In the most combative event yet in the 2020 presidential race, Michael R. Bloomberg struggled to defend himself Wednesday night as fellow Democrats baited, belittled and broadsided the billionaire, who made a shaky debut on the debate stage.
Bloomberg entered the debate ascendant in the polls, but he was bloodied by the time he left. He responded to many of the attacks lobbed by fellow Democrats with halting and uncertain answers. At one point, the crowd booed the former three-term mayor of New York City.
Rivals joined together to take aim at Bloomberg’s history of championing “stop and frisk” policing tactics that targeted young minority men in New York. They pilloried his media empire’s secret settlements with female employees alleging harassment, and the lewd remarks he is accused of making.
They highlighted the former Republican’s late-in-life return to their party and his delay in releasing his tax returns for public scrutiny.
“I’d like to talk about who we are running against — a billionaire who calls women fat broads and horse-faced lesbians, and, no, I’m not talking about Donald Trump,” said Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren. “I’m talking about Mayor Bloomberg. 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 policies like redlining and stop-and-frisk. ... Understand this, Democrats take a huge risk if we just substitute one arrogant billionaire for another.”
Bloomberg tried to step past the assaults on his character, his business practices and his billions, introducing himself as a self-made tycoon who has the street smarts and astronomical resources to take on President Trump, a fellow New Yorker.
“I’m a philanthropist who didn’t inherit his money, but made his money, and I’m spending that money to get rid of Donald Trump, the worst president we have ever had,” he said on the stage at the Paris Hotel on the Las Vegas Strip. “And if I can get that done, it will be a great contribution to America and to my kids.”
Bloomberg repeatedly tried to pivot away from his perceived political baggage, but the other candidates took turns — or sometimes shouted over one another — demanding answers.
Former Vice President Joe Biden worked in tandem with Warren in demanding Bloomberg explain why he would not release any of the women who sued his company for harassment and discrimination from confidentiality agreements in their secret settlements.
“They decided when they made an agreement they wanted to keep it quiet for everybody’s interest,” Bloomberg said. “I said we are not going to end these agreements because they were made consensually, and they have every right to expect that they will stay private.” The audience booed.
The debate was the first opportunity for voters to experience Bloomberg unplugged and unprotected from the armor of a $400-million advertising blitz that has shattered spending records and propelled him into the top tier of the race while sitting out Iowa and New Hampshire, the first two states in the nominating contest.
Bloomberg also won’t be on the ballot here in Nevada on Saturday or in South Carolina a week later. Yet he has surged in polls nationally.
For several candidates on the stage, Bloomberg is an existential threat. He is out-polling every centrist in the race other than Biden, who has seen his support plummet as Bloomberg’s has taken off.
The candidates did not train all their fire on Bloomberg, slamming one another by name to a degree not seen in previous debates.
Pete Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Ind., early on argued that Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, the democratic socialist who is leading the field, would be an equally troublesome nominee.
“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.
Sanders took exception, lashing back at Buttigieg.
“We are giving a voice to people who are saying we are sick and tired of billionaires like Mr. Bloomberg seeing huge expansions of their wealth while a half a million people sleep out on the street tonight,” he said. “And that’s what we are saying, Pete, is maybe it’s a time for the working class of this country to have a little bit of power in Washington, rather than your billionaire campaign contributors.”
Along with Buttigieg, another moderate at risk of being overshadowed by Bloomberg, Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, worked to try to reestablish the momentum she built with her strong showing in New Hampshire.
But a stumble Klobuchar made since arriving in Nevada, with its more diverse population, haunted her at the debate Wednesday.
A moderator demanded Klobuchar explain how it was possible that she did could not name the president of Mexico when asked at a Telemundo forum a few days ago.
The senator said she made a mistake, but that it was not reflective of her knowledge about Mexico.
“I said that I made an error. I think having a president that maybe is humble and is able to admit that … maybe wouldn’t be a bad thing,” she said.
Buttigieg noted that Klobuchar is staking her campaign on her experience in Washington, and serves on Senate committees that oversee border security.
“You’re literally part of the committee that’s overseeing these things and were not able to speak to literally the first thing about the politics” of Mexico? he asked.
Klobuchar fumed, “Are you trying to say that I’m dumb? Or are you mocking me here, Pete?”
She then turned to Buttigieg’s inability to get elected statewide in Indiana.
“You lost by over 20 points to someone who later lost to my friend Joe Donnelly,” a Democratic senator from Indiana from 2013 to 2019, she said. “So don’t tell me about experience.”
The two testily sparred until the moderators tried to change the subject and turned to Warren, who defended Klobuchar.
“She forgot a name,” Warren said of the spat over identifying Mexico’s president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador. “It happens. It happens to everybody on this stage. … Let’s just be clear, missing a name all by itself does not indicate that you do not understand what’s going on.”
Biden broke in to point out that he had the most extensive experience working with Mexican leaders, and had spent more time in Washington than anyone else on stage.
“You want to talk about experience in Washington, it’s good to know with whom you’re talking, it’s good to know what they think, it’s good to know what you think, and it’s good to be able to have a relationship,” Biden said. “That’s what it’s about.”
When discussion turned to criminal justice reform, a focal point of the race as Democratic voters demand more police accountability and reversal of mass incarceration policies, it was Bloomberg who again found himself in the hot seat.
Moderator Lester Holt asked him to explain comments he made in 2015 in support of a New York policy he described as throwing young minorities against walls to search them for guns.
Bloomberg apologized for the stop-and-frisk policy, as he has before, saying that it got “out of control” and that he sought to rein it in.
“If I go back and look at my time in office, the one thing I’m really worried about, embarrassed about, was how it turned out with stop-and-frisk,” he said.
Bloomberg argued that every candidate on the stage had gotten criminal justice issues wrong at some point in his or her career.
“There is no great answer to a lot of these problems,” he said. “And if we took off everybody that was wrong off this panel, everybody that was wrong on criminal justice at some time in their careers, there’d be nobody else up here.”
Warren declared Bloomberg’s apology hollow.
“This isn’t about how it turned out, this is about what it was designed to do to begin with,” she said. “It targeted communities of color.”
The candidates trotted out familiar arguments about healthcare, with a few new twists. Biden used the topic to question Bloomberg’s loyalty to President Obama, who is the star of one of the most prolific Bloomberg ads, which leaves the impression the former mayor is a political soulmate of Obama’s.
“I’m the only one on this stage that actually got anything done on healthcare,” Biden said, adding that Obama tapped him to corral the votes to pass the Affordable Care Act. He then turned to Bloomberg and accused him of calling Obamacare “a disgrace.”
Bloomberg denied saying that, and said he spoke out in favor of the legislation before it was passed in 2010.
The moderates at the debate — Bloomberg, Biden, Buttigieg and Klobuchar — were united in arguing that the progressives championing “Medicare for all” — Sanders and Warren — are threatening the healthcare of 150 million people who would be moved off private insurance and into a government-run system.
Warren shot back.
“Mayor Buttigieg really has a slogan that was thought up by his consultants to paper over a thin version of a plan that would leave millions of people unable to afford their healthcare,” she said. “It is not a plan. It is a Power Point. [Klobuchar’s] plan is even less. It is like a Post-it Note.”
Before Klobuchar defended her plan as one that would protect Obamacare, she paused to joke that she took offense to Warren’s belittlement of Post-it Notes. After all, she said, they are manufactured in her home state.
California billionaire Tom Steyer, who has appeared in previous debates, did not reach the polling threshold to qualify for the stage in Las Vegas.