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Opinion | Cheer Up, Democrats

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In the midst of Tuesday’s brawl of a debate, there were illuminating, even hopeful, moments.

Michelle Cottle

Credit…Damon Winter/The bioreports

Dumpster fire, train wreck, meltdown — pick your unflattering metaphor and odds are that someone is using it right now to describe Tuesday night’s Democratic presidential debate in Charleston, S.C.

It was not a pretty scene. Anyone tuning in hoping to gain clarity about the field was instead treated to a two-hour collective panic attack. There was too much yelling and cross talk for a coherent discussion to emerge, and the moderators seemed helpless to impose order. The more Bioreports Newses that were thrown and the more blood spilled, the harder it was to tell who was getting the better of whom. As a result, it’s unlikely much damage was done to any particular candidate — as opposed to the field overall, which wound up looking frantic and fractured. And there was precious little fire focused on the current president. The whole fractious spectacle was like a scene out of Vladimir Putin’s anti-American fantasies. Or a Trump campaign commercial.

This is how democracy works. It’s messy, and it rarely runs like most people think it should — especially when the stakes are as high as they are in this race. But even in the midst of Tuesday’s brawl, there were a few illuminating, even hopeful, moments to be extracted, even if the effort left you with a headache.

Unlike last week’s debate in Las Vegas, which focused on taking down Michael Bloomberg, this showdown made clear that all of the candidates not named Bernie Sanders realize that time is running out to emerge as the alternative to the inspiring yet divisive senator — and that they are freaking out. After strong showings in the first three voting states, Mr. Sanders has emerged as the presumptive front-runner. This is a delight for the passionate plurality of Democrats who see him as the inspirational revolutionary who will save this nation. For the rest of the party, many of whom fear that Mr. Sanders is so far outside the mainstream that he would damage down-ballot candidates in the general elections, this development is unsettling if not outright terrifying. Tuesday’s melee provided little solace, as the rest of the field struggled to distinguish themselves as the Bernie alternative.

One of the purported “moderators” of the debate, CBS News’s Norah O’Donnell, opened things up by asking Mr. Sanders why, in the midst of such a strong economy, Americans should look to a democratic socialist to do even better.

The senator gave his stock answer about how the economy was working only for billionaires and how he would create a new system that worked for everyone else. From there, the non-Bernie players proceeded to define themselves by their lines of attack.

Mr. Bloomberg took the approach most designed to irritate, invoking the recent reports that Russia has been trying to meddle in the election to aid Mr. Sanders. “Vladimir Putin thinks that Donald Trump should be president,” Mr. Bloomberg charged. “And that’s why Russia is helping you get elected, so you will lose to him.”

Elizabeth Warren sought to split the progressive baby, stressing that she shared Mr. Sanders’s values but contending that he was an unsuitable messenger. “We need a president who is going to dig in, do the hard work and actually get it done,” she pleaded. “Progressives have got one shot. And we need to spend it with a leader who will get something done.”

Sounding his theme of the need to restore sanity and civility to politics, Pete Buttigieg appealed to voter fatigue, warning that a Sanders nomination would fuel the discord that Russia indeed was working to sow. “I mean, look, if you think the last four years has been chaotic, divisive, toxic, exhausting, imagine spending the better part of 2020 with Bernie Sanders versus Donald Trump.”

Aware that it was his make-or-break moment to convince South Carolina — and Super Tuesday — voters that he still has the requisite fire in the belly, Joe Biden got pointed and personal. He noted that the debate was taking place not far from the site of the 2015 mass shooting at Mother Emanuel Church, then slammed Mr. Sanders for his past opposition to gun control, including five votes against the Brady Bill, which requires a waiting period and a background check for those looking to buy handguns. “I’m not saying he’s responsible for the nine deaths,” a fired-up Mr. Biden clarified, before making a somewhat opaque argument suggesting that Mr. Sanders’s pro-gun voting history was at least partly to blame.

Amy Klobuchar got overlooked in the opening melee — in some ways a perfect reflection of her broader candidacy, which, despite her consistently strong debate showings and a surprise third-place finish in New Hampshire, has struggled to gain traction.

As for Tom Steyer: Eh.

Thus the contours of the evening were set, which might have caused more trouble for Mr. Sanders if the other candidates had been able to resist stepping on one another’s arguments — and frequently firing on one another: Biden on Steyer. Klobuchar on Biden. Buttigieg on Bloomberg. And in a reprise of her Las Vegas tour de force, Warren on Bloomberg in a bloodletting worthy of Uma Thurman in “Kill Bill.”

The result of all this passion and urgency: No one candidate stood out, and Mr. Sanders suffered mostly superficial wounds. At the end of the two hours, many viewers were most likely exhausted — or reaching for their beta blockers — but it’s unlikely that many minds were changed about anyone.

If this had been a less crowded debate, it’s possible the discussion would have been cleaner and the efforts to articulate concerns about Mr. Sanders’s candidacy more cogent. Mr. Buttigieg, for instance, repeatedly argued that Mr. Sanders would not only lose the Democrats the White House but also cut their numbers in the Senate and cost them their hard-won House majority.

“The time has come for us to stop acting like the presidency is the only office that matters,” he cautioned. “Look, if you want to keep the House in Democratic hands, you might want to check with the people who actually turned the House blue — 40 Democrats who are not running on your platform. They are running away from your platform as fast as they possibly can.”

Of Mr. Sanders’s dodgy math on his Medicare for All proposal, Mr. Buttigieg didn’t argue the details, instead charging, “I’ll tell you exactly what it adds up to: It adds up to four more years of Donald Trump, Kevin McCarthy as speaker of the House and the inability to get the Senate into Democratic hands.”

But there’s little point in sighing over the current size of the remaining field. Just as there is no point in fantasizing about which superstar would be tearing up this race if only things were different.

The time for what-iffing and daydreaming is over. Voters need to get serious about their real-life choices. South Carolinians go to the polls on Saturday. Three days later, Super Tuesday hits, which for the first time includes the political behemoth California. By this time next week, more than a third of the delegates needed for the nomination will have been distributed.

And the electorate will have largely forgotten about the Democrats’ ugly rumble in Charleston.

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