Why Bernie emerged largely unscathed from CBS debate fiasco

I don’t see any reason to pile on CBS after all the criticism—

Oh, why not?

That presidential debate was a debacle of the highest order. It has variously been described as a train wreck, a ship wreck, two hours of static, and a mugging of Gayle King and Norah O’Donnell. For my part, I likened it to a bunch of NBA players fouling each other under the basket with no ref.

There were times when all the shouting and crosstalk made my head hurt. It’s not easy in the heat of a do-or-die debate, but you can’t let candidates interrupt and race past stop signs without reining them in. Even some political junkies on Twitter said they were turning the thing off.


But the main takeaway is that the South Carolina showdown did almost nothing to slow down the Bernie Sanders juggernaut. And that means he heads into Saturday’s primary there, and Super Tuesday days later, as an energized front runner.

Sure, Sanders sustained some nicks and cuts during the two-hour shoutfest. Yes, Joe Biden had his best debate and could win South Carolina, his supposed firewall, though probably with a narrow margin over Sanders.

But the party itself is convulsed by the prospect that a self-described democratic socialist could capture enough delegates on Super Tuesday that no one—not even Bloomberg with his billions—can catch him.

“By the end,” says Politico, “it was clear there was no Bernie slayer at the lecterns in Charleston, someone who alone had the time and skills to convince Democratic voters that the democratic socialist was a radical whose nomination would forfeit the party’s chance to defeat Donald Trump.”

As Jonah Goldberg says, “the Democratic presidential field suffers from a problem similar to the one that crippled the GOP in 2016 and saddled us with Donald Trump. It’s in all the candidates’ interest to see Sanders destroyed, but it’s in no one’s individual interest to play the role of destroyer. So Elizabeth Warren spends her time attacking Michael Bloomberg, Pete Buttigieg focuses his rhetorical artillery on Amy Klobuchar, and Klobuchar returns fire. Even Bloomberg seems too scared to nuke Sanders from orbit.”

Bernie’s supporters love just about everything he says, no matter how controversial.

Take his sympathetic comments about Fidel Castro, first made on “60 Minutes.” Even though the furor began on a CBS show, the moderators waited an hour and a half to raise it.

A typical politician would have softened his remarks by denouncing the police-state aspects of the Castro regime, and then parenthetically adding that it did accomplish a few good things.

But Sanders, questioned by CBS’s Margaret Brennan, devoted all of one sentence to acknowledging Cuba is a dictatorship before quickly saying that he agreed with Barack Obama that the country has made progress on education.

When the audience booed, Bernie seemed offended: “Really? Really? Literacy programs are bad?”

Sanders knows that expressing sympathy for Communist regimes is political dynamite, especially, in this case, in Florida. But he will not moderate his foreign policy views. And for the under-30 crowd, his strongest supporters, perhaps Castro is just a dead figure from the Cold War era now that the U.S. has diplomatic relations with Havana.

Sanders sidestepped a Norah O’Donnell question on why he hasn’t explained how he would pay for half of his $60 trillion in new spending programs, pivoting to the savings he claims from Medicare for All. But there was no followup question as the debate lurched on.

The Vermont senator did get rattled a couple of times. He admitted it was a “bad” vote when he repeatedly opposed the Brady bill on gun control. But this was after Biden pressed him on the issue; King brought it up much later.

The other feuds going on—Elizabeth Warren unloading most of her ammunition against Bloomberg, for instance—also shielded Sanders from an unrelenting barrage. But it was mostly the moderators who fell short.

And perhaps Bernie’s rivals, with a couple of exceptions, fear they will alienate the left by going after him too aggressively, given the fierce loyalty of his base.

One last thing that I find impossible to understand: Why did CBS air Bloomberg ads during the debate, allowing the former mayor to use his fortune to tilt the overall tenor of the programming? I can’t remember having seen such a thing before, and it was clearly unfair to the other contenders.