Former South Bend mayor Pete Buttigieg said at least one accurate thing in South Carolina on Tuesday night: ‘Russia doesn’t have a political party…they want chaos’. But Mayor Pete was dead wrong when he said the chaos would come from a presidential race between Vermont senator Bernie Sanders and President Donald Trump.
The chaos was right there on stage. The candidates went south in more than one way tonight.
CBS’s attempt at moderating the latest Democratic debate was a disastrous hellstorm of candidates yelling over one another, sharing bad jokes, lobbing tired and petty attacks, and, worst of all, trying to show some semblance of self-awareness with the final set of so-called ‘personal’ questions.
If you had a hard time keeping up, don’t feel bad — so did the moderators. Norah O’Donnell summed up the night’s mayhem and confusion when she accidentally went to end the debate before the final commercial break, only to be chided by her colleague, Gayle King, who apparently was more attentive to the corporate sponsors.
The candidates themselves seemed flustered by a crowd that they apparently could not win over — the audience, in fact, seemed suspiciously pro-Bloomberg considering he’s not even on the ballot in South Carolina. They booed repeatedly when candidates trotted out anti-Bloomberg lines about ‘billionaires’ and jeered Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren as she harped on Bloomberg again for allegedly saying mean and sexist things to women. Sharp-minded viewers later discovered that attendees had to pay at least $1,750 to get a guaranteed seat in the venue, which led to suspicions as to whether a wealthier crowd would just happen to skew more pro-Bloomberg or if some fishier financial arrangement was going on. Suspicions were hardly alleviated by the fact that Bloomberg was running campaign ads during the commercial breaks.
Speaking of Liz Warren, it was certainly a bold strategy to pivot from a relatively stellar performance in Nevada to the ‘Leeroy Jenkins’ of the debate stage. No matter the topic, Warren was on hand with another unrelated Bloomberg attack line, whether it was re-hashing his non-disclosure agreements with women or accusing him of not being a real Democrat because he changed his party affiliation and has financially backed Republicans (no one mentioned that Warren was a registered Republican for at least several years of her adult life). At one point, Warren decided a question about Chinese infrastructure was a good time to duplicate her jab about Bloomberg failing to release his tax returns. She also notably repeated a questionable story about being discriminated against in a teaching job because she was pregnant, the details of which she manages to change slightly every time she tells it. It became hard to believe we were watching the same woman who flawlessly delivered the ‘fat broads and horse-faced lesbians’ line last week.
Bloomberg, despite seemingly having home field advantage, didn’t do himself any favors with another lifeless performance fraught with bad jokes about winning the Nevada debate and being six feet tall. His most entertaining moment was a Freudian slip, when he almost said that Democrats won back the house in 2018 because he ‘bought’ the candidates, before quickly correcting himself to say ‘I got them’. Not a good look for the candidate battling accusations that he’s trying to spend his way into the White House.
Former Vice President Joe Biden perhaps had the best performance of the evening, if only because he constantly called out the fact that the moderators had no control over the stage. Chief among the interrupters was Mayor Pete, who managed to be involved in every single conversation like the schoolyard tattletale.
‘Why am I stopping? No one else stops,’ Biden said during his most lucid moment of the evening. ‘That’s my Catholic school training. Gentlemen don’t get very well treated up here.’
It was a nice contrast to Biden — who is the front-runner in South Carolina, mind you — stating ‘thirdly’ as he made his fourth point in response to a question.
The constant squabbling among the candidates reached a fever pitch when Buttigieg droned incessantly in the background as Bernie angrily tried to double down on his defense of dictator Fidel Castro’s literacy program in Cuba — a position that would have been losing on its own, according to the crowd’s boos. Has Pete ever heard that you should never interrupt your enemy when they’re making a mistake?
The debate ended with a bang, or maybe more of a clatter, when the candidates were asked to list the biggest misconception about themselves. Amy Klobuchar helpfully insisted she is ‘not boring’, which was reminiscent of Hillary Clinton telling The View that she is a ‘fun person’, while Mayor Pete said that he is so ‘passionate’ about issues that he comes across as ‘unflappable’, which is exactly the kind of line a McKinsey consultant would rehearse for their interview. Warren inexplicably answered that people often assume she doesn’t eat a lot, which no one has said about her ever. What these candidates lack in ideas they certainly don’t make up for in personality.
The debate was a major regression from Nevada, where voters finally saw candidates start to come out of their shells and try to separate themselves from the pack. Sure, it’s important to go after your opponents when you’re competing in a winner-take-all election, but the Democratic contenders showed no restraint or strategy. If that was the best they’ve got, they’re in big, big trouble.