During his remarkable rise in polls over the last few weeks, Michael Bloomberg has successfully avoided the difficult parts of running for President: engaging with voters through retail politics; suffering through grillings by the press; and participating in debates. This has allowed Team Bloomberg to use their limitless advertising budget and army of surrogates to present their man mostly on their terms, as a pragmatic, liberal-minded fighter who stands the best shot of defeating Donald Trump.
Last night, as he stood awkwardly on stage, bodying punch after punch by every other Democratic running, you could see the fire drain out of Mike’s eyes, almost as if he realized this was going to be much harder than he expected.
This was the harshest debate yet, and it was defined almost exclusively by attempted destruction of Michael Bloomberg’s candidacy. Warren found new life as she demolished his argument against releasing women from NDAs. Biden hammered him for his support for stop and risk. Klobuchar equated his reluctance to release his tax returns with Trump. Even Buttigieg, a man who seemingly hasn’t met a liberal billionaire he doesn’t like, accused Bloomberg of being “a billionaire who thinks that money ought to be the root of all power.”
No one should've expected anything else. What was surprising, however, was how poorly equipped Bloomberg was to deal with the incoming. Again and again, he appeared disoriented and peeved by the attacks. He rolled his eyes at Warren’s questioning, meekly hit Sanders on being responsible for crafting the tax codes that he benefits from, and disappeared whenever there was an opportunity to go on the offensive. It was a deeply uncompelling performance.
This was not the debate establishment Democrats wanted. Beyond Bloomberg’s implosion, the fact remains that the party’s center is divided and lacks a clear path to victory. A deeply personal series of insults between Buttigeg and Klobachar sidelined two of the more effective centrist debaters. Skewedly, Sanders mostly held his fire on all the candidates short of Bloomberg, only attacking when provoked. And for Sanders, perhaps the most consequential result of Bloomberg’s presence was that it allowed him to preview a general election strategy: Sanders effectively and persuasively demolished Bloomberg’s Trump-like attacks on communism and his own wealth.
For the nervous centrists, the next best hope may come in June at the party’s convention. When asked, all of the candidates short of Sanders remained open to the idea of a brokered convention if the primary season ended without a candidate receiving a majority of delegates.
Increasingly, this appears to be the only path to denying a Sanders candidacy. If last night was any indication, Michael Bloomberg is not going to stop him.
Bernie Sanders maintained his front-runner status by delivering a clean performance. His response to Pete calling him “divisive” was very good. Similarly impressive was the way he disarmed Bloomberg’s “three house” line of attack. In a general election, you’re not going to be able to hit Sanders on authenticity.
Joe Biden did well, but he’s not in a position where he can get by with doing well. Seeing him attack Bloomberg on stop and frisk and NDAs was exhilarating, although he was embellishing the history a bit. Biden’s debate performances are rarely spectacular, so I’m judging on a curve here. But if this was the Joe Biden who showed up at the past eight debates, he probably would be in a much better position.
Elizabeth Warren had a remarkable performance, hammering all of her opponents with jaw dropping intensity. We haven’t seen a lot of forward movement for candidates who go negative on the debate stage, but the sheer strength of her attacks may change that. At the very least, she was undeniably the most effective against Bloomberg, and likely helped the progressive cause by landing solid hits on Buttigeg and Klobuchar.
Pete Buttigieg went on the stage last night with one goal: convince Democrats that he is the best alternative to Bernie Sanders. Equating Bloomberg and Sanders as equally polarizing figures is not born out by voting data or polling (most people quite like Sanders!), but it’s an effective rhetorical attack. Unfortunately, Buttigieg’s attacks on Sanders mostly backfired, and his bizzare feud with Klobachar felt petty and useless. Buttigieg needed a great performance to convince minorities that he’s a worthwhile option; instead he spent much of the debate aggressively going after a women for unclear reasons.
Amy Klobuchar does not like Pete Buttigieg. She accused the mayor of “calling her dumb”, hammered him for never winning a state-wide election, and sarcastically wished that everyone was “as perfect as [Pete].” There’s a specific language of tortured civility that politicians use when they are pissed at each other, but Klobuchar’s rage often broke through that artificial sheen. Good for her for standing up for herself, but it sidelined what was supposed to be an important debate for her as we move into the more diverse contests in Nevada and South Carolina.