Who won the Democratic debate? Our panelists' verdict

Jessa Crispin, Lloyd Green, Benjamin Dixon, Art Cullen and Malaika Jabali
Photograph: Win McNamee/Getty Images

‘Warren dominated the mic and Sanders held his ground’

Oh yeah, man. Let’s get into it. Let’s dive into the issues that other debate moderators have not yet dared to approach so far. Let’s ask questions such as: “Would you, as president, support a ban on trans fats and large sodas?”

Did everyone else get this push notification from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warning that there was going to be a “disruption to everyday life” with the looming coronavirus pandemic? I don’t know if that was just Russia meddling in the election or whatever, but I am wondering why it took 90 minutes for the moderators to bring the virus up, and why their question was framed around whether the United States should completely freak out and shut down all the borders. Not, should we do something about the fact that the uninsured will often avoid doctors when they are ill because they are afraid of unpredictable medical bills, or how our rural hospitals are shutting down, or how we have sanctions on medical supplies against Iran, where a coronavirus outbreak is worsening. Look, I know Mercury is retrograde, but there is absolutely no excuse for this shameful performance.

As for the candidates, for someone who doesn’t support the use of filibuster, Elizabeth Warren sure did dominate the microphone on Tuesday night. Pete Buttigieg tried to make everything about him by talking over everyone, Michael Bloomberg was absolutely adorable trying to explain the history of hostilities in the Middle East, and Tom Steyer somehow felt emboldened to talk about economic justice despite building part of his wealth on private prisons and mines. Amy Klobuchar was also there.

The mood was chaotic, the audience paid a lot of money to behave like they were attending a Jerry Springer show, most of the candidates’ hair was weirdly terrible, and the only person to hold their ground was Bernie Sanders. He stayed on message, he refused to take easy bait, and he didn’t do what I would have done, which is when asked about his “controversial” remarks about thinking it was good that Cuba taught people how to read he did not yell “would all of you people grow up” and storm off the stage. This is the last time we’ll see probably about half of these candidates, after Super Tuesday annihilates their campaigns. Too bad. Sure gonna miss Pete and Amy fighting over who is the most midwestern candidate.

  • Jessa Crispin is the host of the Public Intellectual podcast. She is a Guardian US columnist

‘Donald Trump was the winner yet again’

On Tuesday night, the Democrats held a prime-time steel cage match. Seven presidential aspirants repeatedly traded verbal blows. After two-plus hours, Donald Trump emerged victorious – and he wasn’t even in the ring.

Even worse, many of the combatants appeared removed from reality. Coronavirus, a reeling stock market, and low unemployment now shape our landscape. Yet the potential pandemic drew no mention until Michael Bloomberg, New York City’s former mayor, raised the threat the virus poses.

Medicare-for-All continued to receive outsized attention despite the fact that most Americans take a dim view of government being the be-all and end-all of individual healthcare. By the numbers, US adults reject socialism by better than two-to-one. Jeremy Corbyn’s fate is a cautionary tale.

As the 2018 midterms remind us, control of the US House of Representatives and US Senate hinges on wooing and winning persuadable voters. Yet, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren posture as if they can impose their will upon a blank slate.

As for the rest of the field, Pete Buttigieg delivered a crisp performance. Meanwhile, Joe Biden looked and sounded engaged. His sense of humor may yet get him to the finish line first in South Carolina’s upcoming Saturday primary.

  • Lloyd Green was opposition research counsel to George HW Bush’s 1988 campaign and served in the Department of Justice from 1990 to 1992

‘The well-heeled audience booed Sanders and Warren and loved Bloomberg’

Judging purely by the reaction of the crowd watching the Democratic primary debate live in South Carolina, you would think Bloomberg had a magnificent comeback – almost as if he had miraculously developed a personality that Americans could connect with.

Elizabeth Warren quickly found herself on the receiving end of an angry crowd as she excoriated Bloomberg for his and his company’s past that is littered with sexual harassment accusations. It’s extraordinary that Warren’s attempt to champion the women who have been silenced by his non-disclosure agreements was met with furious booing.

Bernie Sanders found himself on the receiving end of raucous booing, too, when he challenged Mayor Bloomberg throughout the night, including when he was criticizing Bloomberg’s relationship with China.

It didn’t take long before rumors about Bloomberg purchasing the audience started spreading around. So much so that one of Bloomberg’s top staffers had to inform Josh Lederman of NBC news that the Bloomberg campaign “did not pay people to attend the debate and cheer for Bloomberg”.

Perhaps not. Still, a few Google searches later we quickly discovered that the price of tickets to the South Carolina debate ranged between $1,750 and $3,200. And while this does not mean these individuals were paid by Bloomberg to cheer for him, it does mean that the audience members were most likely in a financial position to oppose candidates like Warren and Sanders, who would likely raise their taxes.

So it may be the case that Bloomberg had no need to purchase support in the South Carolina debate when the system established by the Democratic party created the conditions under which only the wealthiest people in South Carolina could attend and, subsequently, cheer on the oligarch who would ensure their taxes would not go up.

  • Benjamin Dixon is the host of the Benjamin Dixon Show

‘Attempts to woo black voters sounded like virtue signalling’

It’s hard to identify anything but losers of this debate. As expected, Bernie Sanders – who has won the popular vote in each of the primaries and caucuses thus far – was attacked at the onset with red scare-level fear mongering about basic social policies from both the moderators and most of the candidates.

Virtually all the other candidates, except perhaps Elizabeth Warren, who exuded an air of calm, acted as if their chances would be blasted into oblivion unless they threw the kitchen sink at every answer.

Ahead of the first primary that tests the candidates’ appeal to a significant black electorate in South Carolina, this came across as virtue signaling instead of meaningful engagement with the issues at hand. Candidates used Bloomberg’s stop-and-frisk policy, for instance, to discuss virtually every racial inequality under the sun and plug various race-centric plans they are running on. Will black voters buy it? We’ll soon find out.

  • Malaika Jabali is a public policy attorney, writer and activist

‘Sanders won an awful debate’

What a wretched debate, two hours of shouting and interrupting and pandering from which it was hard to discern much sense. All that noise worked for Bernie Sanders. He remains the frontrunner because nobody else made a point. The others had their chance to bash him as a Fidel Castro sympathizer, but didn’t manage to pull it off.

None took him down over healthcare, since it appears to be the issue that has driven him to the front. Elizabeth Warren would have ground Michael Bloomberg into dust over sexism (and failure to release his tax returns) if the moderators had allowed her. But the moderators had no control over candidates desperate to make a mark just before South Carolina and Super Tuesday. So none of them really made a mark.

Biden did himself no harm but did not deliver the sort of performance that could propel him into Super Tuesday and stunt Sanders’s rise. Bloomberg looked bad enough that it should give African Americans serious doubts about whether to abandon Biden for him. Sanders won by not making any big mistakes and by offering a reasonable defense of his comments about Latin America, and Biden held his own on friendly ground in South Carolina.

  • Art Cullen is editor of The Storm Lake Times in northwest Iowa, where he won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing. He is a Guardian US columnist and author of the book Storm Lake: Change, Resilience, and Hope in America’s Heartland, just out in paperback