If there was one surefire thing guaranteed to make the otherwise drab Democratic primary debates interesting, it was anticipating the dogpile that hit Michael Bloomberg last night. And the best part is that the former New York City mayor still managed not to be the only loser of the night (even if he was unquestionably, at least in this one respect, the biggest).
From wherever he was campaigning in South Carolina, Tom Steyer surely was breathing a huge sigh of relief that he had not qualified to share the stage with his fellow Democratic candidates for president on Wednesday night. The rabid billionaire-hating surely would have rubbed off on him a little. But alas, the California billionaire was nowhere to be seen, so all the fire was directed at the man worth 40 times as much as Steyer.
There wasn’t a box big enough to help Bloomberg stand tall last night. The opening questions were meant specifically to turn the other candidates on Bloomberg, and the floodgates were opened. All of the other five contenders took turns landing their shots at the mega-billionaire, from the usual accusations of trying to buy the election to criticism over his “stop-and-frisk” policy as Mayor of New York.
By far the biggest takedown of Mini-Mike came from Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), who took full advantage of her positioning right next to Bloomberg on the stage to make her line of questioning all the more uncomfortable. She grilled Bloomberg over the numerous non-disclosure agreements that he had forced many former female employees of his company to sign over alleged sexist behavior in the workplace.
As she repeatedly asked him how many NDAs there were, and whether or not he’d allow said women to speak out, he was clearly flustered and didn’t even bother trying to come up with something clever. It drew some of the biggest cheers of the night from the audience, and Bloomberg’s silence said it all. $400 million can buy an obscene amount of advertising, but it cannot buy charisma, poise, or wit.
To his credit, Bloomberg did appear to make a sort of comeback after the first commercial break, unapologetically bashing the concept of socialism and going directly at Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) over his own wealth and his owning of three houses. Even as Bernie spat back at him over this last point, Bloomberg now appeared unfazed and let the counter-punches roll right off of him. It was a strong individual performance, but not enough to redeem him in light of the clobbering he took in the first half. Whether Bloomberg’s recent poll surge takes a hit from this is yet to be seen, but don’t be surprised if he fades just as quickly as he rocketed up, as the man worth $64 billion is exposed to be a political paper tiger.
The Mediocre Middle
Even after what seemed like an endless barrage of Bloomberg bashing from the other five candidates, it wasn’t long before their unity on that front devolved into an a circular firing squad. Joe Biden and Sanders clashed over health care, Pete Buttigieg and Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) frequently clashed with each other as well (perhaps also a function of their being positioned next to each other), and even the once-unbreakable women’s alliance between Warren and Klobuchar was shattered when the former suggested that the latter only cared about pleasing Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).
In each of these clashes, the level of the response by the target was key. Sanders sustained multiple attacks over his healthcare plan but repeatedly fought back against them with the kind of deflection that lacked in specifics and details but was full of enough energy and passion to obscure the fact. From Buttigieg’s Big Pharma and billionaire donors to Bloomberg’s alleged role in writing an unfair, billionaire-biased tax code, Sanders maintained a Trumpian strategy of constantly remaining on offense at all times, and it was exactly what he needed.
In contrast, Buttigieg and Klobuchar proved that while they are both quite happy to dish it out, they are both pretty terrible at taking it.
Perhaps the most intense exchange of the night between Klobuchar and Buttigieg over her failure to recall the name of the president of Mexico. When Buttigieg used this to question her foreign policy chops, Klobuchar responded, as bluntly as possible, with “Are you trying to say that I’m dumb?”
This soon devolved into pure chaos, as Klobuchar became more unhinged and her already-shrill voice intensified she tried to shout down Buttigieg. Although she probably succeeded in overwhelming Buttigieg, the demonstration likely hurt her. What both of these candidates needed was a breakout moment, and neither of them got one.
One of the least-attacked individuals of the night was Joe Biden. But this was no boon to the former vice president as it was a rare instance where avoiding attacks still manages to damage a person.
Arguably, he was getting the least amount of attention last night—positive or negative. He was a virtual nonentity. Biden mostly resorted to his tired old trick of referencing the fact that he was Obama’s vice president, making repeated references to his vaunted (and much overstated) “electability” against President Donald Trump. In a debate before Iowa and New Hampshire, this might have worked; but following his abysmal performances in both of those states, it was just sad.
The Progressives’ Progress
It was inevitable that the piñata of this debate would be Bloomberg. But strategically, the smartest choice would have been for five of the candidates to turn their bats on someone else: Bernie Sanders.
The latest polling aggregates have Sanders leading the rest of the field by double-digits in Nevada. He is also currently projected to win in at least four states that will be voting on Super Tuesday, including the biggest delegate prize of the entire primary season: California.
Yes, Bloomberg is rising in national polls and is seeing high marks in a handful of Super Tuesday states as well, but the real secret here is real electoral momentum. Currently, Sanders has all of the energy following a tie for first place in Iowa and a victory in New Hampshire. If he does indeed win Nevada by margins as large as those projected, then he will be barreling into Super Tuesday as the undisputed frontrunner, even if Joe Biden does manage to take South Carolina. And if Sanders takes California, it’s all but over for the rest of the field.
To this end, the so-called “moderates” of the party need a clear champion. As far as that goes, this debate left their situation the same as it was before it happened. They are completely divided, with no clear standard-bearer. Bloomberg had a disastrous first-half performance and a somewhat respectable second-half comeback. Buttigieg and Klobuchar ultimately canceled each other out, and Biden was irrelevant.
The end result is four candidates all fighting for as much of the “moderate” vote as it is possible to find, and as NBC’s own coverage pointed out, it’s likely to lead to a disastrous result if they all underperform in states like California where if none of them poll over 15 percent then none of them would even qualify for any delegates.
By contrast, not only did Sanders hold his own and solidify his frontrunner status, but Warren had a much-needed strong performance. She needed to shore up her own support by taking any progressive or far-left voters that aren’t already in Sanders’ camp. She is the one other candidate who stands to gain everything from the infighting of the moderates, and this can easily translate to a finish in the top three in Nevada, and possibly in many a Super Tuesday contest as well. It won’t be enough to stop Sanders, but it would solidify her position and keep her in the race for that much longer.
The true losers of this debate, besides the badly-beaten Michael Bloomberg, are really everyone but Bernie and Warren. All of the Democrats’ “moderates” lost by squabbling amongst themselves and allowing the two most far-left candidates to soar past their mid-level brawl. This all serves to guarantee that the party will be led into November by a self-described socialist.
And that is why, despite the candidates’ best efforts, the true winner of last night’s debate (and, most likely, of the election) is still the unapologetic billionaire from New York who is critical of socialism and doesn’t need a box to stand on.