South Carolina Debate Was Terrible

CBS did a lousy job.

The consensus on last night’s debate is that the CBS News moderators were stunningly awful. They asked terrible questions and were atrocious at managing the candidates. While I don’t know that it was a “disaster,” it was a wasted effort. It devolved into a contest that rewarded rudeness and volume rather than thoughtfulness.

Further, it was the last debate before the pivotal primaries in South Carolina this Saturday and the epic Super Tuesday contests next Tuesday. Indeed, the next debate isn’t until March 15, by which time most states will have voted.

Joe Biden, who is leading most of the South Carolina polls, was less awful than in many debates. Still, he seemed genuinely flummoxed by the lack of timekeeping and complained multiple times about other candidates getting to continue talking after their time expired. And he committed a bizarre gaffe in asserting that 150 million Americans had been killed in gun violence. He meant 150 thousand. By itself, that’s the type of thing that could happen to any of us. But Biden does it so frequently that, combined with his advanced age, it makes us question his mental fitness for the Presidency.

As with the Nevada debate, Pete Buttigieg was the only one who looked good to me. In both contests, he was the only one who maintained a calm demeanor and sense of humor rather than coming across angry or irritated. But, as usual, I’m not the target audience and the angriest of the candidates, Bernie Sanders, continues to rise in the polls.

NBC News‘ roundup:

The debate quickly descended into chaos as the current front-runner, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, faced a torrent of attacks from all sides, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren confronted former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg over his treatment of women, and several of the candidates literally shouted over each other about health care.

[…]

Bloomberg, who was attacked 10 times in the first 10 minutes of last week’s debate, was attacked only once in the first 10 minutes tonight.

Sen. Bernie Sanders, on the other hand, was attacked seven times in that time, the most of any candidate on the stage and close to half of the 15 attacks doled out early on.

[…]

The debate opened with a question on the economy to Sanders — but his response (as well as an ensuing response from Bloomberg) prompted the topic to quickly shift to Russian interference in elections.

After being asked about why voters should support him, when the economy is growing under President Donald Trump, Sanders used his reply to take a shot at Bloomberg.

The economy, Sanders said, is only doing well “for Mr. Bloomberg” and “other billionaires” but that “things aren’t so good” for ordinary Americans.

Bloomberg received an immediate opportunity to respond, saying that “I think that Donald Trump thinks it would be better if he were president.”

“That’s why Russia is helping you, so you lose to him,” Bloomberg said. The line was a reference to reports that he had been briefed about efforts by the Kremlin to try to to help his presidential campaign as part of an effort to interfere with the Democratic primary and the 2020 election.

POLITICO (“Dems yell, scold and interrupt in tense South Carolina debate”):

Bernie Sanders got a taste of being the frontrunner. Mike Bloomberg was once again in the hot seat. Joe Biden slid under the radar without too much trouble.

[…]

Biden is staking his candidacy on a win in South Carolina in its Saturday primary, and judging by the applause in the audience, he’s still the favorite in the Palmetto State.

Bloomberg was the odd man out. The billionaire media mogul essentially bought his way onstage and took heavy criticism from Elizabeth Warren, who repeated her performance from last week’s debate in which she delighted in skewering him at every turn.

[…]

In their opening comments, Bloomberg told Sanders that “Russia is helping you get elected”; Warren insisted that she would make a better president than Bernie”; Steyer said that while Sanders has the right analysis of what’s wrong with the economy, “I don’t like his solutions”; and Biden invoked the nearby African American church where nine worshipers were killed by a white supremacist before highlighting Sanders’ repeated votes against the so-called Brady Bill gun control legislation.

[…]

The question was about China building infrastructure. But Warren made sure it was all about her favorite topic: Bloomberg and his lack of disclosure.

“We know that Mayor Bloomberg has been doing business with China for a long time, and he is the only one on this stage who has not released his taxes,” she said. “He plans to release them after Super Tuesday. It is not enough to be able to say, ‘Just trust me on this.’ We have a president who said he was going to release his taxes after the election and refused to do this.”

[…]

“I am very proud of being Jewish. I actually lived in Israel for some months,” Sanders said. “But what I happen to believe is that, right now, sadly, tragically, in Israel, through Bibi Netanyahu, you have a reactionary racist who is running that country.”

Applause rang out, a sign of just how unpopular Netanyahu is with Democrats, many of whom consider him an arm of the Republican Party in Israel.

[…]

Asked about his history of sympathizing with socialist governments in Cuba and Nicaragua, Sanders said he has “opposed authoritarianism all over the world” and argued his comments on Cuba were similar to what former President Barack Obama has said.

“Occasionally, it might be a good idea to be honest about American foreign policy, and that includes the fact that America has overthrown governments all over the world, in Chile, in Guatemala, in Iran, and when dictatorships, whether it is the Chinese or the Cubans, do something good, you acknowledge that,” Sanders said.

Biden said Obama “did not in any way suggest that there was anything positive about the Cuban government.”

He continued: “He in fact does not, did not, has never embraced an authoritarian regime and does not now.”

Buttigieg chimed in shortly after, adding he isn’t looking forward to a general election that “comes down to Donald Trump with his nostalgia for the social order of the 1950s and Bernie Sanders with a nostalgia for the revolutionary politics of the 1960s.”

[…]

Buttigieg called out Sanders for what he called the Vermont senator’s “incredible shrinking price tag” for his “Medicare for All” proposal.

“I’ll tell you exactly what it adds up to: It adds up to four more years of Donald Trump, Kevin McCarthy as speaker of the House and the inability to get the Senate into Democratic hands,” Buttigieg said.

Then he tore into Sanders’ electability, casting his nomination as all but a guarantee of losses at the presidential level and in key House and Senate races that could determine the control of each chamber.

“The time has come for us to stop acting like the presidency is the only office that matters,” Buttigieg said, emphasizing the importance of maintaining control of the House and winning back the Senate. “Look, if you want to keep the House in Democratic hands, you might want to check with the people who actually turned the House blue: 40 Democrats who are not running on your platform. They are running away from your platform as fast as they possibly can.”

Vox (“5 key moments from South Carolina’s otherwise very messy Democratic debate“):

[T] he debate went off the rails pretty quick, and it never really got back on track. The all-white stage awkwardly talked a lot about people of color. Bloomberg was asked a lot of questions about his mayoral record — even his attempt at a giant soda ban came up. There was a pretty substantive debate about guns, but it was often hard to follow — was it about Sanders’s NRA record, former Vice President Joe Biden’s gun control work, or whether Congress will do anything with the filibuster still in place?

[…]

Tuesday’s debate was just the latest one that didn’t feature a single person of color — a dynamic that was painfully apparent as candidates sought to discuss racism and discriminatory policies like “stop and frisk.” Much like the Nevada debate, even as candidates tried to call out disparities, none were able to speak directly about their own experiences, as candidates including Sens. Cory Booker and Kamala Harris were able to in the past.

Former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg said as much in a striking exchange with Bloomberg, when both were confronted about their missteps with black and brown constituents in their communities.

“I come to this with some humility because I’m conscious of the fact that there are seven white people on this stage,” Buttigieg said. “None of us — none of us have the experience, the lived experience of — for example, walking down the street, or in a mall, and feeling eyes on us, regarding us as dangerous, without knowing the first thing about us just because of the color of our skin.”

There’s more to the roundup but the points are long and analytical and therefore defy excerpting.

The bottom line is that I don’t know that we learned anything new about the candidates last night or that the debate shaped the race in any significant way. And, by the time there’s another debate, it may well be too late.

FILED UNDER: Campaign 2020, Media, US Politics
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. SC_Birdflyte says:

    One thing I would suggest is that the moderator’s desk have a kill switch. If a candidate persistently overruns his/her time or interrupts another candidate, cut off that candidate’s microphone.

    15
  2. James Joyner says:

    @SC_Birdflyte: I had the same thought last night. Time’s up, your mic shuts off.

    6
  3. Ebenezer_Arvigenius says:

    But you have to admit. Watching grown adults waving their hands like little 3rd graders hoping the teacher would call on them was humorous. The whole format is structurally unsound.

    It also underlined a problem I see with Biden. It’s a good thing for an elected official to adhere to the rules. But if everyone ignores them you have to be ready to fight against it, not be pleasant and hope the universe or the moderators will reward you. If you want in the big seat, you have to be able to function without a nanny making sure you get treated fairly. Trump surely won’t.

    5
  4. Jax says:

    My elementary-aged daughter pointed out that kids that act like that in class persistently go in time out or go talk to the principal. One of her funnier comments was “Geez, Bernie, just shut up, you’re getting spit all over your microphone!” Then we had to google if anyone had ever electrocuted themselves be spitting on the microphone too much. (short answer….sorta) 😉

    I also thought Buttigieg came across as the most calm, cool, and collected.

    7
  5. Kurtz says:

    Instead of a kill switch, they should be able to hit a button that emits a piercing sound that drowns out voices, and causes an instinctual defensive posture.

    1
  6. An Interested Party says:

    My elementary-aged daughter pointed out that kids that act like that in class persistently go in time out or go talk to the principal.

    As awful as it was, I suppose it wasn’t quite as bad as Rubio and Trump arguing about the size of hands and other body parts…maybe Biden and Sanders should do that in the next debate…

    3
  7. Jax says:

    @An Interested Party: Ha! I had forgotten that! Well, at least we got that going for us, it hasn’t devolved into an Rated R production yet.

  8. Bill says:

    @Guarneri:

    A kill switch would be good.

    What a debate really needs is this.

    1
  9. john430 says:

    Yes, the CBS “moderators” had no clue about managing the field of candidates. But, to be fair, the candidates are a low-rent collection of idiots.

    3
  10. Kit says:

    The bottom line is that I don’t know that we learned anything new about the candidates last night

    Apart from the earliest debates when we are being introduced to new faces, just what is left to learn at this stage? Nothing short of drawing blood matters now.

    1
  11. Mister Bluster says:

    a low-rent collection of idiots.

    Unlike your boyfriend President Pud who is an inspiration to us all…

    Groping suspect says Trump said it was OK to grab women
    According to the criminal complaint released by the district court in Albuquerque, the accused told police “that the President of the United States says it’s ok to grab women by their private parts”.

    2
  12. CSK says:

    @Mister Bluster:
    Only if you’re a star. Then you can do anything.
    What a pig Trump is.

  13. the Q says:

    Mayor Pete is JFK in 1956, not ready yet, but clearly a future President of the US. Boomers aren’t ready for a gay kiss at the Inaugural Ball, but 8 years or 12 years from now, the next gens won’t give a shit.

    As for Bernie, he has to stop praising Hitler for making the trains run on time and lowering unemployment…..I love the guy, but sheesh, to point out the “positives” of Ortega or Fidel is not good political optics.

    Bernie is doing to the feckless corporate Dem elites, what Trump did to the Bush dynasty and the GOP country club set, flushing them out of party dominance. The biggest cries of Bernie “can’t win” aren’t coming from the Tea Partiers, its coming from the Hillary/Wall St. wing of the Dem party.

    2
  14. An Interested Party says:

    The biggest cries of Bernie “can’t win” aren’t coming from the Tea Partiers, its coming from the Hillary/Wall St. wing of the Dem party.

    Of course it’s not coming from Tea Partiers…they are licking their chops at how badly Sanders might possibly lose to Trump…

    2
  15. the Q says:

    Just like the Hillary slurpers were so sure of victory over a pussy grabbing con man game show host that they skipped Wisconsin and thought they also had Michigan and Pennsylvania locked up.

    After all, Americans would never vote for someone so radical that would jail immigrants, build a 1200 mile border wall, undermine the separation of powers, lie constantly, separate families, hijack the Dept. of Justice and generally disgrace the office of Presidency, right.

    Just as you Hillary fanatics blamed Bernie for undermining her campaign against Trump, look in the mirror pot, says the kettle.

    5
  16. An Interested Party says:

    After all, Americans would never vote for someone so radical that would jail immigrants, build a 1200 mile border wall, undermine the separation of powers, lie constantly, separate families, hijack the Dept. of Justice and generally disgrace the office of Presidency, right.

    You do realize that there are plenty of Americans who are quite happy with these activities?

    Just as you Hillary fanatics blamed Bernie for undermining her campaign against Trump, look in the mirror pot, says the kettle.

    I’m not quite sure who the “you” is that you’re referring to, but there were a lot of factors that led to Hillary’s loss, including actions on her part…none of that takes away from the fact that the Democrats could be in for an epic loss if Bernie wins the nomination…

    1
  17. the Q says:

    AIP, You are missing the point. Many in the GOP thought the very same thing about Trump – no way an extremist bigot pussy grabber can beat Hillary. And they were wrong. Just as you are now.

    You are pulling out of thin air “an epic loss if Bernie wins the nomination”….this is pure speculation based on ether and the neolibs horror at actually running a candidate who wants to tax Dem Wall street banksters, put out of business HMOs and their 20% overhead (i.e. profits) and stick up for the midwest blue collars hammered by the likes of a truly corrupted DINO like former USTR Michael Froman….do you even know who this guy is and his role in gutting Glass Steagall? He was Robert Rubin’s right hand man at treasury, who followed Rubin to Citibank, made tens of millions by allowing the merger made possible by his role in killing Glass Steagall. Then, not satisfied, as USTR, his trade pacts like the TPP would have furthered destroyed our industrial manufacturing base while allowing the Hollywood/Silicon Valley/Wall st. cabal toreap billions on the backs of the laid off/fired blue collars.

    Meanwhile, well meaning neolib dunces, parrot the Liberty League and the DuPont heirs (corporate Dems) who warned that FDR would lose in 1936 if he didn’t moderate his New Deal “socialism”. Incidentally, these Wall St. Dems came out against FDR after he RAISED THEIR TAXES with the Revenue Act of 1935. Sound familiar? Roosevelt’s campaign manager accused the Liberty League of being an “ally of the Republican National Committee” which would “squeeze the worker dry in his old age and cast him like an orange rind into the refuse pail.” Some things never change.

    Of course, those who are ignorant of history, are doomed to run a Hillary clone again, because they just can’t admit they were wrong in 2016.

    I can just imagine you feckless boomers saying, “this guy in the wheelchair with the cigarette holder and bourgeois background with his socialist cabinet, drastic expansion of government is just too radical for the mass of centrists to elect.”

    A whole generation of Americans, way more “centrist” than the boomers, were so appalled by the GOP they walked the wilderness for 60 years till the boomer “moderates” destroyed the Dems with the DLC of the 80s sounding much like the neolibs today fretting over “big gubmint”.

    Result? After winning the House for 56 out of 60 years and the Senate for 48 out of 60, Clinton and his neolib pals lost the Congress to the GOP which hasn’t let up since.

    So enough with the “Bernie’s too liberal, lets run another corporate Hillary clone since that is sure to beat Trump.” Its the definition of insanity.

    1
  18. the Q says:

    Ok boomer. Coming from a Hillary supporter who lost to the biggest piece of schit to ever run for office, I take that as a compliment because you neolibs want to run a Hillary clone and you think by doing the same thing again, you will get different results. Again the definition of insanity.

  19. An Interested Party says:

    You are pulling out of thin air “an epic loss if Bernie wins the nomination”…

    You’re the one missing the point…who cares what neolibs want? Sanders is an unabashed socialist…the kids may not care about that, but older folks do, and they are the ones who vote…you’re simply being delusional if you don’t think that Sanders will be easily demonized in the general election, although I will be more than happy to be proven wrong, but I don’t think that I am…

    Meanwhile, well meaning neolib dunces, parrot the Liberty League and the DuPont heirs (corporate Dems) who warned that FDR would lose in 1936 if he didn’t moderate his New Deal “socialism”.

    Oh sweetie, 2020 isn’t 1936 and Sanders is no FDR…by the way, I’m neither feckless nor a boomer…

    1
  20. John430 says:

    @Mister Bluster: Am not excusing Trump for that. Hope you will admit same by denouncing Democrats for supporting Ted Kennedy, Boston’s woman-killer and Barack Obama for letting you NOT keep your health plan, along with Sanders running as a Democrat but secretly supporting outright communism, and finally, for supporting and electing Rep. Alcee Hastings of Florida. He was once a federal judge and was impeached for bribery.

  21. Mister Bluster says:

    @John430:..Hope you will admit…
    Since I do not have to report to you or any one else about my politcal thoughts and actions,
    the only thing I am going to say to you is the same thing that I have said to every Vietnam Veteran I have ever met.
    I’m glad you did not return home in a body bag.

  22. al Ameda says:

    @SC_Birdflyte:

    One thing I would suggest is that the moderator’s desk have a kill switch. If a candidate persistently overruns his/her time or interrupts another candidate, cut off that candidate’s microphone.

    I had that thought too.
    ‘You have 5 seconds to complete your words then your mic is silenced’

  23. Tyrell says:

    No doubt that CBS was never in control.
    It is time to consider getting the television networks out of the debate business altogether. These should be turned over to some sort of private, nuetral groups. The news networks now are too connected to the political parties.