Democrats Get Their MRI for the Soul in South Carolina

All was revealed.
February 26, 2020
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Seven candidates took the debate stage in Charleston on Tuesday, each of them wanting something out of the night.

But as Mick and Keith once wrote, you can’t always get what you want. But sometimes, you get what you need.

Bernie Sanders

What he needed: No event to change the momentum of the race.

What he got: In the first 30 minutes, Sanders was challenged by five of the other candidates. And he did not handle it very well. He shouted. He waved his arms. He cited a single study—from Yale! published in the Lancet!—multiple times as if it were the final word on the affordability of Medicare for All.

But funnily enough, because there were five people all clamoring to get him, no one got a clean shot. After the first commercial break, he skated for the next hour until his affinity for anti-American dictators came up.

This was a moment of maximum danger, and Sanders took his lumps from Biden on the pro-dictator aspect. But then, Pete Buttigieg decided to make his attack not on Bernie’s specific statements and affiliations, but rather the idea of re-fighting the ’60s culture war.

Which is about as good as Bernie could hope to get away with on this subject.

Here is the thing about Bernie’s position: Every minute spent talking about housing or education or the Middle East or legalizing pot is a win for him. Because it’s time not spent exploring his two biggest weaknesses.

So all things considered, Bernie got what he wanted.

But . . .

If you are a Bernie partisan there are two aspects of the debate that should worry you.

The first is that Sanders survived because there were too many people coming at him and they were not especially skilled operators. It’s better to be lucky than good, of course. But if he’s the nominee, Bernie is going to go heads-up against a single opponent and it is not clear at all whether he can take a punch.

The second is that this was the first debate in which it clicked for me that Bernie is, like Trump, a dominance politician. By which I mean that his primary mode of political engagement is not argument or persuasion but the simple assertion of an animalistic dominance.

There were three moments over the course of the night when Sanders and Buttigieg clashed in a serious, sustained way. In the first two, Buttigieg tried to make his point with the sort of rational “Let’s talk about that” lines that are his hallmark. And Sanders shouted at him—over and over. Until Buttigieg eventually gave up and let Sanders have the floor.

The third time this happened, Buttigieg forged ahead and didn’t back down. But because he wasn’t willing to raise his voice, Sanders shouted over him and drowned him out.

This is Bernie’s move. It’s how he deals with being challenged. And that’s fine! I mean, it’s not fine. It’s bullying and grotesque and revealing of how weak his arguments are. But it’s fine in the sense that it can work as a political mode of expression. Sometimes.

But ask yourself: Do you think Sanders is going to be better at dominance politics than Trump is?

Because I’m not sure I’d like his chances in that matchup.

Joe Biden

What he needed: A strong enough performance to push him over the finish line in South Carolina.

What he got: Biden was feisty and sharp. He showed voters that he’s a fighter and emphasized over and over the idea of getting things done. He hit Bernie early for having wanted to primary Barack Obama in 2012 and had a great line when asked about his support from African-Americans: “I don’t expect anything. I’m here to earn the vote.”

Here’s the thing about Biden: If he wins South Carolina—and there is every reason to think he will—then the map is . . . not terrible for him.

On Super Tuesday he should be strong in Arkansas, Alabama, and Tennessee. He’s within the margin of error in Virginia and Texas. California is a problem for Biden, but even there, Sanders seems to have a ceiling of about 25 percent—and Mayor Mike hasn’t gone hard-contrast against him yet.

At this point, Biden is a clear underdog. But he sure looks like the strongest challenger to Sanders.

Mike Bloomberg

What he needed: A reset on his introduction to Democratic voters.

What he got: Not a great night. To say that Bloomberg has a charisma deficit would be understating matters. There was a moment where he tried to make a joke about his performance in the Nevada debate that was somehow pre-scripted, and idiotic, and half-mumbled—it was one of those things where I was genuinely embarrassed for him.

Then I realized he could buy every Patek Philippe ever made with the change in his sofa. So I figure he’ll be okay.

But here’s the thing: If you look at the substance of what Bloomberg was saying, he was the most obviously competent and sensible guy on stage.

For instance: His answer on how to deal with the legalization of marijuana was very smart: You pivot from prosecution to treatment for users, but you don’t go pushing further legalization through until we understand the full health effects. Because the experiments being performed at the state level are, at best, giving us mixed results.

Contrast this with Bernie’s answer, which was: Full legalization everywhere! Plus the expungement of all prior convictions! Plus helping minority-owned companies break into the grow business!

Bernie’s total disregard for health science here was simply breathtaking.

Mayor Mike is building a weird sort of anti-charisma that I find kind of endearing. Normally, anti-charisma candidates don’t win a lot of elections. But that’s not an iron law. If Dukakis or Mondale had had $60 billion, their careers might have turned out differently.

Elizabeth Warren

What she needed: ???

What she got: Here are some things that happened with Liz Warren at the debate.

  • She said that Bernie was winning the race so far because he’s right about everything.
  • She said that she agreed with Bernie about pretty much everything.
  • When Bloomberg suggested that moderate Republicans would never vote for Bernie, she jumped in and insisted that they absolutely would vote for Bernie.
  • When she was asked about allowing China to manufacture critical infrastructure components, she attacked Bloomberg for not releasing his tax returns.

So here’s my question: Is Elizabeth Warren waging a campaign for VP so craven that even Mike Pence is embarrassed for her? I mean, that seems like the obvious explanation.

But there’s another possibility.

What if by staying in the race and hugging Bernie so tight that he’s going to need a restraining order, Warren is actually holding his numbers down? What if she’s denying him the extra 6 or 8 points he needs to really break out from the pack?

What if Elizabeth Warren is actually the real hero of the #NeverBernie resistance!

Did I just blow your mind?

One other thing: The extent to which Warren is eager to use any club at hand to go after everyone—except Sanders—is so shameless that it’s causing me to reevaluate her entire political persona.

For example, let’s examine her attempt to beat up Bloomberg over his NDAs.

At the Nevada debate Warren hectored Bloomberg about the number of NDAs he had used in his company over the years and demanded that he release the women who had signed them to speak freely.

Bloomberg was utterly unprepared for this encounter.

Two days later, Bloomberg released a statement saying that in researching the subject there were three instances in which NDAs were used. That he was releasing the women who had signed them. And that his company would no longer use NDAs. Case closed.

In Charleston, Warren attacked him for the use of NDAs again, pretending that none of this had ever happened. She then talked about how she once lost a teaching job because she was pregnant. (It’s not clear this happened as she represents it, but put that aside for a moment.) And then she claimed that when one of Bloomberg’s employees became pregnant, Bloomberg told the woman to “kill it.”

Let’s unpack this attack for all of its ruthless dishonesty:

  • The “kill it” remark was alleged by a former employee in a 1998 civil complaint against Bloomberg. You can read all about it here.
  • Bloomberg denied under oath having made the remark .
  • The complainant eventually reached a confidential settlement with the company.
  • Warren represented as fact something that was alleged and then denied under oath.
  • This is tantamount to her accusing him of perjury.
  • This is not the first time she’s accused someone else of lying when it suited her.
  • Or the first time she’s played fast-and-loose with the truth.

But then there’s the cognitive dissonance:

  • Elizabeth Warren is wildly, joyfully, pro-abortion.
  • According to the tenets of the abortion-rights movement, an unborn baby isn’t a person. It’s just a fetus. A clump of cells.
  • You don’t “kill” a fetus. You merely “terminate” it.
  • So Elizabeth Warren worked herself into righteous indignation at the possibility that someone suggested that abortion might be a good—wait for it—“choice” for a pregnancy?

And here I had thought that whether you carry a baby to term or kill it is nothing more than a value-neutral matter of personal preference. Who knew?

Pete Buttigieg

What he needed: A way back into the race.

What he got: This was Mayor Pete’s loosest and most likeable debate performance—he seemed genuinely human when he did his little fourth-wall breaking appeal to billionaires asking them to donate to his campaign.

And some of his answers on race early on were touching.

But as a strategic matter, this was his most ineffective debate. He didn’t land any telling blows on Sanders and didn’t establish himself as a possible alternative to Biden’s coalition or Bloomberg’s money.

It’s not clear where he goes from here.

Tom Steyer

What he needed: A hug.

What he got: This was Tom Steyer’s first consequential debate performance and he . . . wasn’t bad.

Instead of spending his entire campaign talking about climate change, maybe Steyer should have done what he did on Tuesday night: Make an aggressive case for reformed capitalism instead of Bernie Sanders’ democratic socialism.

If you were a Tom Steyer voter (and I don’t know what that looks like) I can’t tell if this debate locks in your support, or send you running off to Bernie/Warren because he’s not the guy you’d thought he was.

Amy Klobuchar

What she needed: A way out.

What she got: Klobo was barely there and she has no way forward. Time was, an elder in the party would sit down someone in Klobuchar’s position and explain the facts of life: That she has a future, the party has a future, and that in order for her future in the party to continue, she needed to get out now so that her 6 percent support could shift to a candidate who’s viable.

But it’s clear that she’s going to stick around until March 3 in the hopes that she can get a win in Minnesota and then announce the suspension of her campaign from the comfort of her home state.

Is that a colossal act of vanity? Oh sure, you betcha.

Could it help make Bernie the eventual nominee? Very possibly.

And if so, it’ll be exactly what the Democratic party deserves for no longer having the will to defend its institutional interests.

Jonathan V. Last

Jonathan V. Last is executive editor of The Bulwark.