Key takeaways from the Democratic debate
Michael Bloomberg is running hard on his record as a three-term New York City mayor, business owner and philanthropist to convince wary Democrats he’s the one who can beat Donald Trump. On the debate stage Wednesday night, his Democratic rivals tore into that record to make the case he isn’t fit for the task.
Democrats unleashed their fiercest, most personal attacks of the campaign on the newest candidate in the race -- with a series of jabs about Bloomberg’s crude statements regarding women and a stop-and-frisk policing policy that targeted minority men. They also reminded voters of Bloomberg’s past political life as a Republican to say he shouldn’t lead the party into battle against Trump.
Some of the sharpest attacks came from Elizabeth Warren, who had one of the best debates of the 2020 primary cycle as she struggles to recover from poor showings in Iowa and New Hampshire. “Democrats take a huge risk if we just substitute one arrogant billionaire for another,” Warren said.
The attacks on Bloomberg had a side benefit for one candidate on stage -- current front-runner Bernie Sanders, who took some fire early on but never was truly put on the defensive during the debate. Sanders has emerged as the candidate to beat for the nomination, based on polls in Nevada and on Super Tuesday March 3. Democrats who want someone else to take on Trump missed an opportunity to blunt his rise during the debate.
It was Bloomberg who got in one of the toughest lines of the night against Sanders, saying point-blank, “I don’t think there’s any chance of the senator beating President Trump,” Bloomberg said. ”If he goes and is the candidate, we will have Donald Trump for another four years and we can’t stand that.”
(Bloomberg is the founder and majority owner of Bloomberg LP, the parent company of Bloomberg News.)
But it was about the only attack line that Bloomberg got off, as he spent most of the debate on the defensive, from attacks by Warren but also moderates Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar who all took turns taking swipes at the former mayor. He was too busy defending his record to talk it up much, and there were only flashes of the straight-talking candidate familiar to New Yorkers who made him mayor three times, when he was a Republican who won in the heavily Democratic city.
It was the first time many Americans saw Bloomberg live on a debate stage, and not just in his ubiquitous television ads on which he has spent more than $400 million, a record in a presidential campaign. There was a wide gap between the smooth, confident candidate portrayed in those ads and the less sure-footed and at times irritable candidate on the debate stage.
“Let me finish,” he said several times as the debate intensified. “What am I, chicken liver?” he added when he couldn’t get attention from the moderators.
Biden criticized Bloomberg over his embrace of former President Barack Obama, saying he had once called Obamacare a “disgrace” in 2010 -- but like the other candidates, Biden did little to convince Democratic voters to give him a second look as his campaign limps from Nevada to South Carolina, whose primary is a little more than a week away.
Likewise, Klobuchar could not reprise her strong debate performance in New Hampshire, where she scored a surprise third-place finish. Buttigieg made a case for a moderate such as himself instead of Sanders or Bloomberg -- “one who wants burn this party down and another who wants to buy this party out” -- but offered little reason for why minority voters who will dominate in Nevada and South Carolina should give him another look.
Sanders may have won the night by not withstanding many attacks, but it was Warren who emerged as the strongest candidate on the stage, with a glimpse of the fighter that at one point made her a favorite of many Democrats. But it might be too little too late, as she is not polling strongly in the upcoming contests.
At one point, Bloomberg could not disguise his impatience with Warren’s line of questioning, as she asked him a series of pointed questions about whether he would lift the non-disclosure agreements some women signed related to sexual harassment allegations at his company.
Bloomberg responded that the women had agreed to keep the cases private. “None of them accuse me of doing anything, other than maybe they didn’t like a joke I told,” he said, eliciting groans from the audience. He recounted his record of hiring women at Bloomberg LP and in the mayor’s office. Warren shot back, “I hope you heard what his defense was, ‘I’ve been nice to some women,’” eliciting an eye roll from Bloomberg.
Bloomberg opened the debate by saying his record showed he was best equipped to beat Trump and then do the job as president.
“I am the candidate who can do exactly both of those things,” Bloomberg said. “I know how to take on an arrogant con man like Donald Trump.”
As the night went on, questions turned to whether billionaires should even exist, prompting Bloomberg to say, “I can’t think of any better reason for Donald Trump to get re-elected than listening to this conversation.”
The debate came just days ahead of Saturday’s Nevada caucuses, where Sanders is leading the polls — as he is in spate of new national polls released this week. Then the race moves to South Carolina, which is shaping up as a make-or-break state for Biden, who is counting on his support in the African-American community to lift him there.
But it’s all just the preliminaries before the 14 Super Tuesday contests on March 3, when 34% of the delegates are up for grabs and Bloomberg’s name will be on the ballot for the first time.
The biggest prize on Super Tuesday is California, and Sanders leads there, too — bad news for Bloomberg, who is counting on a strong showing in that state to make his case for why Democratic voters should consider him now after he skipped the first four contests. Bloomberg is running a distant second in California, and third in most national polls.
For now, the race is looking more like Sanders’ to lose, with the other five candidates all looking to stop him from winning the nomination. Many Democrats fear that Sanders as the nominee would go a long way to helping Trump get re-elected.
Biden, Buttigieg, Warren and Klobuchar so far have failed to stop his rise, and Bloomberg is latest to try, bolstered by his barrage of TV ads.
For Bloomberg to stop Sanders, it would require the moderate wing of the party to coalesce behind the former mayor — which is sure to prove challenging with almost-daily revelations about his past statements on race, women and other hot-button topics that were the subject of jabs in the debate.
Sanders’ case is the easier one to make, as he pledges to re-balance the scales away from the powerful to ordinary people.
Bloomberg’s is much tougher, as a former Republican asking Democratic voters who might not agree with him on everything to believe he is the one with the government experience and nearly unlimited funding who can beat Trump.
Voters are rarely that practical. Bloomberg would need to give them reasons to want him as their nominee beyond simply saying that he is best positioned to win. Witness Biden, who tried to convince Democrats he could win against Trump but so far has failed to win a single contest.
So far, Bloomberg is advancing a set of proposals set squarely in the Democratic mainstream on taxes (though no guarantee of a large middle-class tax cut), health care, immigration and other issues. These are far from the sort of rallying cry issues put forth by Sanders, who is promising free health care and free college for all, paid for by tax hikes mostly on the wealthy. This has made him popular among young voters, even though Sanders is 78 years old, the same age as Bloomberg.
It’s not much better for the other candidates. Buttigieg won a slim lead of delegates in Iowa over Sanders, but it’s hard to see where he scores another major win, especially given his troubles winning over minority voters as the campaign heads to two heavily minority states. Biden is hoping moderates will recoil from Sanders and get behind him. Klobuchar is struggling to turn her surprise third-place New Hampshire finish into serious gains elsewhere. And despite her strong debate showing, Warren’s campaign is largely deflated, with poor finishes in the early states.
Bloomberg’s campaign also left open the possibility that if he’s not the candidate, he gets to pick who is, by amassing enough delegates — even with second- and third-place finishes — to prevent anyone from getting the required 1,991 delegates to win the nomination on the first ballot in Milwaukee.
This is an exceedingly difficult path, mostly because if Sanders’ were to look like the presumptive nominee, Democrats might fall in line behind him instead of splitting their votes in a way that would be helpful to Bloomberg.
Michael Bloomberg is the founder of Bloomberg LP, whose news division is a content partner of BNN Bloomberg