Much of the punditry about Wednesday night’s Democratic presidential debate in Las Vegas focuses on the shelling that former New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg took from his rivals. And, indeed, Bloomberg had some very, very bad moments, as well as a few very good ones.
Fortunately for Bloomberg, he wasn’t the only one to be caught in the glare of unflattering scrutiny. At least two of his rivals had cringe-worthy moments that they can only hope the public will soon forget.
The stakes have grown progressively higher with each debate, so it’s not surprising that the candidates threw more elbows at each other. There were three simultaneous plays-within-the-play: the four moderates (Bloomberg, former Vice President Joe Biden, former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota) sought to tarnish the front-runner, self-described democratic socialist Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.); the moderates wrangled with one another for primacy in that faction; and everyone not named Bloomberg attacked the billionaire who bought his way onto the debate stage.
A quick note about Sanders — despite the growing number of jabs thrown his way by his Democratic rivals, including a new effort to hold Sanders responsible for the intolerance and nastiness displayed by some of his supporters online, he remained unflappably on message. I don’t think any of the criticisms changed any minds Wednesday night, which bodes well for his prospects going into the Nevada caucus Saturday. I’m not a fan of his policies, but he’s navigating the treacherous waters of the primaries remarkably well.
Bloomberg’s worst moment came courtesy of Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), whose bracing critiques showed how very ready she is to go head to head with President Trump. Warren forced Bloomberg to defend the legal settlements that keep female employees who’ve sued him or his company silent about the sexual harassment and gender discrimination they say they encountered there.
After Biden piled on, Bloomberg was given the final word: “I’ve said we’re not going to get — to end these agreements because they were made consensually and they have every right to expect that they will stay private.” Ugh. On a night of bad looks for Bloomberg, that one stood out.
Klobuchar has done well in the debates, consistently coming across as smart, funny and in command, but she was clearly rattled Wednesday by an unusually aggressive (and, frankly, misleading) line of questioning by Vanessa Hauc, a senior correspondent at Telemundo.
Hauc brought up an interview with her network last week in which Klobuchar blanked on the name of Mexico’s president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador. Klobuchar was ready for it and, to her credit, didn’t try to deflect. She admitted that she forgot his name and argued that it was a momentary lapse. But Hauc and Buttigieg went further, arguing that the error was a sign that she was ignorant about U.S.-Mexico policy.
Klobuchar practically exploded. “Are you trying to say that I’m dumb? Or are you mocking me here, Pete?” You could practically see the steam pouring out of her ears. She was right to stand up to Buttigieg, but the way she went about it sounded petty and defensive. Her mistake was taking the bait Buttigieg laid out for her by suggesting her experience in Washington wasn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
Gotta hand it to Buttigieg — he has shown an uncanny ability to keep his cool in the fray. But he crossed a line there, punching down (he’s ahead of Klobuchar in the polls) and making a mountain out of a molehill. Warren, by contrast, came to Klobuchar’s rescue (“This is not right. I understand that she forgot a name. It happens. It happens to everybody on this stage”), a move that reflected well on Warren and poorly on Buttigieg.
And then there’s Biden, who had another decent night on paper. He made good points about Bloomberg’s record on stop and frisk, about nondisclosure agreements, about trade, healthcare and a number of other topics. Yet side by side with far more polished candidates, his inarticulateness was amplified. The best example Wednesday was on climate change, when Biden’s mangled comments were followed in quick succession by Bloomberg’s best moment of the night — not surprising, given that climate policy is catnip to Bloomberg — and highly cogent responses from Warren and Sanders.
In Biden’s defense, the transcript shows that his ideas are much more coherent than his delivery may be. Plus, the incumbent president is the least articulate president in modern times. Trump is so bad, he makes President George W. Bush sound like Laurence Olivier. But right now he’s not running against Trump; he’s running against Sanders and company.
Again, debate performances tend to be evanescent experiences, grabbing a day’s worth of headlines and then vanishing from memory. With the Nevada caucus coming in two days, followed in a little more than a week by California and the other Super Tuesday states, the spotlight will soon shift back to the horse race. And Bloomberg, for one, probably can’t wait for that to happen.