The Wednesday Night Democratic Presidential debate promised to be the most violent clash of the campaign so far, and boy was it. Billionaire Mike Bloomberg made his first appearance. Socialist Bernie Sanders took his place on stage as the frontrunner for the first time. For every candidate not named Bloomberg or Sanders, a sense of desperation hung like old sweat on the Nevada stage.
Surely it would be a night for bloodsport. Now would be the time for the gloves to come off and a knife fight to emerge, and for several other violent political metaphors to come into play. But who would fire first, and at whom? There are risks and rewards in these kinds of clashes and each campaign was weighing their choices.
Bernie Sanders, Joe Biden, Mike Bloomberg, Pete Buttigieg, Elizabeth Warren, and Amy Klobuchar, Lets get ready to ruuuuuumble!
Bernie started with the first and predictable shot at Bloomberg, dinging him on “Stop and Frisk,” and then winding into his own socialist promises. But how would mayor Mike respond? He didn’t. Then Warren compared Bloomberg to Trump, on sexism and racism. How would Bloomberg respond to being called just another arrogant billionaire? He didn’t.
Amy Klobuchar poured on complaining that the Bloomberg campaign asked her and others to drop out of the race. Bloomberg wouldn’t bite. Instead he listed his accomplishments and tried in a jittery unconvincing way to above the fray. Arguing that he can win and he can be president, while looking as nervous as a kid without his homework.
Next up was Biden, who claimed Bloomberg didn’t do a very good job as mayor of New York after all. Then Mayor Pete called Sanders and Bloomberg the two most polarizing figures on the stage.
In ten minutes more shots had been fired than had happened in months and months of the long campaign. Would Bloomberg fight back? He didn’t look like it. He was like Rocky Balboa, trying to win the fight by just taking punches. He frankly looked like there was everywhere else he wanted to be.
Sanders took an early opportunity to sort of denounce his Bernie bros. Mayor Pete pressed, asking why Sanders supporters are uniquely aggressive. Bernie pushed back; even suggesting that some of the incidents of Bernie mayhem might be Russian trolls. Without evidence. Buttigieg pointed at Bernie as a bad leader who is motivating bad behavior.
This was a Democratic Party debate, so of course just as things were getting good and microwave popcorn was down to one pop every three seconds the conversation turned to the exciting issue of the Las Vegas culinary union and Medicare for All. Suddenly we were right back in the mire that has been the Democratic primary.
Rancor over health care, insults, Warren said Buttigieg’s plan is a Post-it note. Amy made a joke about Post-it notes being invented in Minnesota. Every candidate raised their hand anxious, except Bloomberg. He slowly started to fade into the background. Eyes wide-open Biden was ready to go, yelling about his role in crafting Obamacare, which everyone seems to think is awful now.
Bloomberg was stopped and frisked by the moderator and candidates on the policy of that name. His response wasn’t great. He apologized, but stuck to his bottom line that mistakes were made, but crime was reduced. Klobuchar was ready to pile on, or so it seemed, but was then questioned about her own alleged racism as a prosecutor. There was, it turned out, plenty of alleged racism to go around.
Asked about his tax returns, Bloomberg said he is really rich and he can’t go to Turbo Tax, then we learned Klobuchar’s husband does their taxes. Everyone also wants Bernie Sanders’ medical records.
Bloomberg got asked about his past regarding complaints from women in his company of sexism. He gave a kind of “binders full of women” answer and Sen. Warren pounced, demanding Bloomberg release women from non-disclosure agreements. Bloomberg suggests it’s just about some jokes he told. Warren had him on the ropes. And Bloomberg took his standard stand. He offered nothing, to jeers from the crowd. Bloomberg called the NDAs a cringeworthy “consensual.”
The debate devolved, a lot of yelling, animosity, Amy going at Pete, Biden screaming that he is relevant into a dark future of irrelevance. As the first hour wound down, the bruises were evident.
In the second hour we moved into the environment. Trees were hugged rather than punches thrown. A kind of ease settled over the affair, as the tough talk drifted into the memory of Twitter. Once policy comes up, it often seems these Democrats, whether socialist or otherwise, don’t disagree very much.
Joe Biden got excited once policy came up, maybe too little too late, but he seemed energetic for the time since 1988. This was the Joe Biden everyone has been waiting for.
Once again, when the Democrats start talking about the issues it’s magic time. It’s a battle over who agrees with each other more, and who can infuse every issue with as much identity politics as possible. For Warren it’s not just climate change, it’s environmental justice.
At the very least this was an entertaining debate, maybe the first one of this cycle and for that we should be glad. Bloomberg, the big story coming in did not perform well. Some will suggest he is badly damaged. When asked if he should have as much money as he has, he said, “Yes, I worked very hard for it.”
That got a mixed reaction from the Democrats in the crowd. What a telling moment. Moments later he was waiving the flag of capitalism. Also to mixed reaction. And maybe that is the Democrats’ essential divide.
Biden faced a protest as he started his closing speech, some lunatics started screaming, but why? What a strange party where Joe Biden, who will go along to get along with anything, faces angry screams. Crazy night.
This was a fight, and the fallout is hard to predict. But finally it was a debate worth watching.