Home/Daniel Larison/The Chaotic Debate in South Carolina

The Chaotic Debate in South Carolina

The South Carolina debate was one of the worst-moderated presidential debates in recent memory. Despite the moderators’ inability to control anything and the frequently insipid questions they asked, the debate nonetheless provided more insight into the candidates’ foreign policy views than the last time these candidates met. Since the previous debate included virtually no discussion of foreign policy, that was not a high bar to clear.

Mike Bloomberg was finally challenged to defend his claim that Xi Jinping is not a dictator. His response was extremely awkward and invited well-deserved mockery from Sanders. Bloomberg explained that Xi had to answer to members of the Politburo, as if that made him any less of a dictator. Sanders was attacked for his alleged sympathy with communist governments in the past, and he responded with a full-throated rejection of authoritarianism then and now. Unfortunately, too much of the foreign policy section was consumed by this “denounce a dictator” exercise and many other issues were neglected as a result. Bloomberg was able to escape without having to account for his past support for the Iraq war or his previous opposition to the JCPOA. He still managed to deliver a cringe-inducing description of the politics of the Middle East that suggested that he was relying on the laziest stereotypes for his understanding of the region:

Well, the battle has been going on for a long time in the Middle East, whether it’s the Arabs versus the Persians, the Shias versus the Sunnis, the Jews in Israel and the Palestinians, it’s only gone on for 40 or 50 years.

Bloomberg proceeded to describe his support for a two-state solution, but he couldn’t even bring himself to refer to Israel’s illegal settlements by name, much less condemn the illegality of the occupation. Sanders once again reiterated his view that “you cannot ignore the suffering of the Palestinian people.” The senator from Vermont remains the one candidate in the Democratic field who always acknowledges the rights of Palestinians and the need to respect their dignity. To her credit, Warren said much the same thing last night.

On North Korea, Biden offered up some word salad:

I would be in Beijing, I would be calling to — I would be speaking with Xi Jinping. I would be reassigning the relationship between the Japan and South Korea, and I would make it clear, I would make it clear to China, we are going to continue to move closer to make sure that we can, in fact, prevent China — prevent North Korea from launching missiles to take them down.

Biden’s statement doesn’t make much sense at all. To the extent that any sense can be made out of it, he seems to think that leaning on China can somehow resolve the disputed issues with North Korea. That happens to be wrong, and it shows how stale Biden’s foreign policy ideas tend to be.

Buttigieg was asked a question about what he would do in response to the Syrian government’s offensive in Idlib. He gave a boilerplate statement about “standing with” the people there, and then said this:

And this is one of the reasons we have got to change the balance of power in the region, because the president has basically vanished from the stage when it comes to even playing a role in the future there. Turkey, Russia, Iran all have so much more of a say than we do. We don’t have to be invading countries to be making a difference, working with our international partners, in order to deliver peace and support those who are standing up for self-determination.

Like his do-somethingist rhetoric earlier this year, Buttigieg’s statement is as vague as can be. What does he mean by “changing the balance of power in the region”? How does he propose to do that? Turkey, Russia, and Iran all have much more of a say than the U.S. because Syria matters far more to all of them than it does to us. Buttigieg ignores that and then says that the U.S. will somehow “deliver peace” when we have little or no leverage. His answer came across as if he was just reciting a series of common phrases that foreign policy pundits use without giving any thought to what they meant. He was then allowed to change the subject from talking about Syria to filibustering about why he doesn’t like Sanders’ ideas on health care. The discussion of foreign policy was a mess like the rest of the debate, but at least there was some discussion.

In terms of the political horse race, last night’s debate did little to change anything. Sanders and Biden were reportedly perceived to be the most effective candidates on the stage:

Among other strange things he said last night, Biden made a bizarre statement about 150 million deaths from gun violence since 2007. Presumably he was misstating another figure and he just got it wrong unintentionally, but it was a very big mistake to make. Bloomberg did poorly again, but he was not attacked quite as often as he was last week. Warren delivered another capable performance, and she took full advantage of the moderators’ lack of control to push her message for as long as possible. Buttigieg and Klobuchar didn’t do much to stem their slide into irrelevance. It seemed that the audience at the debate had been bought at least in part by Bloomberg, and that occasionally affected the atmosphere at the debate. If the other candidates needed to damage Sanders significantly to halt his momentum as the leading candidate, they failed.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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