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The CBS moderators did not ask about climate change or immigration during Tuesday night’s Democratic presidential debate in South Carolina. They did, however, ask the seven candidates about their favorite mottos and the biggest misconceptions people have about them, as if the debate were the world’s loudest and most combative version of a senior yearbook.
If the goal was to make the candidates seem more personable and human, that went right out the window when billionaire Tom Steyer, the first respondent, completely failed to give a motto, and the last person to answer, Michael Bloomberg, just said why he wants to be president.
But they all answered in their own special way, so we’ve gathered their quotes here and ranked them from “not a motto at all, really” to “Yeah, OK.”
The ‘not a motto’ tier, sponsored by the Forbes 400 List
8. Tom Steyer: “Every day, I write a cross on my hand to remind myself to tell the truth and do what’s right no matter what.” (Not a motto)
This is a nice sentiment, but unfortunately, it’s not a motto; it’s just something Steyer apparently does. And since he didn’t note that his motto transcends the written word, we’re just going to assume he didn’t really understand the question.
7. Michael Bloomberg: “I’ve trained for this job for a long time, and when I get it, I’m going to do something rather than just talk about it.” (Michael Bloomberg)
This is also not a motto! This is just a thing that Bloomberg thinks about himself. Back to the drawing board, Mike.
The ‘nice try’ tier
6. Joe Biden: “You’re defined by your courage. You’re redeemed by your loyalty.” (Joe Biden’s mom)
When asked what the biggest misconception about him was, Biden just went for it and seemingly rammed through everything he had wanted to say during the debate, beginning with, “When you get knocked down, get up,” and ending with a promise to put a black woman on the Supreme Court.
When asked what his actual motto was, Biden went back to one he’s repeated for years: "You're defined by your courage. You're redeemed by your loyalty." He attributes it to his mom, which is nice. Poignant thought, Mom.
5. Amy Klobuchar: “Politics is about improving people’s lives.” (Paul Wellstone)
The Minnesota senator, who said the biggest misconception about her is that she’s “boring,” nodded to one of her predecessors and “political mentor,” the late progressive Sen. Paul Wellstone, who died in a plane crash in 2002.
Wellstone is an interesting choice for Klobuchar considering that for much of his career, he and Bernie Sanders were analogous as two of the most left-wing members of their respective chambers. (Sanders was in the House of Representatives for all of Wellstone’s career.) Wellstone pushed hard for single-payer healthcare during the first years of the Clinton administration, and though his plan was defeated, he continued to speak out in favor of single-payer for the rest of his career.
Klobuchar, by comparison, has tailored her campaign to the moderate lane, making the argument that Democrats just can’t win in places like the Midwest by running to the left for fear of scaring off moderate swing voters. In other words, Klobuchar has a view of politics that couldn’t be further from Wellstone’s.
Klobuchar gets points for actually understanding and responding to the question, but she's docked for leaving out the first part of the quote: “Politics is not about winning for the sake of winning.”
4. Pete Buttigieg: "If you would be a leader, you must first be a servant" and "We are to treat others as we would be treated." (The world’s major religions)
Mayor Pete sort of cheated here by going with two mottos, but since he actually understood the question and responded like a normal person, we’re going to let it slide.
Buttigieg really leaned into his campaign theme of being guided by his Christian faith, an acknowledgment that South Carolina is a place where a lot of Democratic organizing revolves around churches and other places of worship. By the same token, he nodded toward Super Tuesday by prefacing his quoting of Scripture with, “I would never impose my interpretation of my religion on anybody.”
The ‘motivational poster’ tier
3. Elizabeth Warren: “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of thy brethren, ye have done it unto me.” (Matthew 25:40)
Like Buttigieg, Warren went with Scripture. Unlike Buttigieg, her quote wasn’t aimed at what makes her fit to be a leader but what she plans to do for vulnerable people if she’s elected.
Warren also tied the motto directly with why she’s running for president in the first place. “For me this is about how we treat other people and how we lift them up,” Warren added. “That is why I am in this fight. That is why I am running to be president, and it is why I will be an effective president.”
Warren said the biggest misconception about her is that she doesn’t eat — what? — so this was a good save.
2. Bernie Sanders: “Everything is impossible until it happens.” (Nelson Mandela)
Can’t go wrong with a Mandela quote, and for someone who was attacked most of the night by his fellow candidates for being a radical who can’t get anything done — as well as for his praise of Cuba, which Mandela shared — it worked as a strong finish for the night.
“And that means, if we have the guts to stand up to powerful special interests who are doing phenomenally well,” Sanders said, not-so-subtly pointing in the direction of Michael Bloomberg, “if we can bring working people together, black and white and Latino, we can create a nation where all people have a good standard of living.”
(Also could double as a jab at Joe Biden, who recently began telling a story he’s never told before about being arrested by South African police while trying to see Mandela when the human rights legend was in prison.)
The ‘not a person, but a place’ tier
1. South Carolina: While I breathe, I hope. (Cicero)
The official motto of a state was always going to be much more well-thought-out than the ones coming after the three minutes the candidates had to scramble around for an answer. But also, it’s just way better than most of these. Congratulations to South Carolina, and sorry to Joe Biden’s mother.
Cover: From left, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., former Vice President Joe Biden, and Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., participate in a Democratic presidential primary debate, Tuesday, Feb. 25, 2020, in Charleston, S.C. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)