All hell breaks loose in South Carolina debate

Warren persisted, Bloomberg bombed and Bernie beat back his many rivals

LAS VEGAS, NEVADA - FEBRUARY 19: Democratic presidential candidates former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) speak during the Democratic presidential primary debate at Paris Las Vegas on February 19, 2020 in Las Vegas, Nevada. Six candidates qualified for the third Democratic presidential primary debate of 2020, which comes just days before the Nevada caucuses on February 22. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)
Democratic presidential candidates former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) speak during the Democratic presidential primary debate at Paris Las Vegas on February 19, 2020 (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)

Elizabeth Warren wasn’t done with Mike Bloomberg quite yet.

After multiple disappointing finishes in Iowa, New Hampshire, and Nevada it looks as though Warren’s chances of coming out ahead in the primary are increasingly slim—despite the fact that she is the most articulate advocate for progressive policy positions who can also appeal to voters across the political spectrum. Apparently, the American public prefers being bellowed at by old white men. Go figure.

Nevertheless, she persisted. Warren seemed determined to show up Bloomberg just on principle.

Warren’s opener, as in the Nevada debate, was crushing: Trump is coming to Charleston, South Carolina, to support his buddy, Republican Senator Lindsay Graham, she said. Know who else gave money to help elect Graham? Bloomberg. He gave money to help elect a lot of Republicans, she noted, including the man Warren defeated to win her seat in the Senate.

Bloomberg, caught flatfooted, stumbled badly in his retort, bragging about buying the Democratic House majority before catching himself: “All the new Democrats that came in, put Nancy Pelosi in charge, and gave Congress the ability to control this President — I bough . . . I got them.”

Whoops.

No one shows up Bloomberg the plutocrat like Warren. It’s her calling—and Bloomberg’s worst nightmare.

With his annoyed, arrogant tone, the drawling Brahmin accent and his total and complete lack of charisma, Bloomberg is the picture of entitlement.

Despite a dry joke about winning the last debate (that was a joke, right?), he didn’t manage to make himself even remotely likable.

Warren kept after him on his harassment charges from female employees, one of whom she says he told her, when he found out she was pregnant, to “kill it.”

Bloomberg denied ever saying that, and announced that his company is doing away with nondisclosure agreements at Warren’s behest, and therefore she should be satisfied (although it’s not clear what sort of protection the women who claim he harassed them might have if they were to come forward).

That’s about as good as it got for Bloomberg in this debate. He tried another lame joke, about how policies he promoted in New York (like that incredibly unpopular but well-meaning anti-soda crusade) might not be good for the country. If things that worked for New York were good for everyone, he said, we’d all have a naked cowboy. What? It takes a real Manhattan provincial to imagine that the South Carolina electorate, never mind the rest of the country, knows about New York’s naked cowboy.

Bloomberg shouldn’t try to tell jokes. He is Mr. Burns from the Simpsons. People are not going to like him. They just want him to use all his money to help make Trump go away.

It’s a rescue fantasy that, after Bloomberg’s two debates, requires the same kind of energy to sustain that it takes to imagine enjoying one of those cruises advertised on CBS during commercial breaks — quick, don’t think about coronavirus. Now imagine a massive movement of voters carrying Bloomberg to victory.

See what I mean?

There was a lot of chat on Twitter about the apparently pro-Bloomberg crowd, which cheered his wan answers. From whence did this enthusiastic fan base materialize?

Here’s a clue about how debate audience demographics:

“Voters hoping to attend the Democratic presidential debate in Charleston this month will be hard-pressed to find guaranteed tickets unless they pay thousands of dollars as a sponsor,” reported Live5News out of Charleston. 

According to the Charleston County Democratic Party, the only way to guarantee a ticket was to pony up between $1,750 and $3,200, Live5News reported.

No wonder it seemed like a surprisingly friendly forum for Bloomberg—and frequently a hostile one for Sanders.

Overall it was a pretty awful debate. The CBS moderators kept no control of the clock; the candidates bickered and talked over one another. Unlike the Nevada debate, which was fascinating to watch as a kind of morality play in which a billionaire gets taken down by his own hubris, this one was all over the map.

There was not a single question on climate change.

Most of the candidates spent most of the night telling us why Sanders cannot defeat Trump and why it will be an unmitigated disaster if he wins the nomination.

Tom Steyer got particularly carried away on this point, predicting that not only the House and Senate but states across the country would turn red if Bernie runs against Trump, transforming the whole nation into one big gerrymandered GOP hellscape.

Of course if Steyer is so worried about the Democrats coalescing around a more electable candidate, he could just end his vanity candidacy now and let the coalescing begin.

But despite all the dire warnings about Sanders, none of the also-rans seem to want to get out of the way and throw their support to someone with a snowball’s chance in South Carolina.

Anyway, as Sanders pointed out, multiple polls show him leading Trump, and he clearly has amassed enough grassroots support to become the favorite for the nomination.

What gives, Democrats? Weren’t the same worried establishment types who are trotting out all the Cuba/communism/we’re-all-going-to-die attacks on Sanders the same people who kept telling us we have to line up behind the eventual nominee, no matter how distasteful that person might be (looking at you, crazy Bernie voters)?

Now the shoe is on the other foot, and the Democratic Party would apparently rather commit collective suicide than get behind its frontrunner. Sanders’ electability problem is a self-fulfilling prophecy. His party is determined to do as much damage as possible to his chances, even as the rest of the splintered field continues its fruitless bickering.

OK, it’s true, Biden did well—for Biden. He seems to have taken a page from Sanders by yelling in a loud monotone — almost unlistenable to my ears, but apparently a hit with someone. You get the feeling that yelling helps Biden stay focused. He was pretty well focused. Until he clearly forgot what he was saying in one answer and then ran out the clock, saying “I don’t know why I’m stopping, no one else does,” and then bantering with the CBS moderators about what a gentleman he was, as if that didn’t prove that he could have used his time to finish whatever the hell he was saying.

Buttigieg showed some teeth, laying into Sanders for daring to praise Cuba’s high literacy rates, and then snarkily talking over him as he answered, so you couldn’t hear either one of them very well. Between that and Biden’s yelling, plus a big dollop of Red-baiting, it was a free-for-all on Sanders.

Biden, adopting the posture of President Obama’s defender, denied (falsely) that Obama, like Sanders, noted Cuba’s impressive health-care and education systems — even while he, and Sanders, denounced Cuban government’s authoritarianism.

Subtlety is lost in debates. Which is why Sanders should not spend so much time explaining leftwing foreign policy positions from the 1980s. In that, Buttigieg was right, if mean-spirited.

Still, you have to hand it to Sanders. What other candidate would point out the immoral history of CIA involvement in Latin America, or declare that Israel has a rightwing racist government and that, as a Jew, he has to support justice for the Palestinians?

It’s breathtaking to hear those truths from someone who is very close to becoming a major party nominee. Sanders survived by being himself — honest, straightforward, and unintimidated. It’s why his supporters love him. And why he emerged from the debate as the clear winner.

Maybe he could even make that approach work in the general election. We don’t know. But here’s the deal, as Biden would say: Sanders is the likely nominee. And sooner or later, Democrats are going to have to support him.

It’s getting later.

(This piece was published simultaneously by the Examiner and the Progressive.)

Ruth Conniff
Ruth Conniff is Editor-in-chief of the Wisconsin Examiner. She formerly served as Editor-in-chief of The Progressive Magazine, and opened the Progressive’s office in Washington, DC, during the Clinton Administration, where she made her debut as a political pundit on CNN’s Capital Gang Sunday and Fox News. She moved to Oaxaca, Mexico, for a year in 2017, where she covered U.S./Mexico relations, the migrant caravan, and Mexico’s efforts to grapple with Donald Trump. Conniff is a frequent guest on All in with Chris Hayes on MSNBC and has appeared on Good Morning America, Democracy Now!, Wisconsin Public Radio, and other radio and television programs. In 2011, she did award-winning coverage of the uprising against Governor Scott Walker in Wisconsin. She has also written for The Nation, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Los Angeles Times, among other publications. Conniff graduated from Yale University in 1990, where she ran track and edited the campus magazine The New Journal.