Before Wednesday night’s debate, Mike Bloomberg’s critics had been furious with the Democratic National Committee for changing its rules to allow Bloomberg on the debate stage. But it turned out the critics should have been thanking the DNC. Bloomberg was absolutely terrible. His campaign may not literally have ended on the debate stage, but it’s hard to see how any viewer could come away believing his pitch that he is “the best candidate to take on Trump”.
Bloomberg was ill-prepared, uncharismatic and unlikable. The other candidates ran rings around him. Elizabeth Warren sank her teeth in early, interrupting Bloomberg’s opening statement to point out how his long history of sexist comments about women made him a lot like Donald Trump. Warren landed even more brutal blows later in the debate, when she challenged Bloomberg to release women from the non-disclosure agreements his company had forced them to sign in sexual harassment lawsuits. Bloomberg mumbled some lame excuse about how the agreements were consensual, but was clearly caught off-guard, and Warren wouldn’t let the issue go.
Bloomberg looked feeble, and after the debate some Democratic bigwigs were already reportedly concluding that “Bloomberg isn’t the answer.”
Bloomberg was mercilessly attacked all night by the rest of the candidates over stop-and-frisk, Wall Street, his Republican past and his opposition to raising the minimum wage. He did not have any idea how to respond to the barrage. On stop-and-frisk, he simply lied, saying that he had tried to end the policy when in fact he had escalated it. Warren was having none of this, and correctly pointed out that Bloomberg was failing to take responsibility for the consequences his policy had for African Americans. Joe Biden echoed the sentiment, saying that Bloomberg’s apologies for stop-and-frisk were insufficient. “It’s not whether he apologized or not. It’s the policy. And the policy was abhorrent.” Biden energetically opposed Bloomberg throughout the night, showing a passion and lucidity that has been missing from the last months of his flagging campaign.
It wasn’t just Bloomberg who came under fire. Amy Klobuchar and Pete Buttigieg have never liked each other, and they became downright nasty. Klobuchar once again took the opportunity to point out that Pete has never won a statewide race, while Buttigieg replied with a canned line about how if Minnesotan senators made good nominees, Walter Mondale would have been president. Buttigieg also seized the opportunity to poke at Klobuchar over forgetting the president of Mexico’s name. Klobuchar struggled, asking Pete if he was calling her “dumb”. Buttigieg is a practiced debater and delivers his lines well, and his polished hokum about how “Washington” doesn’t respect small-city rust belt mayors clearly gets on Klobuchar’s nerves to no end.
Warren was unusually vicious toward other candidates, making direct attacks on nearly every one of her opponents. She was spirited and articulate, and with her memorable exchanges with Bloomberg, she will widely be seen as the “winner” of the debate. But it also seemed as if she was desperate to strike as many blows in as many directions as possible, conscious that her campaign needs a miracle if it is going to survive.
In terms of who the debate served best, Sanders was the clear winner. He went into it the frontrunner, and mostly just needed to avoid embarrassing himself. The debate went far better than he could even have hoped. His chief rival, Bloomberg, flopped completely. The other centrists spent time bickering with each other that could have been spent trying to undermine Sanders. Warren did the “dirty work” of eviscerating Bloomberg, allowing Sanders to make a more elevated pitch and somewhat rise above the fray. He was given plenty of time to talk, and while he stuck close to his usual talking points he had above-average energy and was clearly enjoying himself. He was effective in pointing out how Buttigieg dishonestly presents the costs of Medicare For All without mentioning the benefits, and easily parried Bloomberg’s absurd attempt to conflate Sanders’ democratic socialism with “communism”. Bloomberg was a perfect foil for Sanders; Sanders probably wishes Bloomberg had been there all along, a cartoon of an evil billionaire for Sanders to point to as an example of everything wrong with the country.
Sanders went into the debate the frontrunner and he left the frontrunner. If Biden, Buttigieg, and Klobuchar were to stand any chance of overtaking Sanders, they needed to make him look foolish, and they didn’t. Instead, they looked petty, and he survived. Warren was in good form, but she’s simply not going to reclaim the lead over Sanders at this point. Bloomberg was the only serious threat, and he fizzled, showing that the “electability” case for his candidacy is laughable. It’s increasingly clear that Sanders has no serious opposition and Democrats are going to need to start reconciling themselves to the inevitability of his nomination.
But some clearly aren’t reconciled. One concerning moment in the debate came at the very end, where each candidate was asked if they believed that the candidate with the most delegates should be given the nomination, or the “superdelegates” should be allowed to intervene. Sanders was the only candidate who would say that the nomination should go to the individual with the most delegates. Every other candidate is apparently leaving open the possibility of the Democratic party overriding the popular vote at the convention, presumably in order to deny Sanders the nomination.
Alarmingly, even if Sanders is the clear public favorite, there are still those Democrats who think he needs to be stopped at all costs.