Bickering didn’t make it better. The ninth Democratic presidential primary debate was held in Las Vegas on Feb. 19 ahead of the Feb. 22 caucuses in Nevada, and while the tone was more shrill than previous events, the lack of coherent messaging to mainstream Americans on the issues they most care about remained the same.
The evening kicked off with moderator Lester Holt of NBC News stating that a majority of Dem voters say their top priority is beating President Trump in November. The six candidates on stage then proceeded to give a two-hour presentation on all the things that will keep them from toppling an incumbent president who remains extremely popular with his supporters. Petty quarreling, transparent attempts at one-upmanship, and trying to “win” moments dominated the forum in place of persuasive explanations by the various White House aspirants as to how they will make Americans’ lives better. One clear fact did emerge from the desert cacophony: adding Michael Bloomberg to the mix hasn’t changed a single thing. All the Dem weaknesses that have been on display for over a year now are still in place.
Warren on the Warpath
Fading Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) got the night off to a rollicking start by unloading a haymaker on former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. “I’d like to talk about who we’re running against,” Warren said. “A billionaire who calls women fat broads and horse-faced lesbians and no I’m not talking about Donald Trump, I’m talking about Mayor Bloomberg.”
It certainly was a devastating line and was very much received as such. Right off the bat, Warren looked like someone with nothing to lose. This had the potential to be very good for her. Alas, as always, the hyperkinetic Bay Stater couldn’t rein herself in, couldn’t focus, or keep an even keel. She kept pushing the nuclear button and was way too combative all night long, to her great detriment. Instead of being loose and relaxed, she was mean-spirited and condescending. It was obviously an intentional gambit on her part but far from a convincing one, especially considering the mercurial Warren was striving to carve out a niche as the “unity” candidate in the field a mere few days earlier.
Former South Bend, IN, Mayor Pete Buttigieg effectively called out the terrifying socialist or oligarch choice that would be represented by a Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) vs. Bloomberg one-on-one battle for the Dem nomination. “How are we going to possibly fix our economy if the choice is between a socialist who thinks capitalism is the root of all evil and somebody who believes money is the root of all power?” Buttigieg said. “We could wake up in two weeks from today, the day after Super Tuesday, and the only candidates left standing will be Bernie Sanders and Mike Bloomberg, the two most polarizing figures on this stage … Let’s put forward somebody who’s actually a Democrat.”
It was an excellent start for Buttigieg, but one he largely squandered. While seemingly less angry than others on stage, Buttigieg appeared to be running for scolder in chief, a frequent flaw of his. He disapproved of Sanders’ lack of transparency on his medical records. He rebuked Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), saying she shouldn’t dismiss the importance of forgetting the name of Mexico’s president. It was hardly “gotcha” stuff and it framed Buttigieg as a man looking to mark his disapproval of his rivals.
Bloomberg, in his debut on the Dem primary stage, was slow and untidy in his responses, at times rambling and more than once demanding that he be allowed to finish. Perhaps most damaging is that he came across as the oldest guy on the dais. That is not a good look with geriatric former Vice President Joe Biden and the equally aged Sanders already up there.
A cringe-worthy moment for two of those three septuagenarians came when Sanders, while addressing questions over his health in the wake of his heart attack last fall, reminded Bloomberg that “you have two stents as well.” Sitting at home, television viewers had to be asking themselves, “Just how old and frail are these Dem dinosaurs?”
Sanders did the smartest thing he could do by pulling back midway through the debate after the discussion had clearly degenerated into a glorified food fight. He doesn’t need this, while Warren especially and Buttigieg to a lesser but still apparent degree, showcased their weaknesses as candidates by revealing that they clearly do.
When the Vermont senator was brought back into the fray, it was on a topic that works best for him: working-class talk. “Mr. Bloomberg, maybe it wasn’t you that made all that money,” he told the former Big Apple mayor after Bloomberg touted his business success. “Maybe your workers played some role in that as well.” It was a very strong comment and right in the Sanders wheelhouse, a place he too-often strays from while lecturing on the perils of climate change and playing the Dems’ beloved identity politics game on race and gender.
Klobuchar was surprisingly rattled by Buttigieg throughout the evening and too often served up mush when given a chance to speak. She uttered the lamest comment of the entire debate when she awkwardly pulled out a weak woman card. “I have an idea on how to end sexism on the internet. We could nominate a woman for candidate for president of the United States,” the Minnesotan woodenly said. Her winding answer to moderator Chuck Todd’s tough question on her past prosecutorial record on police shootings in Minnesota also hurt her. She didn’t say anything wrong but didn’t respond with the proper tenor to an emotion-laden question. It made her look mechanical at a particularly bad time.
Talking in Circles
Feudin’ and a-fightin’ is no replacement for substance. As in previous Dem debates, the candidates fell back on familiar talking points too readily, talking in circles again on topics such as climate change and health care, only this time in a more menacing tone with cheap shots aimed at each other. And so for a ninth consecutive time, voters were left with a night not worth remembering.
Things we learned:
- A wounded Liz Warren is a liability to constructive debate. The more desperate she gets, the more piercing and personal she becomes. The longer she hangs on, the worse it will be for the rest of the field.
- Michael Bloomberg is not going to add gravitas to the year-long-and-still-yawning borefest that has been the Dem primary process to date. Also, his unfavorable rating will remain through the roof as long as he is in the running.
- Amy Klobuchar is too rehearsed and calculating to ever truly break out as a candidate. Her repetitious “I’ve been in the arena” response to Buttigieg was tiresome. She clearly loathes Buttigieg, but bashing “Perfect” Pete is not going to elevate her to the nomination.
- Nobody did a thing to damage Bernie Sanders’ momentum. Probably the most important takeaway of the night. All Sanders needs to do is safely steer his ship through the monotonous “tough talk” portions of these tedious debates and stay the course and he will be fine. He did so in Las Vegas.
- Joe Biden didn’t have a bad night but still seems to think that is enough for him. It is not. He needed more and he did not have it.
Read more from Joe Schaeffer.