On Wednesday evening, the Wikipedia page of Michael Bloomberg was updated to state that he had “died” on February 19, 2020, at the hands of Senator Elizabeth Warren.
I’m hard pressed to think of a more fitting, albeit hyperbolic, description of what happened at the Democratic presidential debate in Las Vegas.
The first words out of Warren’s mouth landed like an uppercut to the jaw of the former New York City mayor. “I’d like to talk about who we’re running against,” said Warren. “A billionaire who calls women ‘fat broads’ and ‘horse-faced lesbians,’ and no, I’m not talking about Donald Trump. I’m talking about Mayor Bloomberg.”
Bloomberg then proceeded to take body blow after body blow — and he couldn’t get his gloves up to defend himself.
Everyone knew Bloomberg would be asked about his support for the stop-and-frisk policy that targeted communities of color while he was mayor of New York City. Everyone except, it seemed, Bloomberg, who had no good answer when asked about it. Later, under withering criticism from Warren for his refusal to release the non-disclosure agreements from women who sued his company, his response included this bon mot, “none of [the women] accuse me of doing anything other than maybe they didn’t like a joke I told.”
If it was a sexist joke … that’s the problem.
Former vice president Joe Biden, Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, and Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont got their licks in too, but Bloomberg was often his own worst enemy. He came across as arrogant, condescending, unprepared, and out-of-touch with the party he is seeking to lead. By the time the debate ended, his carcass had practically been picked clean.
Bloomberg’s poor showing seems likely to stall his momentum. But he’s not on the ballot in Nevada, so who will immediately benefit?
With the exception of Klobuchar, one could make the case that all the candidates will. They did what they needed to do.
Warren had a fantastic debate. She repeatedly showed her effectiveness at delivering a political attack as well as her vast policy chops. She didn’t attack only Bloomberg — she hit everyone. Even Sanders got a glancing blow from her. That could rub some voters the wrong way, but if they were looking for a fighter, she delivered. If her Hail Mary effort doesn’t restart her campaign, nothing will.
Biden had a surprisingly good night. He still gets tongue-tied and confuses shouting with passion, but he wasn’t afraid to mix it up, particularly with Bloomberg, whom he went after with apparent glee. It was an energetic performance that seems likely to reassure his supporters he is still alive in this race. If Bloomberg takes a hit from Wednesday, it stands to reason that Biden could benefit — since much of the former’s rise has come from the latter. In Nevada, if moderate Democrats are looking to stop Sanders’ momentum — and Bloomberg no longer looks like such a great option — Biden could reap the whirlwind.
Former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Klobuchar were Wednesday night’s undercard fight. These two are fighting for moderate Democratic voters so it’s not surprising that they tangled. But the venom between them was remarkable.
The most revealing moment came late in the debate when Buttigieg hit Klobuchar for voting to confirm Kevin McAleenan, the former US Customs and Border Protection commissioner, as well as her support for legislation to make English the national language. It was a smarmy attack, but Klobuchar responded with high dudgeon. “I wish everyone was as perfect as you, Pete,” she said. You’ve “not been in the arena doing that work. You’ve memorized a bunch of talking points and a bunch of things.”
At that moment, every story from former staffers about her rage rang true. Klobuchar was flustered, and she lashed out in a way that clearly reflected the deep animus she feels toward the political upstart. It spoke volumes about the deep well of anger and resentment that resides under Klobuchar’s well-constructed facade of “Minnesota nice.”
It also demonstrated her political inadequacies. Buttigieg came prepared to get under Klobuchar’s skin. He clearly wanted to get a reaction out of her and it worked. Disciplined politicians don’t get so easily thrown off their game, but Klobuchar did. And Buttigieg stands to benefit if her response rubbed Nevada voters the wrong way.
Finally, a word on Sanders. Arguably, he had the best night of anyone. The other candidates were so busy attacking Bloomberg, they forgot to lay a punch on the nominal front-runner.
In fact, every time Buttigieg attacked him (and he was the only candidate who consistently did), Sanders interrupted and talked over him. While it neutralized Mayor Pete’s criticisms, to my ear, Sanders came across as arrogant and condescending. It wasn’t a great look, but then again he usually comes across as arrogant and condescending, and it never seems to hurt him with his core supporters. I doubt last night was any different.
It wasn’t a great debate performance for Sanders, but it didn’t need to be. He was on top of the polls going in, and he’s likely still in first place as the smoke has cleared. If you’re the front-runner, that’s a pretty good outcome.
Michael A. Cohen’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.