Politics

Democrats Effectively Demonstrate That There Are Too Many Democratic Candidates Left

Buttigieg and Sanders gesture at each other from their lecterns as Warren stands between them.
Pete Buttigieg, Elizabeth Warren, and Bernie Sanders in Charleston, South Carolina, on Tuesday.
Win McNamee/Getty Images

History, it’s said, repeats itself first as tragedy, and then as f—[LOUD CROSSTALK] [LOUD CROSSTALK] SENATOR, THAT IS— [GARBLED] WHAT HE SAID IS ABSOLUTELY UNTRUE [SHOUTING] FIDEL CASTRO [BOOING] DENMARK!?!?! [CHEERING] CANDIDATES! CANDIDATES! PLEASE RESPECT THE RULES—

Sorry! Got carried away there in the manner of Tuesday’s Democratic debate in Charleston, South Carolina—a sequel to last Wednesday’s eventful contest in Las Vegas that went a little too heavy on the original’s much-praised fighting spirit. While the Las Vegas debate’s confrontations about high-stakes subjects were entertaining and informative for voters who might still be trying to differentiate between candidates, Charleston’s could probably best be summarized by this heroically transcribed stretch during which Pete Buttigieg and Bernie Sanders talked over each other about whether the latter’s comments about Castro’s Cuba betrayed an unacceptable sympathy for radicalism:

CBS MODERATOR MARGARET BRENNAN: Sen. Sanders, your response. 

SANDERS: Let us be clear, do we think health care for all, Pete, is some kind of radical communist idea? 

(CROSSTALK)

BUTTIGIEG: Well, you brought this up, let’s talk about that. 

(CROSSTALK)

SANDERS: Do we think raising the minimum wage to a living wage…

(CROSSTALK)

BUTTIGIEG: I’m happy to respond to the question because this is really important…

(CROSSTALK)

SANDERS: … do we think building the millions of units of affordable housing that we need…

(CROSSTALK)

BUTTIGIEG: If you’re going to ask that rhetorical question, let’s…

(CROSSTALK)

SANDERS: … do we think raising taxes on billionaires is a radical idea? 

(CROSSTALK)

BUTTIGIEG: Let’s talk about this. Let’s talk about what’s radical about that plan. 

(CROSSTALK)

SANDERS: Do you think criminal justice reform is a radical idea? 

(CROSSTALK)

BUTTIGIEG: The things you just named are things…

(CROSSTALK)

SANDERS: Do you think immigration reform? The truth is, Pete…

(CROSSTALK)

BRENNAN: One at a time. 

(CROSSTALK)

SANDERS: … the American people support my agenda.

(CROSSTALK)

BUTTIGIEG: The way you’re talking about doing it is radical by…

(CROSSTALK)

SANDERS: That is why I am beating Trump in virtually every poll that is done, and why I will defeat him. 

(CROSSTALK)

BUTTIGIEG: We’ve got to open this up. Universal health care, for example… 

(At this point, Brennan moved on to Klobuchar, who got into her own fight with Sanders by calling him “alienating.”)

Is “candidate’s position on 1960s Cuba” going to be a top-of-mind concern on Super Tuesday? Probably not. Should Sanders have judiciously dropped the subject instead of stubbornly insisting that you can praise Fidel Castro’s literacy programs while deploring his human rights record? Probably. Was Buttigieg’s hippie/red-baiting disingenuous, and did he get so carried away with it that he accidentally ended up denouncing the civil rights movement? Definitely. But did that stop either of them from talking at the other peevishly? Nope!

A large part of this was the fault of CBS’s moderators, who seemed to be goading the candidates into arguing while being completely unprepared to deal with their argumentativeness. In the first hour of the debate they asked Joe Biden why his poll numbers are slipping with black voters, then brought up, for the nth time, the issue of whether Sanders can really pay for “Medicare for All”—two non-illuminating “electability” subjects that don’t advance anyone’s understanding of racial inequities or medical costs but do provide a trigger for everyone onstage to butt in with a prepared sound bite about their own case for beating Donald Trump.

But just as big of a problem was the sheer number of Democrats trying to make their case, which was higher this week than last because self-funding progressive investor Tom Steyer, who’d missed the cut for Las Vegas, qualified for Charleston at the last minute. Sanders is leading the field, but he’s an unorthodox front-runner whose socialist self-labeling leads many in the party to fear a general election wipeout; he’s followed by four other candidates who are within seven points of each other and two who have just enough support to convince themselves that they should hang around in case everyone else self-defenestrates. None of these people have an incentive to do the above-the-fray, confident thing; they’re all trying to convey as urgently as possible that they are the candidate who is forceful, compelling, reasonable, empathetic, and inspiring enough to deserve your vote. There is just no way for seven people to do that in two hours without repeatedly trying to shove everyone else out of the way, especially when they all come prepared, because of last week’s explosiveness, to do a lot of shoving.

There were some moments of usefully clear communication. Elizabeth Warren talked about her own life-disrupting early-20s pregnancy before bringing up the allegation, from an employee lawsuit, that Michael Bloomberg once recommended that a subordinate “kill” her own fetus. (He denies it, though the Washington Post found a corroborating witness.) Pete Buttigieg compared the filibuster-enabled blockade of gun legislation to South Carolina white supremacist Strom Thurmond’s blockade of desegregation laws, gave an answer about supporting public education that was nicely tied to his husband’s job as a teacher, and generally seemed less frantic than everyone else even when he was doing his interrupting. Joe Biden, who otherwise responded to every question by BARKING INDIGNANTLY ABOUT HOW HE GOT THINGS DONE WITH OBAMA, got Sanders to admit that he’d cast a “bad vote” when he helped defeat a bill that would have allowed gun manufacturers to be held liable for harm caused by their products. Even Bloomberg, after his now-ritual humiliation by Warren, gave sensible-sounding answers about public health and marijuana.

These moments happened during brief periods of calm that emerged in the tumult of the debate’s first hour or so. In the second hour, the moderators mostly got the crosstalk under control, but only by going from candidate to candidate asking perplexingly pointed gotcha questions about relatively minor issues, as if to help hypothetical opponents nail them with negative ads about their weakness and lack of patriotism. The looming threat of a coronavirus pandemic was barely mentioned, and when it was, it was brought up not to compare the details of the candidates’s crisis-management plans, but in order to challenge Klobuchar to say whether she’d close the border to prevent infected U.S. citizens from returning home. Warren was asked skeptically to explain how removing combat troops from the Middle East would “protect America’s national security,” and then time was for some reason spent asking three candidates separately whether they would “allow Chinese firms to build critical U.S. infrastructure.” Joe Biden got asked whether he would “launch a retaliatory cyberattack” against Russia if it continued interfering in U.S. elections, and three more candidates were surveyed on whether the U.S. should move its Israeli Embassy back to Tel Aviv from Jerusalem—a subject that squeezes one of the nation’s most long-running and vexing diplomatic problems, Israeli-Palestinian relations, down to a yes/no question about a single provocative decision by the Trump administration.

With nobody in control of the debate, and with nobody able to take charge under the circumstances, the positive way to look at things is that voters in South Carolina and the Super Tuesday states will have to make their choice based on blind-flying determinations about who the best candidate would be rather than whose nomination seems most inevitable. Given the levels of indecision and self-second-guessing that the Democratic electorate has thus far demonstrated, though, it is not certain that this will actually help narrow the field by March 15, when the next debate is set to take place in Phoenix. In other words, there’s still time for Hillary, Al Gore, and newly retired Disney CEO Bob Iger to jump in the race. Just kidding! Maybe!