DOMENICO MONTANARO: Hey, I’m Domenico Montanaro, senior political editor and correspondent here at NPR. DANIELLE KURTZLEBEN: And I’m Danielle Kurtzleben, I cover the presidential campaign. MONTANARO: Well, we thought we might talk over each other. KURTZLEBEN: Yeah… can I finish? KURTZLEBEN: Yeah… can I finish?
MONTANARO: And not allow anything to be said whatsoever KURTZLEBEN: He’s not letting me finish.
MONTANARO: from the other person, because, because that’s a complete mess. MONTANARO: And that’s kind of what happened at this debate tonight. KURTZLEBEN: It would be a sort of method analysis of the debate, because really tonight’s debate was, it was kind of a mess at times. The candidates talked over each other. They complained about not getting to finish. And a lot of the time, it was just kind of inaudible yelling. MONTANARO: It was definitely not as clarifying as the Nevada debate. In that debate, we clearly had some clear lines of attacks between certain candidates. We had clear lines of, you know, for example, Elizabeth Warren did quite well as far as progressives saw it in that debate. She wasn’t able to capitalize on it because three quarters of the vote had been banked in Nevada with early voting. This time around, just a total muddle. I think there were some people who came with a certain mission, and I think a lot of people their mission was to attack Bernie Sanders. KURTZLEBEN: Right, yes. Because coming out of Nevada, Bernie, where Bernie Sanders had a decisive win. Now — at least nationally, if not in South Carolina — Bernie Sanders is the guy to beat. And the debate kicked off with a question that Bernie Sanders has been facing, which is how are you going to pay for all of these sweeping plans that you have? Can you pay for all of these plans? MONTANARO: Did we figure that out? NORAH O’DONNELL: Can you do the math for the rest of us? BERNIE SANDERS: How many hours do you have? KURTZLEBEN: No, not entirely. We didn’t.
MONTANARO: I mean, you cover policy. KURTZLEBEN: Absolutely. I mean, listen. So Bernie Sanders last week on “60 Minutes” was asked about how can you pay for “Medicare for All”? And he had an answer that seemed to… not waffle, but an answer that didn’t satisfy some of his biggest critics in terms of do you have a set policy list for how all of these things can be paid for? MONTANARO: Listen, it’s a difficult thing when you’re talking about replacing the entire health and health industry, essentially, and replacing it with, you know, a government-run industry, essentially. So, it’s a tough thing to do. Anyway, Vice President Joe Biden, former Vice President Joe Biden, he also clearly came in with a mission. He seemed, to me, to be the most focused on winning South Carolina. He specifically knew that Bernie Sanders and Tom Steyer were the biggest threats toward him. He went after Sanders when he could on everything that he could think of, and he went after Tom Steyer, landed a pretty hard punch when it came to private prisons. JOE BIDEN: Well, my good friend on the end of this platform. He, in fact, bought a system that was a private prison system. After, after he knew that, in fact, what happened was, they hogtied young men in prison here in this state. They, in fact, made sure that in Georgia, they did not have health care for the people who were being held. They, in fact, went on, he said, after he knew that he bought it. And then he said he was proud of his accomplishment. TOM STEYER: …I bought stock in a prison company thinking they’d do a better job. And I investigated and I sold it. BIDEN: You knew…
STEYER: No, no, stop! BIDEN: You knew when you bought it they’d done that. STEYER: I get to answer this question. And in fact, since then, I’ve worked to end the use of private prisons in my home state. And we’ve ended it. MONTANARO: Tom Steyer has spent $21 million in South Carolina. Specifically, he’s trying to target black voters. You’ve seen his numbers creep up, up, up, up. If Biden can keep his numbers down, then he feels like he can squeak out a win. And for his campaign, a win is a win. Live to fight another day. KURTZLEBEN: Right. Now, aside from that, voters also saw for the second time former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg on the stage, perhaps trying to resurrect himself after he took a fair bit of a beating from Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren in the last debate. MONTANARO: Filleted, I think, is a word that I used in my preview when it came to nondisclosure agreements and on how women were treated at his company. Now, Elizabeth Warren
sort of used some of the same hits. KURTZLEBEN: Right. She hammered that again. MONTANARO: Yeah, I’m not sure if that landed quite as strongly because we’d already heard it. MIKE BLOOMBERG: We’ve just got to go on, but I never said it.
ELIZABETH WARREN: What I’ve asked the mayor to do, is to do a release of all people who have discrimination claims… a release of all people who have discrimination claims…
BLOOMBERG: We are doing that, senator. [crowd boos] O’DONNELL: We want to get to the issue… KURTZLEBEN: One other thing I want to say about Elizabeth Warren, though, in this debate is that she also clearly went in trying to at least take something of an aim at Bernie Sanders, who is her… MONTANARO: That was surprising and really fascinating. KURTZLEBEN: Yeah, her big competitor in the quote unquote, progressive lane insofar as there are lanes in this election. But yes, she went in saying, listen, I like some of Bernie Sanders’ policies, I like many of them, but also I can get things done. WARREN: You know, but Bernie and I agree on a lot of things, but I think I would make a better president than Bernie. And the reason for that is that getting a progressive agenda enacted is going to be really hard and it’s going to take someone who digs into the details to make it happen. We need a president who is going to dig in, do the hard work and actually get it done. Progressives have got one shot and we need to spend it with a leader who will get something done. MONTANARO: You know, I think the thing that really stood out to me, if we take a step back from all of this, they talked a little bit about the coronavirus and what’s happening with the stock market and what’s happening overseas, mostly with people who’ve gotten the coronavirus and the fears that are starting to circulate in the United States and in markets across the world. I think it’s a reminder that what really determines elections, especially re-elections of presidents, is that backdrop. Is the economy good? Is the country in a hot war? And those environments can change sometimes with something like this. KURTZLEBEN: Yes, they can change very quickly with any sort of a black swan event. If you’re talking about a massive virus, a natural disaster that people now as opposed to in the past might see as connected to climate change or for example, if the economy starts to tank by November, that could be a huge factor. MONTANARO: I think as a reminder that every time Democrats try to talk about, like, electability, who’s the most electable. Could Bernie Sanders possibly win? Is Joe Biden more electable? Maybe Mike Bloomberg spending all this money, he’d be the most electable one. Here’s the fact: If the economy is at 3.5% unemployment and there aren’t wars where you see death tolls of American troops, you know, over and over again on nightly news, a president is usually the favorite for re-election. It makes him very difficult to beat. If the opposite is true, you can kind of put up almost anybody and there, and they would have a pretty good shot of winning. KURTZLEBEN: Usually, that said, the one thing I want to add here is that Trump, for as low as unemployment is, his approval really isn’t that high. And also Americans are getting more polarized, more entrenched in their parties. This election may give political scientists something new to chew on for years to come. MONTANARO: I think that’s what makes his floor so brittle. KURTZLEBEN: Yeah, that’s fair. MONTANARO: Well, I’m Domenico Montanaro, senior political editor and correspondent here at NPR. KURTZLEBEN: And I’m Danielle Kurtzleben, political reporter. For more analysis, go to the NPR politics podcast and listen there. MONTANARO: And for more, go to npr.org.