Moderates just blew their best shot to stop Bernie Sanders

Richard Wolffe
Photograph: Jim Lo Scalzo/EPA

Who is the happy warrior?

Apparently not a single one of the seven Democratic candidates locked in a doom-laden downward spiral in the final debate before Super Tuesday.

The last Democrat to win the presidency printed posters with HOPE slapped all over them. Judging from Tuesday’s debate in South Carolina, most of the party’s leading voices are either breathless or hopeless.

Yes, the stakes are high, after three years of the presidential dumpster fire called Donald Trump. But the stakes sound even higher if your presidential campaign is also on fire, as it seemed to be for just about everyone on stage.

CBS News, the host of the verbal calamity that was Tuesday’s debate, helpfully placed the two least appealing candidates on the outer edges of the stage.

It was a very finely balanced contest between billionaire Mike Bloomberg and billionaire Tom Steyer as to who could win the title of the most bizarre combination of arrogance and incompetence.

In this live human experiment where we all watch wealthy old men burn their money in TV ads and political consultants, Bloomberg and Steyer could barely cough up their pre-digested punchlines.

Bloomberg came out hot for Bernie, turning a question about his favorite subject – the economy – into a convoluted attack about Russian support. It was typical of a candidate who is most often described as data-driven because he is so clearly not human-driven.

“Vladimir Putin thinks that Donald Trump should be president of the United States, and that’s why Russia is helping you get elected, so you will lose to him,” said the former New York mayor.

“Oh, Mr Bloomberg,” said Sanders. Oh Mr Bloomberg. Somehow his consultants didn’t predict that Sanders would look into the camera, accuse the billionaire of cozying up to China’s dictator, and tell Putin to go away.

In contrast it often seemed like Tom Steyer walked on stage without speaking to a single consultant who could tell him the truth about his clunky concoction of a campaign.

Steyer has no conceivable rationale for running since his call for impeaching Trump was overtaken by, well, impeachment. So he began by agreeing with the Democratic frontrunner before making a plea to save the private sector.

“Bernie Sanders’ analysis is right. The difference is, I don’t like his solutions,” Steyer said. “I don’t believe that a government takeover of large parts of the economy makes any sense for working people or for families. I think what we need to do is to present an alternative that includes a vibrant, competitive private sector.”

Thank goodness there are courageous billionaires like Steyer who speak up for the private sector. If only he didn’t look perpetually terrified by the prospect of remembering his own talking points.

Tuesday’s debate was the last best chance for the Sanders-chasers to catch his tail, but they seemed torn between attacking the Vermont senator and attacking each other

Tuesday’s debate was the last best chance for the Sanders-chasers to catch his tail, but they seemed torn between attacking the Vermont senator and attacking each other. It’s hard to stay focused when you’re fighting for your political life.

Joe Biden was standing next to Bernie Sanders in the center of the debate stage and the two old men did their best to sound like they were fighting over the last free seat on the subway.

“You know, when we talk about progressive, let’s talk about being progressive,” Biden began, before freestyling with English grammar to create a mosaic of half-thoughts, swipes and slights.

“Being progressive, he thought Barack Obama – he wanted a primary – he said we should primary Barack Obama, someone should, and, in fact, the president was weak and our administration was in fact not up to it. Look, folks, this is – let’s talk about progressive. Progressive is getting things done, and that’s what we got done. We got a lot done.”

The only debaters who got anything done on stage on Tuesday were Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar. But they both struggled to make the case for their own campaigns as well as they destroyed the case for their rivals.

Warren said she agreed with Sanders “on a lot of things” but would just do a better job because she worked harder than he did. “Getting a progressive agenda enacted is going to be really hard,” she said, “and it’s going to take someone who digs into the details to make it happen.”

It’s not exactly a killer argument at this late stage of the primaries, but Warren is clearly capable of crafting one of those. Once she turned to Bloomberg, Warren displayed the kind of search-and-destroy debating skills that turns businessmen into Big Gulps.

After pointing out all of his donations to Trump allies in Congress, including South Carolina’s own Lindsey Graham, Warren said, “I don’t care how much money Mayor Bloomberg has. The core of the Democratic party will never trust him. He has not earned their trust. I will. And the fact that he cannot earn the trust of core of the Democratic party means he is the riskiest candidate standing on this stage.”

There was a time, briefly, when the moderates – Klobuchar and Pete Buttigieg – ganged up on the massive spending plans that Sanders has placed at the heart of his campaign. “A bunch of broken promises that sound good on bumper stickers,” said Klobuchar.

But that was after she talked about working with Sanders to bring down drug prices and promoted her own “more affordable, nonprofit public option”. Given the choice between Sanders and Sanders-lite, Democratic voters might just go for the option that fits on a bumper sticker.

Mayor Pete made a solid, regular case for just about every solid, regular subject. If this were a contest in sounding reasonable, then Buttigieg would run away with the contest. But the metronomic mayor regulates his beat a little too precisely to have a true pulse.

“If you think the last four years has been chaotic, divisive, toxic, exhausting, imagine spending the better part of 2020 with Bernie Sanders vs Donald Trump. Folks at home, from South Carolina to South Bend, are trying to figure out what any of this means for us,” he explained with a turn of phrase that was delivered just like it was written for him. All folksy and southy.

Yes, he admitted, there was a progressive majority. “But, also, there’s a majority of the American people who I think right now just want to be able to turn on the TV, see their president, and actually feel their blood pressure go down a little bit, instead of up through the roof.”

It takes a peculiar love of reason to think you can campaign against passion by pushing for lower blood pressure. Don’t get too excited now.

As Bernie Sanders glided past the punches and counterpunches, Joe Biden stood center stage lamenting the state of the debate.

“I guess the only way you do this is jump in and speak twice as long as you should,” said the former vice-president, sounding like he was just about getting a hang of this debate thing on the teevee.

“Why am I stopping?” he asked mid-sentence, a little later, as his time ran out. “Nobody else stops.”

How true. Nobody in this race is stopping even though Sanders has already passed them by.

At least Bernie knows why he’s running. Most of the rest of them are like Joe Biden: they just think it’s their turn to talk.

  • Richard Wolffe is a Guardian US columnist