got them. Number two, when you talk about money, let's put this in perspective. The federal budget is $4.5 trillion a year. We get $3.5 trillion in revenue. We lose $1 trillion a year.
That's why the federal budget -- deficit is -- right now, the debt is $20 trillion, going up to 21. We just cannot afford some of this stuff people talk about. But if you...Let me finish... If you keep on going, we will elect Bernie. Bernie will lose to Donald Trump. And Donald Trump and the House and the Senate and some of the statehouses will all go red. And then, between gerrymandering and appointing judges, for the next 20 or 30 years, we're going to live with this catastrophe.”
Bloomberg offered strong opinions on foreign policy and middle east politics in particular. He was poised and calm throughout, and the only real criticism was that his attempts to offer comic relief fell with repeated dull thuds. All in all, he had a very solid night.
Once Bloomberg had successfully navigated the onslaught from Elizabeth Warren, the energy in the debate returned to the core issue of toppling Bernie Sanders.
Candidates took turns attempting to rattle him, damage him, and trip him up, but Bernie Sanders has been in more Presidential debates than anyone on the stage. They tried clobbering for embracing “socialism,” clobbering him for the uncertainty surrounding the true cost of his “Medicare for all,” and clobbering him for votes early in his career that favored the gun industry. Bernie was clobbered by Biden for threatening to “primary” Barack Obama in 2012, and clobbered for his recent comments that appeared to evidence sympathy for Fidel Castro. Pete tried to paste him for “nostalgia” for the 1960s, which led to a protracted, red-faced, “who can talk louder?” confrontation between Sanders and Buttigieg.
But the physics of a debate are unyielding: a tie goes to the leader. And in just about every one of this topics, Bernie fought his accuser to a draw at minimum.
For all the clobbering, Bernie Sanders is far too canny a debater to ever let anyone shake his confidence or get in his head. Bernie gave no quarter. He took the heat and gave it back. For all of the attacks, it felt like no punch really landed, no one did any real damage. If anything, the evening taken in full reinforced his standing as the front-runner.
Bernie’s only questionable moment was when he was on the defensive about his voting history on guns. His initial reply was to try to dodge and the issue (“well, you know, Joe has voted for terrible trade agreements… Joe voted for the Iraq war…”). It was booed lustily by the crowd. Chastened, Bernie returned to his trademark unabashed candor: “I have cast thousands of votes, including bad votes. That was a bad vote.” Once again, Bernie proved that the admission of an error is a better debate strategy than obfuscation and quibbling.
Joe Biden is uncomfortable to watch in the debate format. He has become a one-note Johnny, insisting on fielding every single question – be it about guns, housing, or the Ebola virus -- by saying words to the effect of, “Here’s the deal! I’m the only one on this stage who has actually done (fill in topic here)! I wrote the bill! Barack Obama put me in charge of (fill in new topic here), I’m the only one on this stage who met with (fill in name of world leader here) and I got it done!” Biden rarely seems to offer a new idea, cast a vision for the future, or speak about how he would approach a new challenge. He simply shouts that he has (1) already done whatever he was asked about, and that (2) he was the only one on the stage who has ever done it.
At one point, Biden pulled out his “I wrote the bill!” smack in the middle of a debate response by Amy Klobuchar, causing her to laugh out loud in his face and challenge him:
KLOBUCHAR: But the way we do it -- the way we do it is having someone leading the ticket from a part of the country that we actually needs the votes. So I have long supported the assault weapon ban. I am the author of the bill to close the boyfriend loophole that says that domestic abusers can't go out and get an AK-47.
BIDEN: I wrote that law.
KLOBUCHAR: That bill, along with -- you didn't write that bill. I wrote that bill.
At least Biden spoke with intensity and gusto last night, so he at least did not compound his predictability and formulaic content with his occasional milquetoast demeanor. He may have held on just enough to get the “W” he needs so desperately in South Carolina. But something tells me that Super Tuesday is not going to be very super in the Biden household, and he may take his cue to exit, enabling Bloomberg to truly consolidate the centrist lane.
We continue to admire the intellectual depth and relentlessly upbeat manner of Pete Buttigieg, but a tantrum-filled screaming middle-school food-fight is not the ideal venue for a cerebral orator and complex thinker. Pete was good last night when given his fair time, but it appeared that he was outshouted, interrupted, and forced to abridge his carefully conceived answers in order to complete the thought before the vultures pounced. Pete has never had a bad debate, and last night was no exception. But he really needed to smack this one out of the park in order to make a definitive statement for Super Tuesday, and this food-fight was simply not the venue that lent itself to his game.
Amy Klobuchar, too, was very strong, and thankfully in this debate she did not allow herself to become distracted with immature, silly, and pointless spats with Pete Buttigieg. Klobuchar is richly informed on the issues and exudes a nerdy yet endearing authenticity. But she is not making enough headway with voters. Indeed, what I truly do not understand is how she can continue to make her record of winning elections the centerpiece of the argument for her nomination. Every single debate, she says that she has never been beaten in an election. But please, Amy, help me understand! By what technicality are you skipping over the fact that you have actually lost the last three elections you have been in? (Iowa, New Hampshire, and Nevada). I admire Amy’s “grit” (that’s another one of her words, not mine), and we will miss her in the race going forward.
Poor Tom Steyer. He has got to be slapping his forehead in exasperation: “Geez,” he must be thinking, “I’m a billionaire, too!! Why didn’t I just skip these four goddam primaries and just drop a half-bill on Super Tuesday!” It’s gotta be a raw feeling to spend hundreds of millions and find out that it was all a case of too little, too early.
If, indeed, Super Tuesday turns this race into a two-person competition between Bloomberg and Sanders, last night was the night that put that race into motion.
Here is how we call it:
Probably Did Just Enough to Halt Further Erosion in South Carolina, but Nothing More:
Did Well, But Given the Circumstances, Had to Do More:
Executed the Wrong Strategy, and Lost Ground:
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