Ben’s Bench: The Democratic Debate that wasn’t

Hannah Donahue

I want to start this off with an apology. In my last election editorial, I questioned the seemingly crazy decision on the part of Deval Patrick to enter the Democratic race in a rather, retrospectively speaking, crude manner. Although I attempted to mix serious commentary with a dash of humor, feedback I received from multiple readers did not respond to this attempt too well, and I can admit when I do wrong. Thus, if you ever end up reading this, Mr. Patrick, I sincerely apologize for judging you as harshly as I did; after all, I don’t anyone could have screwed up the Democratic primary more at this point than the Columbia Broadcasting System did on Tuesday, Feb. 25. 

The Democratic Debate in Charleston was a “debate” in name only, thanks to CBS’ apparent lack of moderation on the candidates it was supposed to moderate and lead a clear-cut and peaceful discussion with; as a result, what I really witnessed that night was a collection of highly accomplished bullhorns attempting to drown each other out with talking points, accusations, and numerous instances of participants talking over one another, ignoring Gayle King’s ineffective finger wags and Margaret Brennan’s calls for decorum throughout. As entertaining as it ended up being – even comical at times due to the constant commotion – it’s a sign that the Democratic party is not just stuck at the fork in the road, but is under threat of going into reverse and backtracking their electoral progress thus far. 

It didn’t help that the leader of the pack, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), entered the ring with newly-acquired frontrunner baggage and thus found himself constantly under fire. It also didn’t help that, throughout the debate, the progressive crusader who conquered Nevada and New Hampshire with a youth-powered socialist uprising seemed to barely be able to withstand the storm of strikes against his platform. From Pete Buttigieg’s Yang-inspired “math” attacks on the cost of his agenda (“$50 trillion” in the long-term) and linking of Sanders’ candidacy to the “revolutionary politics” of the 1960s, to Michael Bloomberg’s startling assertions that Russia was aiming to boost Sanders to the nomination in spite of the establishment’s second serving of disdain for the popular septuagenarian, it was the Bernie this time around that truly felt the “Bern,” and he did little but repeat his key points (Medicare-for-all, $15 minimum wage, “socialists” are not radical communists, etc.) to less avail than previous outings, all of which made him and his conductor’s arms look uncomfortably cornered and restrained. 

Sanders additionally seemed to trip himself up at times, especially on the subject of gun control. As he bragged about his D- minus voting record from the National Rifle Association (NRA), he also opened himself up to concerns about his mixed voting record. While his official website states that his presidency would “Expand background checks,” “End the gun show loophole” and “Ban the sale and distribution of assault weapons,” PolitiFact reported just 15 days prior to the debate that he also voted against the 1993 Brady Bill, which imposed a five-day waiting period for buying firearms, and voted for a bill that safeguarded gun makers from lawsuits just a year after voting for an assault weapon ban in 2004. If 2020’s Joe Biden begins bashing you for your hybrid history of bringing guns to bear but not their distributors, then you know your message is in need of a fix. 

Speaking of Joe Biden, the former vice president finally had a decent performance on Tuesday: no outrageous stories, few mental gaffes, on-point attacks on Sanders and a passionate definitiveness that his last debate outings were sorely lacking, even if his attacks on other opponents did not pan out as well as he had hoped (such as his remarks on prisons which we will get to shortly). While I hope his stronger showing was not solely because his second-place ranking in Nevada and the fact that South Carolina has become an actual battleground state as of late – Sanders and billionaire Tom Steyer are gaining up on Biden’s former “firewall” of black support – it proves that he is still a big contender in this race, and that he could do enough damage to slow down Sanders’ outwardly inevitable clutch on the nomination; otherwise, 2020 is bound to be a battle of equally outrageous extremes. 

When the candidates did not unitedly aim their artillery at the Einstein-resembling frontrunner, they held isolated squabbles of their own, with three standing out in order of their ascending impact on the night: Biden v. Steyer, Buttigieg v. Sanders, and Elizabeth Warren v. Michael Bloomberg.  

Most of the Biden-Steyer feud emerged from the former’s accusations against Steyer – who also improved slightly since his last debate showing back on Feb. 7 – and his apparent hand in backing the Corrections Corporation of America – America’s largest prison company – and rumors of corruption that followed his hedge-fund’s investments in their private prisons despite claims of mistreatment against certain minority populations. Despite Biden’s possible hypocrisy given the Obama administration’s own financial generosity toward the company, the real threat nearly came from Steyer, where a viral photo shows him edging in on Sen. Amy Klobuchar’s (D-MN) podium space to confront Biden and trapping her in the middle of their fiery back-and-forth…not that he might have had to worry about such things anyhow given his wealth, as Klobuchar explained to CNN the following day.  

Meanwhile, Buttigieg v. Sanders reenacted every generation’s most common conflict of the young against the old, only with a slight twist: this time, it’s Mayor Pete playing the moderate card and attempting to calm down the crazy old man and wants to avoid “reliving” the Cold War, while Bernie insists that the younger South-Bender is complacent to what he sees as dated fear over socialism and exaggerations about his divisive impact on the left wing on the whole, even when he gets blasted for praising governments like China, Cuba and Nicaragua for enacting socialistic policies and lifting parts of their populations out of poverty. Unfortunately, their quarrel brought Buttigieg’s nightmare to life as it relived the Cold War and left a comparable anxiety about American socialism in their wake. 

Then you have Warren and Bloomberg. And man, was this one a doozy. 

First of all, Bloomberg cannot seem to catch a break with this whole non-disclosure agreement controversy hanging over his head, especially when he vowed to release several women from their NDAs and still faced flak for alleged female mistreatment at his company. On the one hand, I can feel Bloomberg’s frustration that opponents like Warren keep egging him on about the controversy despite releasing women from the NDAs and vowing against future agreements when first pressured to, and that other issues deserve both their attentions as well; in other words, “enough is never enough.” From the looks of it, Bloomberg is far from resembling Weinstein.  

On the other hand, however, Warren is not crazy to suggest that if there are indeed women who might have faced discrimination at Bloomberg’s places of employment, they deserve to tell their story and bring about improved work environments across the board, even if they are limited to comments Bloomberg might have said. Take it from me, Mike: it is better to not make pejorative comments you think are funny about someone (aka, my previous comments about Deval Patrick) than to make them and risk your reputation for a cheap laugh; that’s how people lose trust in you.  

That being said: if Bloomberg is found innocent of these claims, then Warren – whose sole other role saw her attempting to present herself as the less controversial socialist in the room – wasted her time on a well-intended fight. If true, though, no amount of money is going to grant a tainted billionaire a shot at the White House. 

With all the chaos that occurred on Tuesday, Klobuchar endeavored to ease the anxiety in the room by stressing that the debate is about more than the person who speaks the best; in the worst of ways, she was half-right. Tuesday was not about who spoke the best, but who spoke the loudest and could stir up the most conflict to boost their political relevancy. With these many first-rate candidates still in the stretch – combined with even more intraparty warfare thanks to AOC’s intentions to fund progressive Democrat challengers to moderate incumbents within her own wing – the Democrats better be praying that Saturday’s South Carolina contest and the following Super Tuesday bloodbath gives the Democrats some indication of who’s in charge; because should it not, all that frontrunner hot air from the likes of Sanders and Biden barely keeping the race afloat right now is bound to cool down, sending the entire competition – and possibly the “blue wave” itself – to a crashing halt. 

After all, Trump would love nothing more than a low tide.