AUSTIN – The ninth Democratic debate had no clear winner but one clear loser: billionaire Michael Bloomberg.
Money makes the world go around and the former New York mayor has plenty—more than all but 11 other Americans. More than the poorest 125 million combined, as Sen. Bernie Sanders pointed out, calling his stockpile “grotesque” in what turned out to be one of the more gentle pokes the media mogul endured.
The tens of millions Bloomberg has poured into saturating the nation’s airways can’t buy the presidency outright, though it bought enough exposure to trigger an invitation to the Las Vegas debate Wednesday night.
That turned out to be a very, very costly platform indeed, a masochistic exercise in political hazing.
“Look, I’ll support whoever the Democratic nominee is. But understand this: Democrats take a huge risk if we just substitute one arrogant billionaire for another,” Sen. Elizabeth Warren said in the process of shredding him.
It was professional, savage and relentless. Whatever preparation Bloomberg had done for his maiden debate at this level was insufficient. He looked dazed and rattled.
“None of them accuse me of doing anything, other than maybe they didn’t like a joke I told,” he said at another point, squirming under Warren’s interrogation about complaints of sexual harassment at his company.
That was an unusually eventful debate. Some highlights:
Was Bloomberg a target, or a diversion?
Sanders has emerged since Iowa and New Hampshire as the front-runner by double digits. But it didn’t feel that way in Las Vegas, where Bloomberg acted as a lightning rod, drawing heat away from the Vermont senator.
Everyone knew he was in for a thrashing, including him, and he looked like a guy heading to a root canal.
Ideologically, Sanders stands apart, so the race is all about being the last one standing against him. And Warren, Pete Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar and Joe Biden are determined to make sure Bloomberg can’t buy that perch.
Buttigieg warned that Democrats are on the cusp of winnowing the field to Sanders and 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.”
Age and experience
It’s not just that Buttigieg would be the youngest president in history. Having turned 38 only a month ago, he was the youngest contender on stage by decades. And it showed, in high definition.
Klobuchar is 59. Warren, 70. Biden, 77. Sanders and Bloomberg, 78.
The same excruciatingly clear HD television picture that brought the liver spots on the oldest debaters’ faces into your living room also brought Buttigieg’s uneven 5 o’clock shadow, accentuating the age gap.
No, it’s not all about looks.
But it’s not not about looks, either.
Klobuchar has been the most dogged about questioning Buttigieg’s preparation for president. The tension between them was more than palpable; it was outright uncomfortable.
He needled her for forgetting the name of Mexico’s president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, in a recent interview, which she shrugged off as an ordinary memory lapse.
“You’re staking your candidacy on your Washington experience. You’re on the committee that oversees border security. You’re on the committee that does trade,” he said.
“Are you trying to say that I’m dumb? Or are you mocking me here, Pete?” she said, hurt or insulted or at least emoting such. She persisted, contrasting her Washington experience with his as a small town mayor, but it turned out he’d come prepared with a tart comeback.
“If winning a race for Senate in Minnesota translated directly to becoming president, I would have grown up under the presidency of Walter Mondale,” he said, harkening back to an election that took place before his own 3d birthday.
There’s no substitute for experience. Preparation comes close.
Warren came to play
But will she be the beneficiary?
Warren’s campaign has been on death watch after deeply disappointing results in Iowa and New Hampshire. Like a cornered animal, she’s chosen to fight. She lashed out at everyone, whether they lead her in polls or not.
Buttigieg? Too cozy with rich donors. Sanders? Democrats want to beat Donald Trump, but “they are worried about gambling on a revolution that won’t bring along a majority of this country.
“Amy and Joe’s hearts are in the right place, but we can’t be so eager to be liked by Mitch McConnell that we forget how to fight the Republicans,” she said.
The most devastating barrage was aimed at Bloomberg.
“I’d like to talk about who we’re running against: a billionaire who calls women `fat broads’ and `horse-faced lesbians,’” she said as part of her master class in the dark arts of going negative. “And, no, I’m not talking about Donald Trump. I’m talking about Mayor Bloomberg.”
Mike Bloomberg got a number of women—who knows how many—to sign non-disclosure agreements for sexual harassment and gender discrimination.
He needs to release the women from the non-disclosure agreements so we can hear their side of the story. Watch our new ad. pic.twitter.com/qJEI2PT6T5
— Elizabeth Warren (@ewarren) February 20, 2020
It was reminiscent of Chris Christie’s take-down of Marco Rubio in the final GOP debate before New Hampshire’s 2016 primary, when he hammered the Florida senator over and over for spouting memorized 30-second sound bites that, almost inexplicably, Rubio continued to repeat.
But Christie didn’t survive long enough to benefit. He dropped out days later. Warren may have more staying power but apart from Trump, a name-calling bully in debates, few candidates thrive as a snarling attack dog.
Still, her performance was sharp. It reflected intellect and wit, and the reviews were strong. She may well have bought herself time.
Bloomberg the novice
This was Bloomberg’s first presidential debate, and he has many vulnerabilities, from the NYPD’s “stop and frisk” policy that targeted nonwhites to allegations that women in his employ were mistreated.
This isn’t a college debate tournament. You don’t get points for assertions that go unanswered and rebuttals that puncture a rival’s argument. Voters are looking for a sense of the candidates’ character –judgment, gravitas, force of personality.
Passivity and victimhood aren’t good traits in a president. While Bloomberg wasn’t always on his heels, he was on defense often enough for it to be glaring.
“We are not going to beat Donald Trump with a man who has who knows how many nondisclosure agreements and the drip, drip, drip of stories of women saying they have been harassed and discriminated against,” Warren declared.
Bloomberg sought to deflect the allegations by noting that he’s hired any number of women as top executives. Warren was ready for that.
“I hope you heard what his defense was,” she said. “`I’ve been nice to some women.’ …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.”
Bloomberg’s response: “We have a very few nondisclosure agreements.”
How many is very few? Warren asked over and over, challenging him to release these accusers to speak out. Moments later came one of the night’s most cringe-worth moments, when Bloomberg invoked a term associated with the “me too” movement and denials of sexual harassment.
“We’re not going to get — to end these agreements because they were made consensually and they have every right to expect that they will stay private,” he said.
A seasoned debater, or one with more coaching, would have avoided such a loaded term.
Capitalism vs. socialism
Sanders and Bloomberg, both 78, represent ideological poles of the Democratic Party, and it was remarkable to watch a hugely successful capitalist and the nation’s leading socialist go at it.
“You know what, Mr. Bloomberg, it wasn’t you who made all that money. Maybe your workers played some role in that, as well,” Sanders said, complaining that too many workers “feel like cogs in a machine. I want workers to be able to sit on corporate boards, as well, so they can have some say over what happens to their lives.”
Bloomberg called that “ridiculous. We’re not going to throw out capitalism. We tried. Other countries tried that. It was called communism, and it just didn’t work.”
“Let’s talk about democratic socialism. Not communism, Mr. Bloomberg. That’s a cheap shot,” Sanders said.
That’s not something you’d hear in the Republican debate.
Overlooked: Biden and Trump
Biden, the former vice president and erstwhile front-runner, has had far worse nights. He was feisty and in the fray but after lagging in Iowa and New Hampshire, attention has shifted elsewhere. Unlike Warren, he didn’t command prolonged attention in Las Vegas.
Another largely absent specter: the president.
“I’m a New Yorker. I know how to take on an arrogant con man like Donald Trump,” Bloomberg insisted at one point.
That was one of several mentions, none in the context of impeachment, corruption, policy errors or personal flaws or any other complaints Democrats have leveled.
Given the circular firing squad among Democrats, Trump emerged as something of a winner.