The world will properly say in the aftermath of last night’s Democratic debate/melee in Las Vegas that former New York City mayor Mike Bloomberg had his own head handed to him in a small paper sack marked “Property of Warren for President.”
They will say this because it is the truth, but it is not the only truth of the evening. The establishment wing of the Democratic Party — represented by Bloomberg, Joe Biden, Amy Klobuchar and Pete Buttigieg — observably fell to pieces on the debate stage. Whatever hopes that the establishment segment of the party had of gaining some semblance of control over the race took two torpedoes below the waterline and sank without a ripple.
The nationally televised defenestration of Bloomberg came almost entirely at the hands of Elizabeth Warren, who was in her glory from start to finish. Warren and Bloomberg were placed side by side on the debate stage, and it was Martha and the Vandellas for Mayor Mike all night long: Nowhere to run to, baby, nowhere to hide.
By all reports, Bloomberg prepared mightily for this debate. “Mr. Bloomberg himself has been holed up in debate preparations,” wrote The New York Times the day before, “joining advisers for mock sessions in a rented warehouse-style space outside Manhattan, snacking on matzo with peanut butter during breaks from his aides’ play-acted swipes at his record.”
“Warehouse-style space?” Maybe Bloomberg wanted to train like Rocky. It did not show.
When it happened, it happened fast. Straight out of the gate, Warren pasted Bloomberg with his own words: “I’d like to talk about who we’re running against — a billionaire who calls women ‘fat broads’ and ‘horse-faced lesbians.’ No, I’m not talking about Donald Trump. I’m talking about Michael Bloomberg.” The slowly dawning look of dread on Bloomberg’s face after that immediate haymaker boxed his ear told the tale of the evening: This wasn’t practice any more. He had, in the words of Twitter user Bruce Mehlman, “brought a wallet to a knife fight,” and there was no wad of cash in all the land sufficient to rescue him from that stage.
Matters did not improve for the erstwhile “savior of the party.” Bloomberg was ragdolled ruthlessly for everything from his racist stop-and-frisk policies, to the nondisclosure agreements he uses to cover up his grossly sexist behavior toward his women employees, to his Trumpian reluctance regarding the release of his tax returns, to his facile historical rewrite of the cause for the 2008 financial crisis. His attempt to participate in the discussion on health care amounted to an act of performative gibberish.
When challenged by his opponents, each of Bloomberg’s wobbly ripostes were worse than the last, and he spent the bulk of the evening looking and sounding like a pissy aristocrat. His best moment came when he tried to call Bernie Sanders a communist, and it was not a good moment, not really, because the audience audibly groaned when he said it. By the end of the affair, that same audience was openly laughing at him whenever he opened his mouth.
Warren led the charge in thoroughly relentless fashion, but all the other participants on that stage had their turns taking Bloomberg for a walk down Desolation Row. Even Joe Biden got some decently coherent licks in, and friends, when Presidential Candidate Biden 3.0 (Beta) is eating your lunch for you, it’s time to contemplate new employment horizons.
It usually costs a small fortune to see a knockout like that in Las Vegas. This one was cheap, the price of a cable subscription or an internet connection. Cheap, that is, for everyone except the fellow who got his lights put out some 27 seconds into the contest. Bloomberg paid $409 million of his own money for this privilege, a fact that should end for all time the mythical misconception that being rich is the same as being smart.
Because of Bloomberg’s money, Wednesday night was almost certainly not the end of the road for him. Thanks to the magic of vast wealth and compound interest, he might earn back what he has spent on his campaign to date before I finish typing this sentence.
He is not on the ballot in either Nevada or South Carolina, so his calamitous debate performance will have no immediate consequences beyond a potential dip in the polls. He will not face the voters until the massive Super Tuesday contest on March 3, but his once-brightening prospects for that day have dimmed considerably. If I were Bloomberg, I’d go back to that “warehouse-style space” and hide behind the utility sink.
Michael Bloomberg was not alone on the pain train, however. Perhaps sensing that Saturday’s caucus in Nevada is a lost cause for him, Biden was largely irrelevant for most of the evening. When he did chime in, it was usually to claim that he was “the guy who did that,” with “that” being whatever the others were talking about.
Biden has become a caricature of his own greatest moment, which famously came at the expense of Rudy Giuliani in 2007. Instead of being “a noun, a verb, and 9/11,” as he so scathingly described Rudy’s oratorical style, Biden has himself become a noun, a verb, and Barack Obama.
Meanwhile, Pete Buttigieg took whatever good will he has accumulated with voters and smothered it beneath a smug layer of equally distributed disdain. He went after each of his rivals in turn, but his lines came off sounding petty and shallow. Buttigieg’s overall performance was a validation of the Peter Principle: He has risen to his level of incompetence.
Buttigieg’s mutually destructive tussle with Amy Klobuchar last night will deservedly become the stuff of lore in the annals of U.S. political history, thanks entirely to the bitter petulance on display. It wasn’t quite “You’re no Jack Kennedy,” but it was salty. Those two do not like each other, and it showed.
Buttigieg did himself no favors by allowing himself to be side-tracked into an argument with Klobuchar about the name of Mexico’s president, but it was Klobuchar who came away from their exchanges visibly damaged. “Are you trying to say I’m dumb or you’re somehow mocking me, Pete?” she exclaimed at one point. “I wish everyone was perfect like you, Pete,” she groused at another. It was a bad look all around.
Unless something dramatic happens, the presidential campaign of Amy Klobuchar is probably finished. She was already playing catch-up after the field tightened and the actual voting began. Whatever mojo she summoned in New Hampshire appears all but spent. If the poll numbers hold true, she will fare poorly in Nevada and again in South Carolina. If she stays in the race after that, it will only be to make Pete Buttigieg mad.
Bloomberg, Biden, Buttigieg and Klobuchar. Establishment Democrats wanted voters to believe these candidates have what it takes to stand up to Donald Trump and defeat him in the high heat of a general election campaign. Last night, they looked like a quartet of spaniels trying to growl at a Rottweiler. If I’m Trump, I’m not sweating that crew. Teacakes are sturdier.
Bernie Sanders did what he came to do and maintained his position as the polling-based frontrunner in this race, but it was Elizabeth Warren’s night to shine. Pundits predicting imminent doom for her campaign now make Chicken Little sound like Pliny the Elder, and major news outlets trying to “disappear” her candidacy will find that task impossible forthwith. She smoked ‘em, but good. Mike Bloomberg is going to remember her backlit face looming over his for a long time to come.
Sanders’s path to the nomination has never been wider, while Warren’s campaign is at least temporarily reborn. If and when this two-pronged progressive contest becomes a nomination dilemma remains to be seen, but Sanders is unlikely to lose any meaningful portion of his devoted base.
Warren did both herself and the issues she holds dear proud last night, but it remains to be seen whether her commanding performance will revive her nomination hopes. If Sanders has a big Super Tuesday, the same may go for the rest as well, billionaire bankrolls notwithstanding.
The establishment wing of the Democratic Party is in comprehensive disarray today, splintered into four equally wobbly parts that do not appear poised to steady themselves anytime in the near term. The progressive wing of the party, by contrast, is as robust as it has been in generations. If I’m Trump, I’m sweating that a lot.