“Mayor Bloomberg, there’s a lot for you to respond to there.” -Moderator Lester Holt, just five minutes into last night’s debate
Like antibodies attacking an invading virus, the five Democratic candidates who have actually campaigned and won delegates in early states aggressively defended their party from an interloping billionaire. And it didn’t take long.
The Nevada debate was, without question, the testiest debate of this primary cycle. Below, I’d like to share with you my ten favorite lines. (Transcript here)
Nowhere on this list: A line from Michael Bloomberg
In yesterday’s preview, I suspected he didn’t want to qualify for the debate. It’s safe to say I was right. Not since Rick Perry have we seen someone with so much rising support deliver such an undeniably embarrassing performance. (Exception: the current President of the United States.) Perry’s “Oops” moment lowlighted his poor 2012 campaign, but in Bloomberg’s first hour he unleashed one long oops, pausing only to breathe.
I’ll get to some examples below, as other people’s best moments frequently occurred at his expense (knives out and beaks bloody, indeed). The dramatic MSNBC split screen, frequently deployed as his opponents took bites out of him, did him no favors. He also frequently had to contend with an inhospitable crowd. Whereas the debate audience frequently cheered Bloomberg’s competitors, most of his prepared lines were met with groans or, worse, crickets. (I mean, a “Turbo Tax” joke?) That likely played poorly at home.
His second hour was better, as climate change and economic policy are more in his wheelhouse, but who knows who was still awake and watching. His only saving grace is that he’s not actually on the ballot this Saturday, so he’ll avoid the most obvious evidence of a flame-out. He’ll have another debate next week to get his act together before South Carolina, where he’s again not on the ballot. No one can vote for him until Super Tuesday, which is 12 days from now, an eternity in modern politics. That’s a long time for his well-produced ads and comedian-scripted tweets to wash out the taste of that vinegary performance.
10. Warren: “I’d like to talk about who we’re running against, a billionaire who calls women ‘fat broads’ and ‘horse-faced lesbians.’ And, no, I’m not talking about Donald Trump. I’m talking about Mayor Bloomberg.”
HELLO! That was Warren’s first line of the evening. This pace didn’t relent all night, as we’ll see below, and Bloomberg was just the first victim. Like a wounded animal, Warren lashed out at every other candidate (save one). She mauled Bloomberg, lacerated Buttigieg, gashed Biden, and even scraped Klobuchar. Only Sanders escaped her wrath, which makes total sense because he’s the front-runner now waltzing to the nomination. (For the first time this cycle, I have a candidate at even odds or better to win the primary.)
9. Biden (on the federal government handling New York City’s stop-and-frisk controversy under Mayor Bloomberg): “We are the one, my — our administration sent — sent in people to moderate.”
Well, it was inevitable: in Biden’s mind, he and Barack Obama are now the same person.
Enjoyably, “We are the one” has a Star Wars feel to it. Unfortunately, his attempt to be Obama-Wan Kenobi is undermined by grammatical tendencies that remind me more of Jar Jar Binks. Can he seriously still expect Democrats to see him as the next Obama? Meesa think no.
8. Warren: “We need to get everybody’s health care plan out here. Mayor Buttigieg really has a slogan that was thought up by his consultants to paper over a thin version of a plan that would leave millions of people unable to afford their health care. It’s not a plan. It’s a PowerPoint. And Amy’s plan is even less. It’s like a Post-It note, ‘Insert Plan Here.'”
Warren again! Indiscriminately launching grenades across the stage.
Hilariously, Warren’s quicksand late in 2019 was her soft, evolving, Clintonesque triangulation of her health care position, a position that’s arrived at, “My plan might suck, but yours sucks worse.”
7. Klobuchar: “I must say, I take personal offense since Post-It notes were invented in my state.”
That’s funny! Klobuchar is usually an impressive improviser. It’s when she tries to resort to her numerous, oft-repeated canned lines where she seems a bit inauthentic, when authenticity should be her greatest strength. Unfortunately for her, Pete Buttigieg has burrowed so deeply under her skin that her likability took a backseat to resentment. Their long simmering rivalry, which has its roots in Klobuchar’s assertion that women in politics essentially have to work twice as hard as men to get to the same level, Klobuchar finally lost her nerve. I fear last night was the moment Klobuchar’s campaign for president ended, and I suspect a sixth place showing this Saturday will seal the deal.
And it’s a shame. On a night where Bloomberg might be giving up a bunch of polling points to other candidates — a huge inflection point in the moderate lane primary — she had her worst debate performance since the summer. If the Democrats lose this November, let’s not forget they once had a not-too-old, not-too-young, not-too-progressive, not-too-centrist, authentic but experienced, experienced but not ancient candidate, one who is popular in a swing state with proven crossover appeal and from the battleground region of the country. It was right there.
6. Warren (on Bloomberg’s defense of stop and frisk): “When the mayor says that he apologized, listen very closely to the apology. The language he used is about stop and frisk. It’s about how it turned out. No, this isn’t about how it turned out. This is about what it was designed to do to begin with.” (APPLAUSE)
Warren cuts Bloomberg again! Perhaps inspired by Bloomberg’s policing tactics, she repeatedly threw the Mayor up against the wall and frisked every pocket.
5. Bloomberg (to Sanders): “You’re re-writing the tax code. Why are you complaining? Who wrote the code?”
Sanders: “YOU DID! You and your campaign contributions electing people who represent the wealthy and the powerful.”
Vintage Bernie Sanders. Bloomberg thinks he’s clever? So does grass probably, right before the lawnmower shows up. The mower might be 78 years old with a couple stents in its motor, but boy can it still cut some grass.
Sanders was the winner of last night’s debate. Not only did he have no major stumbles, but candidates rarely challenged him. That’s particularly notable because he’s the front-runner. The only ones who tried were Bloomberg, who failed miserably, and Buttigieg, who kept bringing up how much money Sanders’s health care plan would cost, as if Democrats care about budgets and deficits.
Honestly, Sanders probably can’t believe his luck these days. He pretends Bloomberg getting into the race is this bad thing, but he’s been a perfect foil for his message and he further divides an already divided moderate lane. Then, once people began to believe Bloomberg was the last best hope to stop a democratic-socialist from getting nominated, those hopes were mostly dashed in one lousy debate performance. And finally, Elizabeth Warren did Sanders’s dirty work for him, picking fights with every candidate on the stage except him.
When he walked out of the front door this morning to go campaign, I wouldn’t be surprised if he said to himself, “Everything’s turning up Milhouse!”
4. Warren (speaking about Bloomberg’s past with sexually suggestive and other inappropriate comments): “I hope you heard what his defense was. ‘I’ve been nice to some women.’ That just doesn’t cut it. The mayor has to stand on his record. And what we need to know is exactly what’s lurking out there. He has gotten some number of women, dozens, who knows, to sign nondisclosure agreements both for sexual harassment and for gender discrimination in the workplace. So, Mr. Mayor, are you willing to release all of those women from those nondisclosure agreements, so we can hear their side of the story?”
Bloomberg: “We have a very few nondisclosure agreements.”
Warren: “How many is that? . . . Are the women bound by being muzzled by you and you could release them from that immediately?”
Good God, is Bloomberg going to press charges?! This is assault.
3. Biden (jumping in on the same topic): “It’s easy. All the mayor has to do is say, ‘You are released from the nondisclosure agreement,’ period. . . . [T]his is about transparency from the very beginning, whether it’s your health record, whether it’s your taxes, whether it’s whether you have cases against you, whether or not people have signed nondisclosure agreements. . . . The way it works is they say, look, this is what you did to me and the mayor comes along and his attorneys said, I will give you this amount of money if you promise you will never say anything. That’s how it works.”
When Biden jumped in after Warren, you knew he smelled blood. It was probably Biden’s best debate, mostly because there was a new target for the progressives on the dais, and Bloomberg is one of the few Democrats that can make Biden look progressive by comparison.
Biden was a forceful presence up there and sounded more well-versed on the issues. Whether it’s too little too late for his campaign remains to be seen, but my hunch is that if Bloomberg fades due to this debate, it would be great for Biden in the southern Super Tuesday states.
2. Warren: “Democrats are not going to win if we have a nominee who has a history of hiding his tax returns, of harassing women, and of supporting racist polls like redlining and stop and frisk. . . . Democrats take a huge risk if we just substitute one arrogant billionaire for another.”
Yes, Warren owned half of today’s list. This moment was early in the debate, so it immediately became clear what her debate strategy was: use Bloomberg as a stand-in for President Trump to show what she could do to Trump as the nominee. Lewd comments about women? Trump. Insufficient apologies? Trump. Non-disclosure agreements with former associates? Trump. Billionaires evading the disclosure tax returns? Trump!
Warren finally regained her mid-2019 form. My recent debate reviews frequently noted how she once seemed so confident and in control, but over the last handful of debates she was neither. It appears it took being almost totally ruled out as a viable nominee for her to finally stop playing it safe, and it worked. Sanders comes away as the night’s winner, but Warren was far and away the top debater. If she does stage a comeback, she’ll have Bloomberg’s presence to thank.
At the same time, leaving Sanders alone was a glaring and disappointing omission. He’s the one that needs to be taken down a peg, and she never shot him the kind of dagger-eyes she reserved for others, despite him recently calling her a liar on national television. Her performance reminded me of Chris Christie, who at the 2016 New Hampshire debate saw Marco Rubio rising toward Trump and tackled him before he got there. Of course, instead of Warren targeting one rival of an ally, she Tasmanian Deviled her way into four different candidates.
1. Buttigieg: “We’ve got to wake up as a party. We could wake up two weeks from today, the day after Super Tuesday, and the only candidates left standing will be Bernie Sanders and Mike Bloomberg, the two most polarizing figures on this stage. And most Americans don’t see where they fit if they’ve got to choose between a socialist who thinks that capitalism is the root of all evil and a billionaire who thinks that money ought to be the root of all power. Let’s put forward somebody who actually lives and works in a middle-class neighborhood, in an industrial Midwestern city. Let’s put forward somebody who’s actually a Democrat.”
Other than Bloomberg, who, however ineffectual, can’t help but be a natural antagonist of Sanders, Buttigieg seemed to be the only candidate who realized how this primary was playing out. Sanders will soon be cruising to the nomination. Only Buttigieg tried to stop that inevitability. “We’ve got to wake up as a party,” is the best encapsulation of the moderates’ conundrum. Unfortunately, with four candidate still clogging the establishment’s windpipe, there’s no waking from this slumber.
As the only candidate rivaling Sanders at the top of the delegate leaderboard, Buttigieg made a genuine appeal to consider a choice between the two extremes of the party.
He also had a strong finish here. Bloomberg spent his mayoral career either as a Republican or an independent, registering as a Democrat only in 2018. Sanders, again attempting a hostile takeover of the party, registers as a Democrat only in presidential years yet still claims to be an Independent Senator in between. Biden and Klobuchar should have made a bigger deal of this dissonance, but only Buttigieg did.
With my next post, I’ll consider how this debate impacts the Nevada caucuses, and I’ll try to predict their results. Polling in Nevada is notoriously shaky, and last night’s circular firing squad adds an extra layer of unpredictability. I’ll do my best!