A ‘messy, chaotic and embarrassing’ night at South Carolina debate (opinion)

Tuesday night’s debate was somewhere between an episode of “The Jerry Springer Show” and a “Real Housewives” reunion: messy, chaotic and embarrassing for nearly everyone involved. It was inevitable that, as the stakes have grown higher in the battle for the Democratic presidential nomination, there would be a greater sense of urgency among the candidates to stand out. But that did not mean the event had to devolve into a free-for-all.

It is hard to come up with positive take on this debate, as we’ve heard most of these candidates’ message before. Although former Mayor Michael Bloomberg marginally improved on his disastrous debate debut last week, that’s an awfully low bar to clear. Ditto for former Vice President Joe Biden. He was more energetic and passionate than usual, but that did not necessarily make him more effective on stage.

Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar was absolutely right when she declared that “If we spend the next four months tearing the party apart, we will watch Donald Trump spend the next four years tearing the country apart.” There was way too much infighting at this debate, which is troubling given that all of these candidates will have to coalesce around the eventual nominee. Memo to the candidates (or as Bloomberg referred to them, his “fellow contestants”): Your rivals are not the enemy. Trump is the enemy.

There were plenty of low points in this dismal evening. The moderators did a poor job reining in the candidates, allowing them to jump in, seemingly at random, and then cutting them off, just as randomly. The candidates outdid themselves in pandering to African American voters. Bloomberg’s attempts at jokes, from kidding about how well he had done at the last debate to name-checking “The Naked Cowboy,” were pathetic. The Bloomberg commercial that ran during the debate only served to further the notion that he is trying to buy the nomination.

And once again, the lack of any significant discussion of immigration in a Democratic debate was notable. California and Texas, the two states with the country’s largest Latino populations, vote on Super Tuesday — and so overlooking this critical topic was inexcusable.

Raul A. Reyes is an attorney and a member of the USA Today board of contributors. Follow him on Twitter @RaulAReyes.

Sarah Isgur: Sanders is gonna need Elizabeth Warren’s help

Elizabeth Warren proved once again that she was the most effective candidate at scoring points against her opponents on the stage. Her repeated attacks on Michael Bloomberg’s record were accessible, articulate, and most importantly, got the job done. But, of course, Bloomberg isn’t the front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination. Bernie Sanders is.

On the other hand, because of the Democrat’s proportional allocation of delegates in this primary process, Bloomberg’s self-funded candidacy with its nearly limitless ad budget does have the possibility of gaining enough traction to prevent Sanders from getting the 1,991 delegates he needs to clinch the nomination.

Given her experience before joining the Senate, Warren easily could have run her presidential campaign as the anti-corruption, non-ideological author of The Two Income Trap focused on a middle-class economic message. Instead, she spent the majority of 2019 drafting behind Sanders, making the case that she was the most viable alternative for progressive voters if and when Sanders’ campaign collapsed. It didn’t.

At 70 years old, it is hard to imagine she is thinking about another presidential run in four years, but she can use her time on the stage to showcase her immense political talent to Sanders’ supporters. And for his part, Sanders has shown that he can energize his base and sell his economic message, but as the likely nominee, he will need a vice president who can defend his policies and prosecute the case against Donald Trump. Tonight, Elizabeth made the case against Bloomberg– and for a place on the Sanders’ ticket.

Sarah Isgur is a CNN political analyst. She has worked on three Republican presidential campaigns and is an adjunct professor at George Washington University’s School of Media and Public Affairs. She is a graduate of Harvard Law School.

Errol Louis: Bloomberg makes a compelling case for a moderate

Errol Louis

Mayor Michael Bloomberg fought his way back into contention in the Democratic primary for president by obeying a simple rule: never let an attack go unanswered. Unlike last week’s disastrous debate, the ex-mayor of New York came out swinging.

“Russia is helping you get elected,” he said to Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders when the question of foreign election interference came up.

“We cannot continue to relitigate this every time,” he told Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren when she brought up charges of workplace discrimination by ex-employees of Bloomberg’s business.

And, for good measure, he threw in a quick breakdown of the size of the multi-trillion-dollar federal budget, noting that the US government has $20 trillion in debt, concluding that, “We just cannot afford some of the stuff people talk about.”

The single most important statement Bloomberg made was an electability argument, aimed at nervous moderate Democrats.

“If you keep on going, we will elect Bernie — Bernie will lose to Donald Trump. And the House and the Senate and some of the statehouses will all go red,” Bloomberg said. “And then between gerrymandering and appointing judges, for the next 20 or 30 years, we’re going to live with this catastrophe.”

It’s an important argument, and one that can’t easily be conveyed in commercials. But a campaign ad is exactly where a bluntly political case can and should be made.

Sanders retorted by citing a string of polls showing him beating President Donald Trump in key midwestern states. Bloomberg dismissed the numbers.

Can anybody imagine moderate Republicans voting for [Sanders]? You have to do it, or you can’t win.”

That is Bloomberg’s central argument: that a billionaire ex-Republican has the kind of crossover appeal needed to win independent and moderate Republican voters. Will Democratic voters buy it? We’ll find out a week from now when the Super Tuesday states allocate nearly a quarter of the delegates needed to select a Democratic nominee.

Errol Louis is the host of “Inside City Hall,” a nightly political show on NY1, a New York all-news channel.

Jen Psaki: Despite his Castro comments, Sanders may be unstoppable

Jen Psaki

It took 10 primary debates, but tonight Bernie Sanders was finally treated like the Democratic frontrunner. And all of the other candidates’ opposition research and prepared attacks on Sanders’ record on gun safety, his vague answers on how he will pay for his plans and questions about whether his proposals would hurt candidates up and down came spilling out in the first half.

But the toughest exchange was around his defense of statements he’d made praising some aspects of Fidel Castro’s Cuba, such as advances in literacy and health care (he also denounced the leader’s dictatorship). Remarkably, he seemed surprised, he doubled down and he got angry. After a confusing, loud and at times out of control debate, it may not be a moment that slows Bernie Sanders’ momentum, but it was a clear indication that his opponents know that he is on the verge of being unstoppable.

Jen Psaki, a CNN political commentator, was the White House communications director and State Department spokeswoman during the Obama administration. She is vice president of communications and strategy at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Follow her at @jrpsaki.

Scott Jennings: Debate was Buttigieg’s weakest performance

Scott Jennings

It’s hard to pick a winner tonight, but if I had to, I would say probably former Vice President Joe Biden. He was sharp early on and likely did enough to stave off Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders in Saturday’s South Carolina primary. Biden certainly faded in the home stretch, but he seemed to grasp it was now or never for his campaign. His answers on Cuba and Russia election meddling were just laughable, though.

But the question is: did anyone do a thing to stop Sanders’ probable path to winning at least a plurality of delegates? It’s doubtful. Sanders had some weak moments — even seeming bored at times — but he largely stuck to the messages that have built his front-runner status, from Medicare for All to promises of free public college.

While his opponents attacked him early on, they largely forgot about hammering Sanders after the first few minutes. And he just plowed forward because he knows his people aren’t moved by the costs of his radical plans or attacks on his past voting records.

This debate was former Mayor Pete Buttigieg’s weakest debate, matching what will likely be a weak showing for in the state primary. Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, too, seemed to be out of gas, and her material was really stale (Uncle Dick’s deer stand needs to be retired pronto). Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren landed a couple of punches and had a decent moment or two, but was it a momentum building night? No.

Meanwhile, Tom Steyer seems useless in all these debates, though he’s polling better in South Carolina than in other states. Mike Bloomberg vastly improved, but it would have been harder to get any worse compared to his maiden voyage last week. His jokes were pretty bad, but he had some sharp moments on foreign policy and charter schools that would appeal to moderate voters.

Overall, this debate was a mess. There was more crosstalk than usual, the moderators were weak, and the production was not well-executed. When Andrew Yang dropped out, every ounce of likability was drained from the Democratic debate stage.

Scott Jennings, a CNN contributor, is a former special assistant to President George W. Bush and a former campaign adviser to Sen. Mitch McConnell. He is a partner at RunSwitch Public Relations in Louisville, Kentucky. Follow him on Twitter @ScottJenningsKY.

Frida Ghitis: Excruciating night for undecided voters

Frida Ghitis

The 10th debate of the Democratic primary season was not just a wild and chaotic affair, it was a confusing and un-useful exercise for undecided Democrats–desperate to make their choice as time runs out to select a nominee. Bernie Sanders leads in the polls, but most Democrats prefer someone else. The undecided are torn among the choices, dividing their preference and leaving Sanders in the lead.

The excruciating debate did not help.

Elizabeth Warren played Sanders wing woman, repeatedly attacking former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and thus deflecting attention away from Sanders, who had what is probably his worst debate yet. Warren appears to be aiming to be Sanders’ running mate

Bloomberg was not the disaster of his first debate, but he came across as aloof and cold. His attempts at humor fell harmlessly flat. But he scored points when he asked, “Can anyone imagine moderate Republicans voting for him?” He’s right. Sanders’ defense of the achievements of socialist dictatorships will fill President Donald Trump’s campaign ads.

Joe Biden had his best night yet, and his many fans in South Carolina are no doubt pleased with his performance. He passionately highlighted the accomplishments of his long career, from the Violence Against Women Act to gun control and foreign policy.

Pete Buttigieg is pretty close to perfect on just about every topic. Smart, thoughtful, controlled. He framed the risk precisely when he said we can’t afford a choice between Trump’s nostalgia for the 1950s and Sanders’ nostalgia for the socialism of the 1960s.

Buttigieg will make a great candidate one day, in the future. He’s had a great debut on the national stage. Now it’s time for those who claim Democrats need to unite to make the ultimate sacrifice. Why is Tom Steyer still running? And Biden, Bloomberg, Amy Klobuchar and Buttigieg–they need to decide if they want Sanders to be the nominee. If they all stay in the race, Sanders will win the primary race.

The night left the Democrats undecided and divided. That made it a great night for Trump.

Frida Ghitis, a former CNN producer and correspondent, is a world affairs columnist. She is a frequent opinion contributor to CNN, a contributing columnist to the Washington Post and a columnist for World Politics Review. Follow her on Twitter @fridaghitis.

Aaron David Miller: Four key debate questions answered

Aaron David Miller

Before Tuesday’s debate — best described as a political circus with the moderators all but losing control — I identified four main questions that needed to be answered. And to the extent these contests matter now that Americans are actually voting, they may have a bearing on what is to come.

The first is a simple matter of arithmetic — mainly subtraction. Now that there are actual votes and delegates distributed, how do the candidates who do not have a particularly good night and who lagged behind in Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada justify staying in race? Tom Steyer and Mike Bloomberg have deep pockets and can ride it out even though their road may lead nowhere. But what about Amy Klobuchar and Elizabeth Warren, and even Pete Buttigieg? They all had strong performances, but will they have any momentum coming out of South Carolina and into Super Tuesday?

Second, what kind of night did Bloomberg have? Not bad compared to his last performance. He did make a compelling point on the logic of electability and scored points on his record in New York City. (Nonetheless, Warren came for him a second time.) But Bloomberg just doesn’t project empathy, his rhetorical skills are terrible, he has no sense of humor and his efforts to bond and relate on a personal level largely fall flat.

Third, did Joe Biden have the much-needed debate of his life? Not exactly. But his interventions were strong and confident. He projected strength, experience and comfort being on the debate stage in a way we have not seen before.

Fourth, and perhaps most important, was Bernie Sanders hurt? He was hammered — and was hit hard especially by Buttigieg and Warren. But he survived. The attacks on Bloomberg deflected much of the heat. Where Sanders disappointed was his failure to explain what his democratic socialism really means — and to separate it from his past positive comments on Cuba and Nicaragua.

Aaron David Miller is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and author of “The End of Greatness: Why America Can’t Have (and Doesn’t Want) Another Great President.” Miller was a State Department Middle East analyst negotiator in Democratic and Republican administrations.

Tara Setmayer: Joe Biden is finally back in the game

Tara Setmayer

Moderates across the country exhaled a collective sigh of relief after Tuesday’s debate. Joe Biden is back.

It was clear the former Vice President was much more comfortable and cogent on the debate stage this time around in South Carolina. Perhaps Biden’s performance benefited from the warmest audience reception he’s received yet this election cycle in a state where he’s forged long standing political relationships with elected officials and party leaders. Most importantly he’s earned the good will of a considerable number of black voters who make up 60% of the Democratic electorate.

Biden effectively took on Sanders when given the opportunity, particularly on foreign policy and guns. When it came down to tangible policy accomplishments and experience, Biden consistently reminded voters that he was the one of the only ones on that stage who’s actually accomplished things legislatively — and who has the rapport and respect of world leaders.

With his signature erudite precision, Pete Buttigieg may have landed the most damaging blows against Bernie Sanders as he exposed the vulnerabilities of a Sanders candidacy in the general election. But Biden also successfully put Sanders on defense more so than at any other point of the campaign. I suspect a more coordinated effort on this front will emerge as Sanders’ record of controversial statements and proposals is more closely scrutinized.

If Biden wins South Carolina, as many polls predict, it should rejuvenate conversations about his viability as the Democratic nominee and slow down the premature talk of Sanders’ running away with the primary. We’ve still got a long way to go.

Tara Setmayer is a former GOP communications director, host of the “Honestly Speaking with Tara” podcast, a Harvard Institute of Politics 2020 Resident Fellow and a CNN political contributor. Follow her on Twitter @tarasetmayer.

Chris King: Democrats did little to reach voters of faith

Chris King

As a progressive and an entrepreneur, a lifelong Democrat and evangelical Christian, and as the 2018 Democratic nominee for Lieutenant Governor of Florida that fell 30,000 votes short of flipping Florida blue, I have received a world class education in how hard it is to beat Donald Trump.

Here is what I learned:

If Trump is even remotely able to brand you a socialist, you lose. Game over. A countless number of Americans have seen the ravages of socialism around the world and they demand their leaders appreciate that. Senator Bernie Sanders starts with a deep disadvantage here. His inability tonight to explain how many “trillions” of dollars it will take to enact his policies and his refusal to back down from praising Fidel Castro will only exacerbate a concern that he fundamentally misunderstands and trivializes the issue.

The unaddressed issue: right now, Trump owns “white” faith voters. He has exploited them but barely understands them. Unfortunately, tonight’s debate didn’t do enough to reach out to them. You don’t win Florida, North Carolina or the industrial Midwest if you can’t win over a share of these voters. Voters want to hear an alternative vision of faith in pursuit of the common good, one that is kind, compassionate and inclusive.

Perhaps the greatest contribution any Democrat can make by winning in November will be ridding the nation and the world of the divisive, ugly, and incompetent leadership of Donald Trump. That would be a triumph on its own, and if the candidates agreed on one thing tonight, it’s that they are unified in that mission.

Chris King was the 2018 Democratic nominee for lieutenant governor of Florida. He is the CEO of Elevation Financial Group in Orlando. Follow him on Twitter @ChrisKingFL.

Nayyera Haq: In South Carolina, an exam of Bloomberg’s track record

Nayyera Haq
In a debate that was otherwise all over the place, the candidates honed in on painting Bloomberg as the Republican on stage. It was clear they all feel threatened by the candidate who won’t face a primary contest until March 3. With more than $450 million spent in just three months of campaigning, Bloomberg has aggressively taken to airwaves, spending roughly $10 million on a commercial airing during the Super Bowl, and countless others airing during the debate itself. His moderate messaging, combined with the ability to fight Trump on financially equal footing, makes Bloomberg appealing to many general election voters — including a growing list of black mayor endorsements — but first Bloomberg has to appeal to a Democratic primary voter before he can get the nod to take the fight to Trump.
The South Carolina debate made it very difficult for Bloomberg to position himself as tried-and-true Democrat. He was first elected Mayor of New York City in 2001 as a Republican, an identity he maintained through his reelection. More recently, from 2012 to 2016, Bloomberg funded conservative Republican Senate candidates (though he’s donated to liberal campaigns as well). Elizabeth Warren noted this fact, calling him “the riskiest candidate standing on this stage,” and stating that “the core of the Democratic party will not trust him.”

Moderators directed questions to Bloomberg that only highlighted his moderate-to-conservative policies, ranging from his support for using public funding for charter schools, to praising Trump’s ballooning military budget and advocating for combat troops around the world, to downplaying China’s human rights abuses in the interest of economic and climate negotiations.

The irony is that Bloomberg has used his time and philanthropy to advance progressive causes. He had a good debate moment when he gave a shout out to his investment in the grassroots gun control movement, Moms Demand Action. Bloomberg has also invested deeply in public health but wasn’t able to pivot to those data points when asked about soda taxes and trans fats bans. He has been a leader on climate change, bringing cities together to voluntarily change their infrastructure regulations to adapt and mitigate for climate change — but that topic was notably absent from the discussion.
A discussion on the Supreme Court and Trump’s recent attacks on justices was notably missing, and would have given Bloomberg an opening to tout his pro-choice stance and opposition to the nomination of Justice John Roberts. Bloomberg will need to dance more nimbly at future debates and create room to talk about his Democratic-friendly policies if he wants to sync with loyal primary voters; otherwise, the other candidates will only continue to box him in.
Nayyera Haq is a host on SiriusXM Progress and CEO of an international communications firm. She served in the Obama administration as a senior adviser in the State Department and a senior director in the White House.

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