Tuesday night’s Democratic debate hosted by CBS in Charleston, SC was, by any objective standard, a huge mess and the worst debate of this election cycle. Possibly the worst debate of the twenty-first century. The moderation could be most charitably described as “absent” and moderators Gail King and Norah O’Donnell have been roundly criticized on social media for silly questions and allowing the candidates to continually speak over one another. It’s a bit puzzling how a major network could screw up what was likely the most important debate for the majority of the candidates—last week’s debate in Nevada drew more viewers than any debate in television history and it’s inconceivable that CBS wouldn’t be aware of how many eyes were watching, yet within the first fifteen minutes things had already begun to spiral out of control. 

All the action seemed to excite the crowd into a frenzy and there was plenty of hooting and hollering from the audience, so much so that it became impossible to discern if they were booing the comment a candidate was currently making, or the comment to which they were responding, or just the candidate themselves.

Bloomberg, Sanders, Biden, and Steyer

Mike Bloomberg seemed to have some very vocal support in the audience, which immediately led to accusations that Bloomberg had stacked the audience with supporters. Although the cheapest tickets for the event were priced at an unusual $1,750 and were reserved for high-end donors and sponsors of the debate, the Bloomberg campaign, already accused of attempting to almost-literally buy the election, has denied any such audience tampering. Yet the credibility of the campaign and the supposed impartiality of CBS itself was called into question when a campaign ad for Mike Bloomberg was aired on CBS during a commercial break (it also didn’t help that Bloomberg appeared to make a freudian slip and very nearly admit to buying members of Congress their victories).

The South Carolina debate comes after a tumultuous week in which Senator Bernie Sanders cinched his status as undisputed front-runner of the primary with a decisive victory at the Nevada caucus before getting simultaneously attacked with accusations of Russian interference in his campaign and for his recent comments on Cuban literacy programs, so it should come as no surprise that both radioactive topics were featured early and often. Sanders had been expected to face a torrent of attacks in Nevada, but former New York mayor Mike Bloomberg’s presence drew most of the fire and Sanders was able to escape relatively unscathed. This was not the story in South Carolina, where the attacks began immediately and did not let up. The candidates seem to have finally understood that ganging up on Bloomberg is, while very satisfying and a good way to generate cheap heat, not as effective a strategy as ganging up on the candidate currently in first place.

Former front-runner Joe Biden, after a constant slide in national polling that has taken him out of the number one slot, is counting on a win in South Carolina to breath life back into his campaign after one bewildering gaffe after another, the most recent (and hilarious) of which being his baffling and easily-disproved story about being arrested while trying to visit imprisoned South African leader Nelson Mandela. With the primary drawing closer and closer to Super Tuesday, however, he was likely pleased to no longer be the primary target of incoming fire. This gave him an opportunity to go on the offensive, criticizing Tom Steyer for his investment in private prisons and calling him “Tommy Come Lately” when the billionaire replied that he had severed all such financial ties to the industry.

It’s unclear whether this will be enough to stave off Steyer’s encroachment into South Carolina, which has long been considered not simply Biden’s turf but both the base of his support and the fulcrum upon which he intends to leverage his way back into first place. Far more critical to this plan than taking out eighth-place Tom Steyer is getting rid of first-place Bernie Sanders, and Biden continued his usual lines of attack on the democratic socialist Senator from Vermont: calling Sanders’ Medicare For All plan too expensive, too unrealistic, and too radical. To this barrage he added a dash of red-baiting by bringing up the Senator’s earlier praise of Cuba’s literacy programs, either unaware or uncaring that Barack Obama had made largely similar comments in the past. 

Warren and Buttigieg

Senator Elizabeth Warren, struggling after her third and fourth place finishes in previous primaries and caucuses, desperately needed to distinguish herself last night but was in a uniquely tricky spot—she can’t criticize Sanders on policy because she’s spent much of the primary claiming that their policies are nearly identical, and she can’t argue with him on electability grounds because he’s currently wiping the floor with her in an election. Her attacks came from a pragmatic angle, hoping to regain her footing as a progressive candidate that can also appeal to moderates, but polling at fifth place in South Carolina would suggest that she’s no longer appealing to either camp. And with Sanders scheduling two rallies in her home state of Massachusetts, one wonders if staying in the race is worth the potential embarrassment of losing in your own backyard. 

It’s a shame to see Warren flailing—just days ago she released a bold new plan for the legalization of marijuana, and if she exits the only candidate with a plan as progressive as hers is Bernie Sanders. Beyond that we’ve got half-measures from the likes Biden, author of the Crime Bill that incarcerated an entire generation of black men and who still believes the totally debunked “gateway drug” myth; Bloomberg, who claims there “hasn’t been enough research” and wants to slow legalization efforts; and seemingly good drug policies from former South Bend mayor Pete Buttigieg, the guy who was putting young Black men in jail for marijuana possession as recently as three years ago. 

Pete Buttigieg, despite suffering from a terrible cold that has caused him to call off his Florida rallies, seemed the fastest to adapt to the lawless nature of the debate, interrupting other candidates and continually attempting to speak past or over them. Objecting to Bernie Sanders’ repeated criticism of his numerous billionaire donors, Pete complained that “you’ve got people believing something that is false” and took the opportunity to clear up the misunderstanding: these billionaire donors aren’t the backbone of his campaign financing, in fact they’re giving him only several tens of thousands of dollars. But with Super Tuesday looming and Buttigieg languishing behind Sanders and Biden in every single state, he too needs a miracle to survive past March. 

Bernie Sanders weathered the storm of attacks with ease and fought back against a disruptive audience, responding with “Really? Really?” when booed for noting the Cuban dictatorship’s ability to raise literacy and life-expectancy rates. Far from backing down on his progressive positions, he remained true to form and spoke passionately about the need to recognize American imperialism. “Occasionally it might be a good idea to be honest about American foreign policy,” he said, bringing up coups in Iran, Guatemala and Chile that were either sponsored or directed by the United States. It’s clear that even under a continual salvo of attacks, the Sanders tank will trundle forward into Super Tuesday and likely to victory.

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