February 26, 2020

Some Quick Thoughts on the South Carolina Debate

South Carolina landscape

Since I am such a fan of the approach for summarizing a presidential primary debate I described here, I figured I might as well try it with the Democratic primary debate in South Carolina. Unfortunately, any candidate-specific comments must be prefaced with the overall caveat that the whole thing came off as a shitshow due to thoroughly inadequate moderation. Yes, the high-stakes nature of the last debate before Super Tuesday undoubtedly made the candidates difficult to corral; however, the moderators lost control of the process early on and never regained it.

Here's what I'd suggest when it comes to moderating future debates:

  1. Provide each candidate with a clear visual indicator of when they have exceeded their time, one that is also visible to the audience.
  2. When a candidate ignores the visual cue and continues talking, provide one verbal warning.
  3. When the candidate continues talking after both the visual cue and the verbal warning, cut their mic immediately.
I think this would be effective. If it isn't, I'd consider adding a step #4 that involves a cattle prod.

Tom Steyer

I did not think this was one of Steyer's better performances. I'm having trouble viewing him as a viable contender at this point and suspect that he may be sticking around because he can afford to do so and to advocate for some of the issues he considers important. I think that's okay, though, and he did a decent job with respect to that sort of advocacy.

Michael Bloomberg

After his poor performance in Las Vegas, Bloomberg needed to demonstrate massive improvement here. He did not. He needs to drop out and help viable candidates from the sidelines.

Amy Klobuchar

She had some good moments when she wasn't talking about "hot dishes" or repeating the same talking points we have heard from her again and again. Every one of the candidates does this, but there is something different about how she does it. She seems to have a fewer number of talking points than the others and delivers them the same way every time. She again made the argument that Sanders and Warren are too radical and that she is better positioned to win in the Midwest, but I think she made the same argument more effectively in previous debates.

Pete Buttigieg

I thought that "Mayor Pete" turned in a fairly strong performance but probably did not do enough to distinguish himself as the best choice for moderate voters. Some of his best moments came when he highlighted the fears of some moderate voters that a contest between Trump and Sanders will not end well. What he said about Sanders not having much support for his policies among Senate Democrats was an important point that keeps getting lost. Still, it was difficult to tell how much of this landed. I was surprised that he didn't direct more fire at Biden.

Joe Biden

Repeatedly yelling variations of "I did that" is not a campaign strategy. Has Congress ever passed a bill this guy hasn't claimed to have written? Is he counting on voters thinking that he ran the Obama administration? I give Biden credit for being fired up, and this probably was his strongest debate performance yet. That isn't saying much, and I still have a difficult time imagining who he's appealing to at this point.

Elizabeth Warren

I wanted Warren to have a strong performance, and I thought she got off to a great start. We knew she had to go after Sanders eventually (unless her entire campaign has been designed to pitch herself as his VP), and her initial statement about how they share many of the same policies but that she would be better equipped to implement them was an effective moment. This has long-been her core argument, and she expressed it well here. Unfortunately, she seemed to have trouble staying focused on Sanders and ended up attacking everyone else before the night was over. This approach was understandable given her relatively poor poll numbers, but it made her look a bit desperate. Overall, I thought she did well but probably needed to do better.

Bernie Sanders

As the front-runner coming out of Nevada, Sanders knew he was going to take fire from all directions. For the most part, I thought he defended himself reasonably well. I found his handling of the lingering "Bernie Bro" issue particularly effective. Unfortunately, he is still struggling to provide clear and concise explanations for how he will pay for his policies or what makes him think he will be able to get any of them through Congress. This stuff should be easy for him by now, and I was disappointed that it wasn't. He's right that the U.S. is an outlier when it comes to not providing universal single-payer healthcare, and his argument that healthcare is a human right and not a luxury is appealing; however, I'm not sure this matters if he does not have a clear plan of how to pay for it and how to get Congress to pass it.