NPI's Cascadia Advocate

Offering commentary and analysis from Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, The Cascadia Advocate is the Northwest Progressive Institute's uplifting perspective on world, national, and local politics.

Thursday, February 20th, 2020

The Democratic Party’s Las Vegas candidates debate was its liveliest and best watched yet

Last night, Las Vegas host­ed what was, with­out a doubt, the most con­tentious  debate of the 2020 cycle. It also end­ed up being the most watched.

The can­di­dates laid into each oth­er over issues large and small, per­son­al and polit­i­cal. The debate began with the oth­er can­di­dates eager­ly tak­ing on New York may­or Michael Bloomberg’s hideous record of racism, sex­ism, and elit­ist arro­gance. Lat­er, a spat broke out between Sen­a­tor Amy Klobuchar of Min­neso­ta and for­mer May­or Pete Buttigieg that made their pre­vi­ous exchanges over elec­tabil­i­ty and expe­ri­ence seem warm and friend­ly by comparison.

Unlike ear­li­er debates, the can­di­dates did not spend much time delv­ing into pol­i­cy specifics or tout­ing their com­mon ground. But the debate did offer view­ers an oppor­tu­ni­ty to see how each can­di­date reacts under fire – a vital­ly impor­tant fac­tor to take into account when choos­ing the nom­i­nee to take on Don­ald Trump.

Here’s a sum­ma­ry of how each can­di­date did.

Michael Bloomberg

Michael Bloomberg prob­a­bly woke up this morn­ing hop­ing the old say­ing is true – what hap­pens in Vegas stays in Vegas. But not this time. Near­ly twen­ty mil­lion peo­ple tuned in for this debate, set­ting a new record for a Demo­c­ra­t­ic debate.

Bloomberg rolled into the debate with some momen­tum, large­ly thanks to the mon­ey he has plowed into his can­di­da­cy, which has helped him flood the air­waves in states like Vir­ginia. Giv­en Joe Biden’s dif­fi­cul­ties, Bloomberg was neat­ly posi­tioned to cap­i­tal­ize on his desire to buy the 2020 Demo­c­ra­t­ic nomination.

But he squan­dered his chance to make his case on the big stage next to his rivals for the nom­i­na­tion. His hor­ren­dous per­for­mance on Wednes­day night not only ruined his chance to make a good first impres­sion with Demo­c­ra­t­ic vot­ers intrigued by his can­di­da­cy, but may have imper­iled his odds of per­form­ing cred­i­bly in the states that will allo­cate their del­e­gates on Super Tues­day (March 3rd).

Bloomberg start­ed the debate by try­ing to make the case that Bernie Sanders is une­lec­table – but was quick­ly inter­rupt­ed by Eliz­a­beth War­ren, who want­ed to show just what une­lec­table means among Democ­rats. She ripped into Bloomberg’s long record of sex­ist remarks and non-dis­­­clo­­sure agree­ments with women who have accused him (“No, I’m not talk­ing about Don­ald Trump, I’m talk­ing about May­or Bloomberg”) and called him an “arro­gant bil­lion­aire.” Amy Klobuchar joined in, rein­forc­ing that characterization.

Bloomberg’s response was tepid and uncon­vinc­ing, say­ing that his expe­ri­ence run­ning New York – “a com­pli­cat­ed city” – qual­i­fied him. That gave Biden an open­ing. The Vice Pres­i­dent jumped in to remind Bloomberg that the Oba­ma admin­is­tra­tion had inter­vened in New York with fed­er­al mod­er­a­tors to mit­i­gate the dam­age that was being caused by Bloomberg’s bad crim­i­nal jus­tice policies.

Bloomberg’s excuse for mak­ing women sign non-dis­­­clo­­sure agree­ments was, quite sim­ply, one of the worst answers in mod­ern Amer­i­can politics.

Bloomberg spent most of the night tak­ing hit after hit, and was clear­ly total­ly unpre­pared for this debate. He had bought his way in, but he couldn’t talk his way out. His attempts to attack oth­er can­di­dates failed utter­ly: by com­par­ing Bernie Sanders’ Demo­c­ra­t­ic social­ism to com­mu­nism (draw­ing groans from the crowd) he remind­ed peo­ple that he was a Repub­li­can who sup­port­ed George W. Bush.

Bloomberg’s per­for­mance proved that he is arro­gant, unpre­pared and total­ly unable to take on his Demo­c­ra­t­ic rivals, let alone Don­ald Trump.

Eliz­a­beth Warren

In con­trast to Michael Bloomberg, Eliz­a­beth War­ren had the best per­for­mance of the night, a marked improve­ment from her show­ing at the New Hamp­shire debate. She wast­ed no time chastist­ing Bloomberg for his sex­ist remarks right off the bat, and was relent­less for the remain­der of the debate.

While she made mince­meat out of Bloomberg (with the help of the oth­er can­di­dates on stage) where she real­ly shone was her crit­i­cal assess­ment of the neolib­er­al can­di­dates regard­ing their health­care pro­pos­als. Amy Klobuchar and Pete Buttigieg both attacked aspects of Medicare For All, but War­ren turned the tables on their own plans, say­ing that Buttigieg’s was “a Pow­er­Point” and that Klobuchar’s was bare­ly a Post-It note: “Insert plan here!”

Despite mak­ing this crit­i­cism, War­ren lat­er admirably came to Klobuchar’s res­cue. One of the mod­er­a­tors, Vanes­sa Hauc, asked Klobuchar about an inter­view in which she for­got the name of the Pres­i­dent of Mexico.

Klobuchar’s defense was derailed by Buttigieg tak­ing the moment to attack her mer­ci­less­ly for the slip-up. The spat between the two came to dom­i­nate that part of the debate, with Klobuchar becom­ing vis­i­bly angered and upset.

War­ren stepped into the mid­dle of the argu­ment to make the sim­ple point that the crit­i­cism of Klobuchar wasn’t right: “Miss­ing a name all by itself does not indi­cate that you do not under­stand what’s going on. I just think it is unfair.” Giv­en that War­ren and Klobuchar are com­pet­ing for a large­ly sim­i­lar set of vot­ers, step­ping in to help the Min­neso­ta sen­a­tor was a par­tic­u­lar­ly admirable move.

After poor per­for­mances in both Iowa and New Hamp­shire, Warren’s cam­paign need­ed a big moment to give a new lease of life to her candidacy.

In this debate, she turned in a first-rate per­for­mance, and it could very well help her going into the Neva­da Demo­c­ra­t­ic cau­cus­es this Saturday.

Bernie Sanders

Bernie Sanders’ per­for­mance on the stage in Las Vegas was almost entire­ly pre­dictable, giv­en that it is large­ly the same per­for­mance he has been giv­ing in debates for almost a year now. He is a very dis­ci­plined candidate.

How­ev­er, his usu­al pros­e­ly­tiz­ing over eco­nom­ic inequal­i­ty, cor­rup­tion, and the dire state of the U.S. health­care sys­tem was giv­en an extra edge by the fact that he was stand­ing a few feet away from Michael Bloomberg – a man whose hideous wealth and self-supe­ri­or­i­­ty epit­o­mizes every­thing Sanders stands against.

Sanders clear­ly enjoyed mak­ing point­ed com­ments that under­cut the plu­to­crat­ic mayor’s argu­ment that he “worked very hard” for his billions.

“You know what, Mr Bloomberg, it wasn’t you who made all that mon­ey. Maybe your work­ers played some role in that, as well!” Sanders declared at one point, echo­ing an obser­va­tion made by pro­gres­sive strate­gist George Lakoff.

(Work­ers are, indeed, the true prof­it creators.)

The only moment where Sanders seemed on the defen­sive was over his own health. The Ver­mont sen­a­tor suf­fered a heart attack in Octo­ber, and the mod­er­a­tors asked him why he has so far failed to make his full med­ical record pub­lic. Sanders gave a slight­ly con­fused answer, list­ing off some of the dif­fer­ent let­ters, reports, and records he has released. He terse­ly fin­ished by invit­ing peo­ple to fol­low him on the cam­paign trail and “see how you’re doing com­pared to me.”

How­ev­er, Sanders received some unin­ten­tion­al assis­tance on this front from for­mer May­or Buttigieg, who tried to make a link between “trans­paren­cy” over Sanders’ med­ical record and his Medicare For All pro­pos­al. Buttigieg’s effort back­fired, as Sanders was able to return to the famil­iar ter­ri­to­ry of preach­ing the ben­e­fits of his health plan, and attack­ing Buttigieg’s “sta­tus quo” policy.

Sanders is now the clear fron­trun­ner in the Demo­c­ra­t­ic field, and is strong­ly posi­tioned to do very well in the Neva­da cau­cus­es. He did not com­mit any unforced errors or mis­takes in this debate, and that was all he real­ly need­ed to do.

Joe Biden

The for­mer Vice Pres­i­dent large­ly took a back seat in the Neva­da debate, but when he did step for­ward, he gave one of his best per­for­mances to date. Hav­ing Bloomberg on stage made Biden seem bet­ter in almost every way: he was clear­ly more lik­able, more relat­able, less out-of-touch, more lib­er­al, and more coherent.

Biden man­aged to avoid get­ting mired in the more vicious fights that erupt­ed onstage – more through omis­sion than through tac­tics – and stuck to what vot­ers like about him: his role in the Oba­ma administration.

Biden’s invo­ca­tion of Oba­ma was less ham-fist­ed than in pre­vi­ous debates, most notably when he was able to skew­er May­or Bloomberg over the NYPD’s stop-and-frisk tac­tics, which the Oba­ma admin­is­tra­tion had to step in and halt.

Biden was also, sur­pris­ing­ly, one of the can­di­dates who gave more detail-ori­en­t­ed poli­cies, espe­cial­ly on the issue of cli­mate justice.

He also took full advan­tage of his inter­na­tion­al expe­ri­ence, using the spat between Klobuchar and Buttigieg over Mexico’s pres­i­dent to remind every­one that he was the guy who, “met with this pres­i­dent… met with the last pres­i­dent and the one before that.” He man­aged to raise him­self above the oth­er can­di­dates dur­ing this sec­tion of the debate, with­out seem­ing mean to Klobuchar.

Biden’s fair­ly good per­for­mance will be ampli­fied enor­mous­ly by the dis­as­trous Bloomberg fias­co. Any bicon­cep­tu­al vot­er look­ing for a home in the Bloomberg camp may now be look­ing around again – and Joe Biden could benefit.

Pete Buttigieg

It was clear from the begin­ning that Buttigieg had a very sim­ple strat­e­gy for this Las Vegas debate: posi­tion him­self in the polit­i­cal cen­ter, talk about com­pro­mise, and above all else, stay calm. He stuck to the plan.

At the first oppor­tu­ni­ty, Buttigieg labelled both Sanders and Bloomberg as polar­iz­ing fig­ures: “We shouldn’t have to choose between one can­di­date who wants to burn this par­ty down and one who wants to buy this par­ty out.” He remind­ed the crowd that both Sanders and Bloomberg are rel­a­tive­ly recent mem­bers of the par­ty: “Let’s put for­ward some­body who’s actu­al­ly a Democrat!”

How­ev­er, Buttigieg spent too much time attack­ing his oppo­nents and hard­ly any time talk­ing about his own ideas, beyond bland­ly spout­ing sup­pos­ed­ly inspi­ra­tional sen­ti­ments. For every blow he land­ed on Sanders, he got one in return – his sup­port from bil­lion­aire donors, his lack of sup­port among unions, and so on. War­ren was eas­i­ly able to char­ac­ter­ize his health­care pol­i­cy as an emp­ty shell, and his response was unconvincing.

Buttigieg’s propen­si­ty to go on the attack real­ly showed through in his inter­ac­tions with Amy Klobuchar. The two can­di­dates have feud­ed on stage for a num­ber of debates, but this time, it erupt­ed into open warfare.

When Klobuchar was asked about for­get­ting the Mex­i­can president’s name, he went on the offen­sive to an absurd degree, say­ing that Klobuchar didn’t know “lit­er­al­ly the first thing about the pol­i­tics of the coun­try to our south!”

The argu­ment spi­raled out of con­trol from there. Klobuchar, out­raged, said that he was essen­tial­ly call­ing her “dumb,” and he didn’t even both­er deny­ing it.

She remind­ed Buttigieg of his humil­i­at­ing loss when he ran for state office. He in turn com­pared her to Wal­ter Mon­dale, the Min­nesota Demo­c­rat who was anni­hi­lat­ed by Ronald Rea­gan in 1984. At that point, Eliz­a­beth War­ren jumped in to res­cue Klobuchar, and stop the entire debate from going off the rails.

Buttigieg proved in this debate that he can stay calm under pres­sure and relent­less­ly apply it to his oppo­nents – vital qual­i­ties in a man seek­ing to take on the nation’s fore­most bul­ly, Don­ald Trump. How­ev­er, his cold­ness and mean-spir­it­ed­­ness will be a turn-off to many Demo­c­ra­t­ic vot­ers, par­tic­u­lar­ly for women who watched his inter­ac­tions with Klobuchar.

Amy Klobuchar

Sen­a­tor Klobuchar went into the debate hop­ing to repli­cate the Man­ches­ter per­for­mance that bol­stered her show­ing in the New Hamp­shire pri­ma­ry, but instead had her friend­ly Mid­west­ern per­sona scraped painful­ly away by Buttigieg.

At the start of the debate, she joined the big pile-on against bil­lion­aire Michael Bloomberg, remark­ing that he was “hid­ing behind his tele­vi­sion ads” and putting his plu­to­crat­ic arro­gance on display.

The ques­tion about the Mex­i­can pres­i­dent did not at first faze her. She proved that she had learned from her mis­take – “I want to say greet­ings to Pres­i­dent Lopez Obrador” – and turned the issue into a strong case for her char­ac­ter as pres­i­dent: “I made an error. I think hav­ing a pres­i­dent that maybe is hum­ble and is able to admit that here and there maybe wouldn’t be such a bad thing.”

She seemed to be unnerved by the feroc­i­ty of Buttigieg’s assault on her, becom­ing vis­i­bly rat­tled. While she gave as good as she got in the fight with the ex-South Bend May­or, the fact that Eliz­a­beth War­ren ulti­mate­ly had to step in to break up the argu­ment demon­strat­ed that Klobuchar is just as vul­ner­a­ble to get­ting locked into a pet­ty argu­ment and los­ing sight of the big pic­ture as any­one else.

They say there’s no such thing as bad pub­lic­i­ty, and Klobuchar’s spat with Buttigieg puts her at the cen­ter of the sto­ry of the debate.

How­ev­er, sym­pa­thy does not nec­es­sar­i­ly trans­late into votes – her reac­tion to Buttigieg pres­sur­ing her does not demon­strate calm under fire, an attribute that who­ev­er is the nom­i­nee will find invalu­able when going up against nar­cis­sis­tic sociopath and insult king Don­ald Trump. Need­ing anoth­er can­di­date to swoop in and res­cue you just does­n’t project con­fi­dence and electability.

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  1. […] Her elec­tri­fy­ing per­for­mance in Wednes­day night’s debate in Las Vegas came too late to pull her out of the slump her cam­paign is cur­rent­ly experiencing. […]

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