democratic debates

Who Won (and Lost) the Democratic Debate in South Carolina

Biden ain’t dead yet, and he’s not going to die. Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images

The final seven contenders for the Democratic nomination gathered in South Carolina Tuesday night for what might’ve been the worst debate I’ve seen in my life (and I once saw a pair of white, hungover Manhattan prep-school kids debate whether it was wrong for Martin Luther King Jr. to condone civil disobedience).

An honest transcript of the evening would be 50 percent comprised of “[inaudible crosstalk]” or “[much shouting].” We reprised the Medicare for All financing argument and somehow found a way to make it even more tedious than the first 573 renditions. We were treated to incisive questions like, “Why are your poll numbers less high than they used to be?” and “What’s your personal catchphrase?” The crowd booed too much, and then not enough. Somehow, the candidates’ eagerness to tear into each other didn’t produce high drama (as it had in Nevada) but instead a vexing unpleasantness — less like watching a reality show than a dysfunctional, booze-soaked family dinner.

Anyhow. I’ve been doing this thing for a while now where I rank the candidates’ debate performances from best to worst. And for the sake of brand consistency and search-engine optimization, I’m doing it again. But make no mistake: The only true “winners” of tonight’s proceedings were those whose professional choices and televisual tastes spared them the burden of witnessing this garbage.

1) Joe Biden

Uncle Joe’s showing was less than flawless. As per usual, every sentence he spoke emerged from his mouth as an old, rickety, jerry-rigged locomotive that perpetually threatened to teeter off the tracks of English syntax and burst apart into jingle-jangle nonsense. But on this occasion, Biden mostly kept his little archaic engine on course. Sure, at one point he claimed that “150 million people” (i.e., roughly one in two Americans) had been shot to death on U.S. soil since 2007. And sure, by the evening’s end, the former vice-president appeared to have literally run out of batteries, and visibly struggled to muscle his final answers past his fatigue and stammer.

Nevertheless, the ole jalopy made it through in one piece. In fact, a few of Biden’s answers were downright sharp, and almost all were disarmingly folksy. And on a night of miserable shouting matches, Biden’s dutiful observance of the official time limit on his own answers — a habit that had seemed like a cop-out or sign of weakness in earlier debates — read as a welcome gesture of respect for his beleaguered audience (and also set up the night’s only decent joke).

Biden needs to win the South Carolina primary Saturday to sustain his candidacy. Recent polls have shown his lead over Bernie Sanders shrinking to the low single digits in the Palmetto State. His performance Tuesday night was likely strong enough to shore up that advantage. And if he can leave Dixie a winner, he just might be able to knock out Mike Bloomberg on Super Tuesday, and give himself a path to catching his socialist ex-colleague.

In other words: Biden made his (unofficial) campaign slogan a bit more convincing.

2) Bernie Sanders

The Vermont senator was, once again, “yeah, good, okay.” At times, he appeared rattled by the bizarrely (although not that bizarrely) pro-billionaire crowd, which took exception to his jabs at Bloomberg and big-dollar donors. Meanwhile, some of his best lines of attack appeared underprepared, as when he pointedly said, “I’m not a good friend of Xi,” while looking in Bloomberg’s direction — a reference to the billionaire’s apologetics for the Chinese dictator that he did not unpack for the debate’s audience.

But as the primary’s commanding front-runner, Sanders’s chief objective Tuesday night was to exit with only mild bruising and limited blood loss. And he met that goal. The sheer messiness of the proceedings — combined with the way Bloomberg’s presence compelled Bernie’s rivals to expend limited time and ammunition on the billionaire interloper — allowed the Vermont senator to escape without suffering any viral humiliation or headline-worthy blow. Meanwhile, his moderate adversaries each did well enough to keep themselves in the race through Super Tuesday. And that will give Sanders an excellent chance of being the only Democratic candidate to exceed the 15 percent threshold for winning delegates in all 14 states holding primaries on March 3 — an outcome that would enable the Democratic front-runner to amass a delegate lead that will be difficult for any of his adversaries to erase.

3) Pete Buttigieg

Mayor Pete was at the top of his game on Tuesday. In Nevada one week earlier, his over-polished delivery of off-brand Obama-isms made him sound sterile and insipid, as though he were the Democratic Party’s head of human resources. In South Carolina, however, his delivery of the same uninspired product was a bit more spirited, sharp, and effortless, as though he were the Democratic Party’s vice-president of operations. Buttigieg even managed to call out his own whiteness — while speaking the phrase, “I come to this with some humility,” on a presidential debate stage, as the former mayor of Indiana’s fourth largest city — without eliciting laughter or inspiring mass suicide.

Buttigieg still has no plausible path to a delegate plurality. But he did well enough to continue aiding his high-school hero’s quest for the nomination by keeping a critical mass of white, college-educated moderates out of Biden’s camp.

4) Elizabeth Warren

The Massachusetts senator gave another fine performance. Her filleting of Bloomberg (this time, for aiding and abetting Republican candidates) was once again masterful. If all else were equal, her showing would rank at the top of this list. But we live in an age of inequality. And given the hole that Warren has dug for herself, she didn’t need a fine performance Tuesday night; she required a blockbuster one. Warren has yet to finish as high as second in a single primary. She’s poised to finish fourth in South Carolina. The most recent polls of Super Tuesday states suggest she won’t win a single primary next Tuesday — not even the one in her home state of Massachusetts, where Sanders has opened up a narrow lead. No one who watched Warren debate last night could deny that she’s persisted. But few could say why, precisely, she’s bothered.

5) Amy Klobuchar

Asked to name the biggest misconception that people have about her, the Minnesota senator said, “that I’m boring.” She did little Tuesday to substantiate her case.

6) Tom Steyer

The billionaire hedge-fund manager proved (yet again) Tuesday night that the seven least beautiful words in the English language are, “Tom Steyer, this question is for you.”

7) Michael Bloomberg

Bloomberg has spent more than a half-billion dollars on his campaign and still didn’t manage to buy himself a single joke strong enough to earn mere crickets instead of cringes. The former mayor’s advisers felt compelled to provide him a self-deprecating acknowledgement of his widely panned debut. He delivered the (underwritten) punchline in the most circuitous possible fashion, rambling, “I really am surprised that all of these, my fellow … contestants up here, I guess would be the right word for it, given nobody pays attention to the clock, I’m surprised they showed up because I would’ve thought after I did such a good job in beating him last week that they’d be a little afraid to do that.”

At another point, he told a joke that somehow doubled as a comprehensive explanation of its own inaccessibility and unfunniness to a South Carolina audience: “I think what’s right for New York City isn’t necessarily right for all the other cities, otherwise you’d have the Naked Cowboy in every city, so let’s get serious here.” (Since there is not a Naked Cowboy street performer in every city, most people who do not live in New York City will not get the reference.)

But Bloomberg’s performance wasn’t merely unfunny. It was holistically dreadful. Asked (once again) to answer for his refusal to release women who’ve accused his company of gender discrimination and sexual harassment from their nondisclosure agreements, he defended himself against charges of sexism by whining that “enough is never enough” for that nagging female senator from Massachusetts. He somehow felt it wise to assail Bernie Sanders for his past praise of authoritarian leftist governments, despite his own more recent liabilities on the “praising foreign tyrants” issue; when confronted with his claim that Xi is not a dictator, Bloomberg replied, “He does serve at the behest of the politburo.”

At one point, while attempting to boast about his campaign contributions to Democratic House candidates, Bloomberg had to stop himself halfway through from saying, “I bought them.”

It is clearer than ever that Joe Biden is the only moderate candidate capable of assembling a coalition to rival Bernie Sanders’s. If Bloomberg continues spending hundreds of millions of dollars on propping up his own candidacy — and thus, blocking Joe’s path to the nomination — he will go down in history as one of American socialism’s most valuable comrades.

Who Won (and Lost) the Democratic Debate in South Carolina