A brief, belated report on the Democratic debate


I went to the debate between the Democratic candidates for governor sponsored by Progress South Carolina Friday night, intending to blog about it. But the sound was so bad, and my notes therefore so incomplete and uncertain, that I blew it off.

But looking back, I think I can make a couple of observations. If you want more, or if you want to check my impressions, here’s a video of the whole thing. Bryan tried watching it in real time, and reported that “It sounds like they are underwater.” Which is the way it sounded in the Convention Center — loud enough, but mumbly. The good news is that the video available now sounds pretty good, especially with earbuds.

Here’s my main observation: I still don’t know why Phil Noble or Marguerite Willis is running, or what they hope to achieve. Oh, I can write down the words they say as to why they’re running, but I have trouble connecting those words to anything out there in the actual world.

The two of them seem locked in a bitter battle to see which one can be less likable. You’d think this campaign had been going on for years and they were sick to death of each other and of James Smith, to the point that they could hardly stand to be on the stage with each other.

Smith comes across as a guy focused on winning the election — the one in November, which hardly seems to be on the radar screens of the other two. He started his opening remarks with an upbeat, “Who here is ready to win an election? How about it?” Which prompted cheers, because that would indeed be a novel, exciting experience to this crowd.

tick offAfter a weird 12-second pause after moderator Bakari Sellers introduced him, Noble started off with a rambling, ticked-off, populist-tinged diatribe about South Carolina, starting in 1756, when his ancestors arrived. You can hear his tone on the video. At right you see his expression as he was telling this story. I got pretty lost in the story, along about the point where he went into detail about the curriculum of a school that folks like his ancestors started soon after their arrival. Lots of Greek and Latin, apparently.

In Noble’s world, our elected leaders haven’t failed to do what he wants because they disagree with him, but because they’re all “bought and paid for.” (Which is what I meant on a previous occasion when I said Phil is styling himself as this election’s Bernie Sanders.)

Ms. Willis, who had just gotten into the race that day, set her own tone by saying, “OK, let’s get right down to it. I’ve asked Phil Noble to drop out of this race.”

Noble’s response was along the lines of “Perhaps she oughta withdraw from the race!”

It was a “Yeah? And so’s yer mother!” moment that exemplified a tone that ran through the whole event. There have been times in the past when I have faulted my home state for being too polite. On Friday night, I was missing that politeness a bit.

The snapping wasn’t just between the two of them. For instance, after James Smith said some perfectly harmless things about how humbled and grateful he was for all the support he was getting from women across South Carolina, Ms. Willis replied with a sarcastic, “Well, let’s see how many of those eleven thousand women will still be with him when I tell you what I’m gonna do.”

Noble’s main shot at Smith came when he accused him of getting rating of 100 from the NRA, which Smith dismissed, defending his record of trying to reduce gun violence.

That moment sort of crystallized the point I mentioned earlier. Here we have a Democrat running with what would be an asset in the general election — a respect for gun rights, if Noble’s accusation were true — and that’s the beef his opponent has with him. From the start, Noble has seemed to justify his candidacy by accusing Smith of not being enough of a doctrinaire Democrat. He seems bent on making sure that the party nominates someone who can’t possibly win in the fall,

As for Ms. Willis… it will be interesting to see how many of those 11,000 women she can peel away from Smith in the coming weeks. That would seem critical to her chances, as she seemed to repeatedly put her self forward as the candidate for women. I don’t think she made a really strong start on that Friday night.

But y’all go watch it — you should be able to hear it better than I did at the time — and let me know what you think….

13 thoughts on “A brief, belated report on the Democratic debate

  1. Brad Warthen Post author

    Apparently, Chris Trainor of Free Times heard pretty much what I did.

    Speaking of hearing, let me know if you hear Ms. Willis claim that medical marijuana would bring $400 million into SC coffers. I must have heard that wrong. I mean, recreational marijuana mayBE, but I’m thinking merely legalizing it for medical purposes would have a more modest fiscal impact than that…

  2. bud

    Is it just me or does Brad come across as a bit grumpy today. He’s bashing 2 of the DemocratIc candidates for governor for apparently no other reason than they are being Democrats. And there was the Trumpy Bear post. I dislike Trump intensely but the bear thing is pretty much a nothing.

    The Democrat has very little chance of winning the race but Smith’s attempt to be Republican lite is a sure fired losing strategy.

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        You bet. Of course, you’re just trying to be obnoxious (and succeeding admirably) putting it that way, but I’d be very interested to see anyone come up with a reason why another of the candidates running is better.

        I’ve always liked Henry McMaster personally, and I don’t know Catherine Templeton one way or the other. But the unconscionable way both of them are running, trying to out-Trump each other, completely disqualifies them from my consideration.

        They are the only two viable Republicans, and I don’t know of any viable independents. Do y’all? If so, bring them to my attention.

        That leaves the Democrats. Well, we know that they start out in a hole. The odds are against them in a statewide race. But James Smith is the one Democrat out there — and has been for years, since Inez Tenenbaum quit running for office — who might have a chance.

        Not only that, but he deserves that chance. I can hardly think of anybody in his generation who would be as dedicated to governing and governing well. He wouldn’t be right in my book all the time (who would?), but I’ve had a chance to observe him in office for more than 20 years, and he’s right enough of the time that I’d put him in the top tier of current officeholders.

        He’s South Carolina’s best chance right now.

        So yeah, I’d really appreciate it if Noble and Ms. Willis would come up with something that would persuade me that they would be better, and (just as importantly) that they’d have a chance to win in the fall.

        But so far, they’re both running to the left of James, which means that — should they win the primary (which still seems unlikely) — they’d only have won the right to go down in flames before Henry (more likely) or Ms. Templeton. Which would be bad, given the campaigns they are both running. And anyway, since they’re not going to win the primary, all they can do is force Smith to waste resources and possibly pull HIM too far to the left to beat the Trumpies in November.

        So go ahead, y’all: Tell me where I’m wrong on this….

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      James isn’t attempting to be “Republican lite;” nor IS he. That’s just what Phil calls him. Because Phil doesn’t seem to give a damn whether James or any other Democrat becomes governor.

      This is probably the largest group where Phil can get even the modest amount of applause he got Friday night. And this is a group where the head of the hosting organization, as you can hear at the start of that video, considers the fact that Rev. Sharpton isn’t coming to the gathering to be “bad news.”

      What James Smith is is a pretty standard South Carolina Democrat, in the traditional mold. A guy who says and believes all the things you need to say and believe to be a Democrat, but who can talk to and work with Republicans, and doesn’t spit on the ground when their names get mentioned.

      Which is a good thing if you want to get anything done — or for that matter get elected — since Republicans run our state…

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        And if you think I’m being grumpy, maybe I should hold back on that post about Catherine Templeton and her Confederate pride… I’ve started it, but I’ve saved it in draft mode and will finish it later. It turned out to be more involved post than I had thought.

        Actually, it’s only slightly about her; what she said just brought back up something I’ve been meaning to write about for some time….

    2. Bart

      Don’t know enough about Smith at this point but based on Brad’s post and knowing one of the candidates, depending on who Republicans run, at this point I am inclined to vote for Smith in the general election. And if I am inclined, I do believe a lot of conservatives will cross over. Our current governor isn’t much of a governor in my estimation. He finally got what he wanted like the dog chasing a car but when he caught it, had no idea of what to do with it other than bark a few times, pee on the tires and walk away.

      1. Barry

        I like James Smith and will likely vote for him. I don’t agree with him on everything but I don’t agree with anyone on everything.

        I have never voted in a Democratic primary.

        The Republican candidates are scary.

  3. Juan Caruso

    Marguerite Willis is advertised as having been on South Carolina’s Super Lawyers® list since 2011.
    Appeals to Women’s vote – sees herself as possible selection for Lt. Gov

    Phil Noble’s Wiki bio notes FBI files indicate Noble’s father was a top target of the Alabama Ku Klux Klan. Appeals to BLM vote – sees his campaign only as a great advertising vehicle for future consulting jobs.

    James E. Smith is a combat veteran and officer in the SC ANG, a small business owner, and a practicing attorney. Appeals to military, small business, and attorney lobby vote – sees himself as best hope of adding ticket strength as Lt. Gov choice.

    So, the burning question is really: Who is the serious Democratich candidate(s) going to be?
    __________?_____________. HINTS: A familiar name; an attorney with political experience.

    1. Richard

      “Marguerite Willis is advertised as having been on South Carolina’s Super Lawyers® list since 2011.”

      I know someone who’s also on that list… I think it’s about as difficult as getting in the Who’s Who book back in high school. Send in your check to receive a book and your name goes in it.

  4. bud

    Brad and others in the false equivalency crowd wrote off Doug Jones in way red Alabama because he came out as pro-choice. (Maybe Brad can link to it – hint) If Smith really has Democratic bona fides then perhaps he can win IF the Republicans pick a kook as they have seemed inclined to do in recent years (child molestor, witch, legitimate rape dude, some guy is even running this year as a holocaust denier) But if, as it seems to me, he starts to cozy up to too many Republican issues like big tax cuts, gun rights extremism and yes pro-life, then he starts to bleed the natural Democratic voters who are absolutely essential for a Democrat to win. Perhaps a signature issue like medicinal marijuana could be a game changer in a generally favorable year for Democrats. (I think Doug suggested that) It’s a fine needle to thread but Doug Jones showed us it is possible. Perhaps an even better indicator is how close Mulvaney’s old seat was to flipping. Democrats are motivated. Let’s try not to un-motivate them.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      “Brad and others in the false equivalency crowd wrote off Doug Jones in way red Alabama because he came out as pro-choice.Brad and others in the false equivalency crowd wrote off Doug Jones in way red Alabama because he came out as pro-choice.”

      That is not true. Here’s the post you’re thinking of. Ross Douthat had said something about Jones, and I used it as a springboard for a piece in which I pulled together a lot of threads in the course of asking whether Democrats were willing to reach out to people they needed to reac out to to win. It was a multifaceted post.

      As for Jones: He probably would have won by a better margin had he not embraced Democratic doctrine on abortion as firmly as he did. If not for that, his win might not have been as surprising as it was to so many.

      Democrats are killing themselves politically with their rigidity on abortion. We have this thing called “President Trump” because of them, because of the millions of people who could not bring themselves to vote for the Democrat over this issue.

      Of course, if you tell Democrats this — as David Brooks did very effectively in a column last week, headlined “The Abortion Memo” — it freaks them out, because are so intolerant of any disagreement on the matter.

      Everything Brooks said in that column made good sense, but I don’t expect Democrats to listen….

  5. bud

    The fact that Jones won in the reddest state in America renders Brad’s argument downright laughable. This point is pretty simple. A Democrat is an extreme long shot to win in the Deep South. Everything has to go right.


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