Centrists Use Nevada Debate to Position Themselves Between Bloomberg and Sanders

If it isn’t clear by now, billionaire and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg suffered a defeat in Nevada on Wednesday after virtually buying a spot on the Las Vegas stage that other Democratic candidates had to earn through exhausting schedules of rallies, fundraising (and wine caves).

As the chief target during the Democratic primary debate, The New York Times rated his first performance a 2.9 out of 10. Few media pundits offered praise, and it’s no wonder. Bloomberg came across just as he is: an unapologetic billionaire, serial harasser and architect of racist policing.

There’s perhaps not too much enthusiasm to nominate a racist, sexist oligarch to defeat a racist, sexist oligarch in November. But the significance of Bloomberg’s appearance Wednesday lies not merely in the prospect of whether he receives the Democratic nomination, but in his ability to make establishment Democrats — and a potentially brokered convention — appear more palatable to undecided or uneasy voters, as well as those whose narrow vision of politics is simply to defeat Republicans.

In 2016, Sen. Bernie Sanders was able to distinguish himself from former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (and all the other candidates, for that matter) beyond the tired means of citing superficial distinctions in experience, pointing to opponents’ gaffes or appealing to personality. Instead, by offering a substantive challenge on policy, drawing hard lines on campaign finance, and bringing corporate media and party elites’ antipathy toward serious reforms out in the open, Sanders made clear where he and his opponents stood in relation to questions of power and democracy.

For the majority of the 2020 primary season, most of the candidates have been suffering from the same problem: How do you sell your brand of neoliberalism in an oversaturated market? (Recall that the first primary debates in June involved 20 candidates.) Put another way, they have largely been stuck in a competition between themselves to defeat Sanders, not Trump.

Following the Iowa and New Hampshire primaries, these candidates needed to revitalize their flagging campaigns if they wanted to be serious contenders for the nomination. The coronation of former Vice President Joe Biden had already been canceled early on. Sen. Amy Klobuchar couldn’t muster more than a single-delegate lead over Biden, and Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s lead sat at just one more point over Klobuchar’s prior to the vote in Nevada. Ahead with delegate voters but trailing in the popular vote, former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg needed to solidify an image of himself as the most serious opposition to Sanders until the convention.

A good debate performance in Nevada could help, but more importantly, they needed something allowing them to move away from a framing of the primary as a battle against Sanders.

Bloomberg (who was a Republican not too long ago) has offered Buttigieg, Klobuchar, Biden and Warren an opportunity to escape this trap. Not only can they now point to two “polarizing” candidates — Bloomberg and Sanders — but they themselves have a new position from which to advocate for themselves: the center.

The MSNBC moderators facilitated the emergence of this new position with the structure of the debate. With few exceptions, nearly every topic was opened with a reference to either Bloomberg or Sanders. If one ignores the questions that merely asked a candidate to respond to another candidate when invoked, more than two-thirds of the questions were about a policy position or statement made by either of those two candidates. This debate was about Sanders and Bloomberg.

Warren was the first to take advantage of this situation in her opening remarks of the night, when she cited Bloomberg’s record of sexist, homophobic remarks in order to portray Bloomberg as synonymous with Trump. Bloomberg “had his own head handed to him in a small paper sack marked ‘Property of Warren for President,’” quipped Truthout’s William Rivers Pitt. Truly, Warren hit everyone hard. In a sense, she can partially thank the former mayor for being an easy target.

Though Warren has positioned herself as a progressive, her repeated insistence on identifying as a capitalist — which she emphasized again Wednesday night — in explicit distinction to what she describes as Sanders’s “narrow vision” has led to contesting views on whether she is vying for the same oppositional space in the Democratic Party as Sanders or whether she represents a more progressive shade of the candidates largely opposed to his vision. Like the other centrist candidates, she used the debate to differentiate herself from Sanders by attacking the details of his Medicare-for-All plan, the behavior of some of his online supporters and democratic socialism.

But perhaps it was Buttigieg who most adeptly took advantage of Bloomberg’s presence in order to articulate his own candidacy as a Third Way to both “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.” Donald Trump would win again if “we polarized this country with the wrong nominee,” Buttigieg warned.

Buttigieg has a lot riding on this strategy, as polls leading up to Saturday’s vote in Nevada show, he could arguably characterize himself as a consistent, serious rival to Sanders. But it doesn’t mean it will work. Bloomberg is the epitome of a person who gives money to Buttigieg, so this strategy will only pan out if Buttigieg can ward off progressive attacks about his 43 billionaire donors, and if he can sustain the outlandish idea that Bloomberg and Sanders are somehow identical.

Many signs point toward either a brokered convention or situation in which Sanders is treated like former Democratic presidential nominee George McGovern in 1972 and left on his own. The latter could be a danger to Democrats opposed to the Sanders project, as much of his base already lies outside the core structures of the party. If it heads toward the former, the final question of the Nevada debate — “Should the person with the most delegates at the end of this primary season be the nominee, even if they are short of a majority?” — made clear that the most unequivocal and unifying line of attack for the other candidates lies in defeating Sanders and any remaining processes of democracy that might exist within the convention. (Sanders was the only candidate to say that the person with the most delegates should win the primary even if they do not have a majority.)

As seen in Wednesday’s primary debate, Bloomberg’s candidacy is prompting candidates like Buttigieg to encourage the perception that Sanders is as risky of a bet as an oligarch to defeat Trump. In this case, the Democratic National Committee could be aiming to narrow the delegate gap between Sanders and his opponents in the hopes of prompting less outrage if (or when) it ignores the more-democratic popular vote in favor of the party rules in July. Bloomberg might scare enough primary voters away from himself — and Sanders — to follow.