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 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.
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’ 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.
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.
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.
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.