It’s been quite the month.
We still don’t know who won the Iowa caucus and, despite the recanvass, may never truly know. Then came the New Hampshire primary which reset the media narrative: Bernie Sanders was the race’s frontrunner though Pete Buttigieg was closer than expected. Despite his attempts to lower expectations in the last debate, Joe Biden did worse than excepted, finishing in 5th place. Amy Klobuchar revived her campaign with a strong third place finish which, in turn, seemed to erase Elizabeth Warren from the conversation because the media can only be bothered to focus on one woman at a time. Disappointing finishes for Andrew Yang, Gov. Deval Patrick and Sen. Michael Bennett in New Hampshire forced those candidates to end their campaigns, leaving us with just eight candidates still vying for the nomination.
Of those, six candidates participated in last night’s ninth debate of the primary season…and while the debate is set up in advance of Saturday’s Nevada caucus, campaigns also have their eyes on Super Tuesday states like California, North Carolina and Ohio, where early voting has already begun.
+ Michael Bloomberg – Former Mayor of New York City, New York
+ Elizabeth Warren – Senator from Massachusetts
+ Bernie Sanders – Senator from Vermont
+ Joe Biden – Former Vice President
+ Pete Buttigieg – Former Mayor of South Bend, Indiana
+ Amy Klobuchar – Senator from Minnesota
Bloomberg Joins The Fray
Last month, shortly after Julián Castro, Marianne Williamson and Cory Booker ended their quests for the presidency, DNC Chair Tom Perez was asked how the most diverse presidential candidate slate in the Party’s history had ended up so devoid of diversity before a single vote had been cast. Activists affixed some of the blame on the DNC who forced campaigns to spend excessively to bolster donor and supporter counts in order to qualify for debates, but Perez was undeterred.
“We made the rules, they were very transparent, they’re very inclusive, and we can’t change the rules midstream because there’s a candidate that I wish were on but didn’t make the debate stage,” Perez told CNN.
Two weeks later, though, the DNC changed the rules midstream. While the Party wasn’t prepare to make allowances for Castro, Booker or even Yang, it seemed willing to make special concessions for Michael Bloomberg. In addition to doubling the polling thresholds and adding a delegate threshold, the new debate qualification rules eliminated the individual donor requirement. The change, roundly criticized by the other candidates, opened the door for the self-funding billionaire to make his way onto the debate stage.
I’m more forgiving than most of the DNC’s missteps with respect to debate rules. It was virtually impossible to concoct a set of qualifications that’d be both amicable to the 28 (!!) campaigns and make the debates useful for voters watching at home. Still, though, the Party did itself and its voters a major disservice by refusing to make changes. Expanding the polling thresholds to include more states, adding additional polling organizations to the list of accepted pollsters or even commissioning their own polls could have helped level the playing field, but the DNC refused. To only now make changes — to the benefit of one billionaire candidate after a massive donation to the Party — undermines the DNC’s legitimacy as a fair arbiter in this race. If the Party refused to make changes midstream at Booker or Yang’s urging, then they should’ve stayed consistent with that position: Michael Bloomberg should not have been on that debate stage.
That said, there is an upside: for weeks now, the airwaves where I live have been saturated by Michael Bloomberg ads. While the other candidates have been fighting it out in Iowa and New Hampshire, Bloomberg has been blanketing Super Tuesday states with ads. If you know Bloomberg’s history, the ads are offensive, touting a history that doesn’t actually exist. There’s one ad in particular in which Bloomberg ties himself so closely to Barack Obama, you’d think the former president had endorsed him. But because Bloomberg’s doing no national interviews and hasn’t been engaged in the horse race thus far, there’s no one there to challenge the erroneous narrative Bloomberg’s feeding voters. Last night was finally an opportunity for some accountability…and he got it from the opening bell.
The Bloomberg Accountability Tour
Polling leader Bernie Sanders got the first question of the debate — about whether he or Bloomberg were better positioned to take on Donald Trump — and right out of the gate, he directed his ire at the new billionaire on the stage. He said that the former mayor’s use of stop and frisk would impede his ability to grow voter turnout in the way that Democrats would need to win back the White House. But Sanders’ hit was just a glancing blow — which Bloomberg attempted to bat back by criticizing Sanders’ health care plan — it was Elizabeth Warren hit the former NYC mayor with a haymaker.
She continued, “Democrats are not going to win if we have a nominee who has a history of hiding his tax returns, of harassing women, and of supporting racist polls like redlining and stop and frisk. 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.”
There is no love lost between Bloomberg and Warren. When Warren first ran for Senate in 2012 — begrudgingly, because the Senate wouldn’t confirm her appointment to lead the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau — Bloomberg endorsed her Republican opponent, Sen. Scott Brown. Bloomberg, who founded Mayors Against Illegal Guns, touted Brown’s support for the National Right-To-Carry Reciprocity Act which would prohibit gun owners from carrying concealed weapons across state lines. But Brown’s support of the Reciprocity Act was tepid, at best, and the National Rifle Association had given the incumbent senator their highest rating…so it seemed clear to most observers that Bloomberg’s support of Brown had more to do with Warren’s work as a consumer advocate, battling Wall Street, than gun control. The tension between them re-emerged on the debate stage last night.
But Warren and Sanders weren’t alone in their attacks on the former NYC Mayor. Klobuchar hit back at Bloomberg for his campaign’s recent memo that suggested that the only way to stop Sanders’ ascendancy to the nomination was for her, Biden and Buttigieg to exit the race. She also blasted Bloomberg for not yet releasing his tax returns, noting “it is a major issue, because the president of the United States has been hiding behind his tax returns.” Biden criticized Bloomberg’s record as mayor, highlighting his unrelenting support of stop and frisk even as the Obama administration tried to intercede to stop it. Even Buttigieg got in on the action, warning Democrats that their final choices can’t be Sanders or Bloomberg.
“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,” Buttigieg said. “Let’s put forward somebody who’s actually a Democrat. We shouldn’t have to choose between one candidate who wants to burn this party down and another candidate who wants to buy this party out. We can do better.”
Though everyone got in on the attacks on Bloomberg, it was certainly Warren’s attacks that hit hardest…and perhaps the biggest hit on the former NYC Mayor came when MSNBC’s Haille Jackson asked about lawsuits from former employees that suggest that his company was a hostile workplace. Despite the fact that his non-disclosure agreements had been a prominent news story, Bloomberg seemed totally unprepared for the question. He stumbled around for an answer, touting the number of women he had working for him while mayor and at his philanthropic foundation. But then Warren stepped into respond and she was relentless.
Even the most adept politicians would’ve had trouble handling Warren’s extended questioning — it was so deliberate and focused, it felt a bit like something Kamala Harris would’ve done — but Bloomberg was caught completely flatfooted. He reminded the audience that he hadn’t done anything, but the women “maybe…didn’t like a joke [he] told.” He brushed aside Warren’s suggestion that he release the women from the terms of the NDAs and, in the worst turn of phrase possible, said “they were made consensually and [the women] have every right to expect that they will stay private.” It was such a thorough dismantling of Bloomberg that Biden and Buttigieg, both smelling blood in the water, jumped into the fray and feasted on Bloomberg’s remains.
The debate’s second hour was better for Bloomberg but the damage had been done. Welcome to the race, Mr. Mayor.
All That Smoke
During the last debate, Elizabeth Warren spoke for a total of about 16 minutes, finishing behind most of her competitors. She was criticized after the debate for being passive and not engaging enough. Last night, Warren stepped onto the debate stage determined to get her voice heard — she finished first in the battle for speaking time this week — and, though she saved her harshest attacks for Bloomberg, Warren had plenty of smoke for everyone.
She hit Buttigieg, Klobuchar and Sanders over their health care plans. Warren compared Buttigieg’s plan to a consultant-concocted Powerpoint presentation, she reduced Klobuchar’s plan to a post-it note and celebrated Bernie’s ideas but criticized his attacks on anyone who dared ask him for more details. She struck out at Biden and Klobuchar for the smallness of their proposals, claiming that they were just trying to curry favor with Mitch McConnell, instead of showing a willingness to fight against Republicans.
Biden responded to Warren’s charge, forcefully, saying, “Mitch McConnell — I’ve been the object of his affection and the president’s affection, the way he’s gone after me…after my son, after my family. I don’t need to be told I’m a friend of Mitch McConnell’s. Mitch McConnell has been the biggest pain in my neck in a long, long time.”
But Warren had telegraphed Biden response and was ready and waiting to land the counterpunch, “According to the New York Times, the last time that Mitch McConnell was on the ballot, the vice president stood in the Oval Office and said, ‘I hope that Mitch gets reelected so I can keep working with him.’ Well…Mitch did get re-elected.” She noted that that re-election helped Republicans stall the Obama agenda, steal a Supreme Court seat and stymie the work of the CFBD.
But Warren wasn’t alone, both Buttigieg and Klobuchar were more forceful at the podium last night too. There’s been tension between the two Midwestern candidates for a while now but, for the most part, Buttigieg has brushed off the bulk of Klobuchar’s attacks. Last night though, the former South Bend Mayor had had enough.
Asked about her embarrassing misstep of not knowing the name of the President of Mexico last night, Klobuchar admitted that she’d forgotten President Lopez Obrador’s in that moment. But, she pointed out, that a moment of forgetfullness shouldn’t distract from a career of advocacy, including early support of the U.S.-Mexican-Canadian Trade Agreement. Seeing an opportunity, Buttigieg pounced.
“You’re staking your candidacy on your Washington experience,” he told Klobuchar. “You’re on the committee that oversees border security. You’re on the committee that does trade. You’re literally in part of the committee that’s overseeing these things and were not able to speak to literally the first thing about the politics of the country to our south.”
Klobuchar took Buttigieg’s rebuttal very personally and responded directly, the disdain evident in her voice, “Are you — are you trying to say that I’m dumb? Or are you mocking me here, Pete?”
The two went back and forth several times: Buttigieg noting that experience in Washington doesn’t make a candidate conversant in issues, while Klobuchar pointed out that she’d managed to win statewide — in Republican districts, even — whereas Buttigieg lost his only attempt by double digits. The exchanges between the two grew so testy that Warren stepped in to calm the tension. Later, though, it reemerged, this time as Buttigieg and Klobuchar debated the fate of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals recipients…better known as DREAMers.
Klobuchar’s support for Trump appointees has been an issue that I’m surprised hasn’t been addressed so far so I was glad that Buttigieg finally brought it up (though I could’ve done without him speaking Spanish to do it. NEWSFLASH: Not all DREAMers speak Spanish). Klobuchar does have a record of supporting Trump judicial nominees more than the other Democratic contenders. She did vote for the Trump’s Customs and Border Protection nominee and she did vote for English as the national language.
Backed into a corner, Klobuchar lashed out, “I wish everyone was as perfect as you, Pete.”
It was a bad moment for Klobuchar and, despite a quick pivot to talk about her record, I think it could hurt her…mainly because it seems to legitimize all those stories about her reputation as an abusive boss.
Warren won this debate — in fact, she won it so handily, I’m hard-pressed to take suggestions otherwise as anything other than disdain for Elizabeth Warren. Aside from launching skilled attacks at her opponents, she was always ready to pivot back to a story about a Nevadan or highlight the specific plight of black and brown people. I think she made her case that if you want a candidate who can go toe-to-toe with an “arrogant billionaire,” she’s ready.
“I grew up fighting,” Warren said in her closing. “I grew up out in Oklahoma, and I learned it probably from my mother…I watched my mother fight to save our family. And I grew up fighting to save our family, my family.”
That said, aside from Bloomberg and that momentary slip from Klobuchar, I don’t think the other contenders did poorly. Warren’s aggressiveness probably helped Sanders the most…he didn’t have to deal with attacks on him because everyone was so busy responding to Warren. Buttigieg was good, as well. I think he probably does see Amy Klobuchar as threat to his voter base and his attacks against her were focused.
What’d you think of the debate? I’m clearly in the “I want to see candidates actually debate” camp so last night’s fireworks didn’t bother me as much but I know some people are turned off by them. Did this debate help you clarify who you’re going to support?
If you missed the debate, NBC News has made the entire thing available for viewing on their website. The next Democratic debate will take place in Charleston, South Carolina on Feb. 25, just ahead of that state’s primary. It’ll be co-hosted by CBS News and the Congressional Black Caucus Institute.