Commentary: The Democrats came out swinging in Vegas. For TV viewers, it was a knockout

Former New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, left, and Sen. Elizabeth Warren during Wednesday’s Democratic debate in Las Vegas.
(John Locher / Associated Press)

Las Vegas has hosted many memorable fights. Evander Holyfield vs. Mike Tyson. Muhammad Ali vs. Larry Holmes.

Wednesday it was Amy vs. Pete, socialists vs. capitalists, and everyone vs. billionaire Michael Bloomberg during a contentious Democratic debate that had more in common with a pay-per-view fight — or perhaps a “Real Housewives” scrum — than a deliberation on issues and policy.

Personal attacks and stunning takedowns dominated the two-hour event, where tensions were running high two weeks before the national primaries of Super Tuesday — and the addition of fresh meat only added more blood to the water. Bloomberg, the former mayor of New York City, took the debate stage for the first time since joining the race for the Democratic nomination 10 weeks ago, a decision he may be rethinking after he became the punching bag of choice during the broadcast, hosted by NBC News and MSNBC.


Some of the first words out of Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s mouth: “I’d like to talk about who we’re running against: a billionaire who calls women fat broads and horse-faced lesbians. And no, I’m not talking about Donald Trump.”

Former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar seized upon Bloomberg’s record regarding people of color, referencing the discriminatory “stop and frisk” policy used by law enforcement in New York’s minority neighborhoods during his mayoralty. “It was abhorrent!” said former Vice President Joe Biden, who practically arrived wearing boxing gloves.

Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders called the media mogul’s level of wealth “grotesque.”

Moderator Chuck Todd summed up the animosity toward Bloomberg’s fortune, and the candidates’ arguments against America’s wealth inequality, in one question that he should win an award for delivering without bursting into laughter: “Mayor Bloomberg, should you exist?”

The grimacing newcomer informed him that, yes, he should exist. He worked hard for his money, and now he was giving it to good causes, like getting Trump out of the White House.

It was the first time since the long cycle of primary debates began that the fierce fight was focused on stage, at one another, rather than toward their impeached enemy in Washington — and the act of ripping one another apart appeared to stoke more heat on social media than Trump’s trillionth reelection rally.

The candidates focused on their primary opponents during the debate, which was helmed by Todd, “NBC Nightly News” and “Dateline” anchor Lester Holt, NBC News chief White House correspondent and “MSNBC Live” host Hallie Jackson, Noticias Telemundo senior correspondent Vanessa Hauc and the Nevada Independent’s Jon Ralston.


The moderate card was played over and over again by Buttigieg, who ripped Sanders and Bloomberg in one well-crafted line that was delivered early in the debate: “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.”

Warren took swipes at everyone’s healthcare policy promises. Of Mayor Pete, she said, “It’s not a plan. It’s a PowerPoint.” And she went even harder on Klobuchar, comparing her plan to a Post-it Note: “Insert plan here.” She also said Sanders’ campaign consisted of relentlessly attacking everyone else ... as she attacked him.

Klobuchar accused Buttigieg of stepping over the bounds of professional decency when he pressed her about forgetting the Mexican president’s name in a recent interview. “Are you trying to say I’m dumb? Are you mocking me here, Pete?” she said in the tense exchange. “I wish everyone was as perfect as you, Pete.”

Meanwhile, Bloomberg, who entered the night as the newcomer and potential star of the show, remained relatively quiet for most the debate. Perhaps he simply has too much money to join in the fun and games.

More likely, he was too busy trying to survive questions about his record with women and people of color. In particular, he stumbled over Warren’s pointed question about nondisclosure agreements he’d made with women who’d accused him of sexual harassment and gender discrimination — one she soon turned, reflecting the tenor of the night, into an attack ad.

As in a network TV competition, or a fight off the Vegas Strip, such superficial insults and cheap shots made for great, conflict-heavy TV. Politically inspiring, though? That’s another matter.