Biden needed the debate of his life. He delivered. He walloped Sanders for voting against the Brady Bill (a 1993 law requiring background checks and waiting periods for firearms purchases) and effectively argued that down-ticket Democrats will be wiped out if Sanders were the nominee. He practically knocked Steyer out cold for buying into a private prison after its civil rights abuses were known. Only Biden could tout his long-standing relationship with the African American community, and he did so. His answer on housing was detailed and focused on the disparate impact on people of color.
Biden’s discourse on cancer funding reflected his obvious passion on the subject. He boasted about his experience as vice president in fighting Ebola, promised to restore funding for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and said he would get tough on China. He took a question on cyber-attacks and made clear we are under attack by Russia and that President Trump sides with Russian President Vladimir Putin. He gave Trump a lecture on how he had given up leverage on North Korea. Biden stopped short when time ran out, kidding that he is the only one who stops when asked — a function of his Catholic school training. He even threw in a promise to nominate an African American female Supreme Court justice.
Sanders had his weakest outing at an inauspicious time. He got booed when he tried to change the topic when Biden cornered him on his vote against the Brady Bill. He pleaded for “hours” to explain the math behind his Medicare-for-all proposal, only to be ridiculed by Buttigieg, who pointed out he had bounced around the numbers and that Sanders has not shown his math. (Buttigieg also deftly swatted down Sanders’s criticism that billionaires were funding his campaign, pointing out that he raised more money in Charleston than he did from billionaires.) Sanders looked defensive trying to insist he was tough on dictatorships — only to accuse the United States of overthrowing governments (in the 1970s). Buttigieg jumped all over that, pointing out Democrats did not need to be seen asking us to look on the “bright side” of the Cuba government. (He joked Democrats did not need to match Trump’s 1950s nostalgia with Sanders’s nostalgia for the 1960s.)
Sanders looked truly angry and rattled. Given a chance to walk back his accusation that AIPAC is a platform for “bigotry,” he instead called Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a “racist reactionary.” (He pleaded for a policy which respects the Palestinians, which AIPAC does by supporting a two-state solution. One wonders why he has such venom for a group whose policy he says he agrees with.) Even Steyer got in a shot. (“I don’t believe that a government takeover of large parts of the economy makes any sense for working people or for families.”) After getting smacked on the Brady Bill, Sanders actually seemed to lose energy, his voice dropping below his usual high-decibel level.
Bloomberg was less terrible than during the last debate, but he remained tone-deaf, such as when he nearly admitted he had “bought” congressional races. His attack on Sanders (accusing Russia of backing him) fell flat. He again pleaded that the problem with stop-and-frisk was that it got out of hand. Warren pummeled him once again on holding women to nondisclosure agreements and repeating the allegation (which Bloomberg strenuously denied) that he told a pregnant employee to “kill it.” Bloomberg seemed uncomfortable and exasperated with Warren. His jokes (trying to be self-deprecating about his last debate performance) fell flat. He did deliver an effective answer on life expectancy, pointing out he raised life expectancy in New York City by three years, bringing it above the national average. His fuzzy answer on China — that President Xi Jinping was somehow responsive to the Politburo — seemed to suggest he does not think Xi is a dictator, a ridiculous assertion that even Sanders rebuked.
Warren’s approach to the debate was puzzling, even as she shredded Bloomberg (for instance, cornering him for financing campaigns of right-wing Republicans such as Sen. Lindsey O. Graham). She tried to argue that she would be a better president than Sanders, but she did not take issue with any of his real weaknesses (e.g., the “socialist” label). It was far from clear how she expected to overcome her competitors, or whether she is ready to dismantle any rival except Bloomberg. Discussing the need to replace the filibuster will not get her up in the polls. On foreign policy, she simply repeated platitudes. She said we could not “cut and run” on our friends, which seemed to contradict her promise to bring all the troops home. When she was asked about the massacre in Syria, her answer was so formulaic that it seemed to confirm she is not comfortable talking about foreign policy.
Steyer, after being leveled on private prisons, largely faded into the background. Klobuchar reiterated her objection to what she said was the $60 trillion price tag for Sanders’s plans for health care — three times the size of the entire U.S. economy. She gamely tried to make her argument that she is electable in the Midwest, though it has begun to sound trite.
Unlike recent debates, the moderation was poor, too often cutting off answers in midstream and then allowing the candidates to interrupt and talk over one another. Vague answers on foreign policy received little follow-up. The moderators’ questions were open-ended and not designed to elicit revealing information. (“Would you allow China to build critical U.S. infrastructure?”) Moderators closed with a sophomoric question about each candidate’s personal motto and the biggest misconception about themselves.
WINNERS: Biden, Buttigieg’s jab at Bernie Sanders for 1960s nostalgia
LOSERS: CBS moderators, Sanders, Warren’s lack of coherent strategy, letting Steyer back on the stage