Wednesday night’s Las Vegas debate was what you’d get if you smushed Wrestlemania, UFC 251, and Mayweather-McGregor all onto one card. It had everything you hope for on fight night: A great opening bout, solid mid-card action, and then the heavyweight main event that everyone was waiting for.
This was one of those special pay-per-views that gave you more than your money’s worth. Because if you tuned in for the entire two hours, you got to see the full panoply of the human experience: savagery, skill, elegance, drama, hatred, and respect.
So let’s go down the card and grade the fights.
Bloomberg versus The World: The opening bout featured the upstart former mayor of New York in a handicapped match against five other candidates. It was premeditated brutality.
The very first question of the night went to Bernie Sanders, who was asked if he would be more electable than Bloomberg. In his second sentence Bernie mentioned “stop and frisk.” Then he went after “the billionaire class.”
And even as he began talking, Elizabeth Warren started waving her hand in the air, begging to be tagged in. When she got her moment, she accused Bloomberg of being both sexist and racist and claimed that “Democrats take a huge risk if we just substitute one arrogant billionaire for another.”
Next up was Amy Klobuchar, who beat up on Bloomberg for having a campaign memo calling on her to drop out of the race. She took great umbrage at this, though at no point in the night did she propose any plausible path to the nomination.
After this gang-tackle, Bloomberg responded with a relatively calm and collected answer. He said that “I don’t think there’s any chance whatsoever” that Bernie could beat Trump. And then, after doing a Tony Stark-style listing of his various job titles—manager, mayor, philanthropist—he explained that he’s spending his money to get rid of Donald Trump.
Which would seem like a strong case for himself.
But the fight was finished when Pete Buttigieg came in and tied Bloomberg to Bernie. “Let’s put forth someone who’s actually a Democrat,” he said. And then came the killer line: “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.”
Bloomberg tried gamely to answer some of these attacks. For example, his rap on stop-and-frisk sounded pretty reasonable: New York City had 650 murders per year; he instituted stop-and-frisk and the number dropped to 300; then the policy got out of control, so he reformed it.
I mean, that may have no real correlation to reality—but it’s a pretty good story for him to tell and one that might be enough to get by with working-class and African-American voters.
It’s hard to say what the outcome of this fight really was. Clearly, Bloomberg got the worst of it. But he was always going to get beat over the head in this debate. What he didn’t do was implode early, despite the fact that he received more antagonist scrutiny in the first 45 minutes than Bernie Sanders has gotten to date.
And he didn’t Rick Perry. So let’s call it a decision on points.
Pete versus Amy. This was the fight no one saw coming. Two nice, Midwestern centrist candidates were just standing around in the desert doing their own thing when moderator Vanessa Hauc inexplicably went after Klobuchar for not knowing the name of the president of Mexico.
Let’s be very clear: These sorts of gotcha questions are ridiculous. There are a lot of countries. Ask any candidate to name enough leaders and eventually they’ll come up empty on someone. And the name of the Mexican president has very little to do with the fundamentals of the U.S.-Mexico relationship.
So Hauc making a big stink about this trivial mistake is a joke.
But what was weird was Mayor Pete deciding that he was going to get into a major exchange with Klobuchar and hang her momentary brain freeze around her neck as if it meant something.
And what was really weird was Klobuchar taking this beef to 11 and shouting at Buttigieg about how he thinks she isn’t smart or something. There was a moment where I honestly thought she might throw her briefing binder at him.
Klobuchar won this fight. There was no need for Buttigieg to pick it in the first place. It made him look petty and it fed into the worst image for him: It made him look like the smart kid everyone hates, not the smart kid everyone looks up to.
Warren versus Klobuchar. Wait, what? Flailing fourth-place candidate Elizabeth Warren came into the debate trying to rebuild her coalition by going after [checks notes] Amy Klobuchar?
Boy, did she. Warren has two theoretical paths to the nomination, both of which are low-probability. The first is to dismantle Sanders and claim the progressive throne. The second is to build a tremendous amount of goodwill and become a consensus candidate for a contested convention.
Instead, Warren passed up chances to criticize the Big Boss like she was Ted Cruz at a Trump rally.
Asked about the problem of Bernie Bros, she pivoted to attacking Bloomberg. Asked if she had any criticisms of Bernie’s Medicare for All plan, she attacked Buttigieg and Klobuchar. Her disparagement of Klobuchar was particularly strong, claiming that Klobo’s health care plan could fit on a Post-it Note.
Later in the debate, Warren was talking a great deal of nonsense about the environment. For instance, she said that she would stop all drilling and mining on public lands. But would also make exceptions. (So that’s not . . . all, then, is it?)
Worse: Warren claimed that “There’s an upcoming $27 trillion” market for “green” with technology “that hasn’t been invented yet.” (So how does she know this market exists? Or its precise size? Or when it’s arriving?)
But she then turned back to attack Klobuchar for not being radical enough.
Two possibilities: (1) Warren has some data suggesting that Klobuchar’s supporters are the most gettable for her. Or (2) She’s panicking and falling back on sexual identity politics, assuming that if she can hobble Klobuchar and be the only woman left in the field, she can consolidate the female vote.
Whichever it is, Warren looked silly and Klobuchar won, easily.
Warren versus Bloomberg. Speaking of sexual identity politics, Warren ambushed Bloomberg with a challenge he seemed totally unprepared for. She demanded that he release every woman who had ever signed a nondisclosure agreement-type settlement with him.
Bloomberg’s response was that since both parties were protected by these NDA’s he was just going to let them be. Was this good enough?
Oh no. Not by a long shot.
Warren kept hammering—demanding, on live TV, that he make a pledge to release people from contractual agreements. It’s a preposterous stunt—Bloomberg couldn’t void those contracts on-air even if he wanted to. But he kept flailing and the overall effect was something like Chris Christie’s 2016 kamikaze job on Marco Rubio in New Hampshire.
This was flat-out murder.
But what really hurt is that at the very end of the exchange, Joe Biden jumped in and turned the question away from #MeToo identity politics and made it about transparency by lauding Mayor Pete for getting released from his McKinsey NDAs.
So combine these factors: Bloomberg has been taking Biden’s supporters; Warren looked like an assassin; and Biden came across as the friendly, reasonable guy.
I think we can say that in the Warren-Bloomberg fight, Biden was the big winner.
Pete versus Amy 2—Vengeance: It’s not often that professional politicians let you see real emotion on the debate stage. But an hour after getting drawn into a knife fight over the name of the Mexican president, Mayor Pete and Mean Amy threw down again.
Like the first joust, Buttigieg was the instigator. He attacked Klobuchar’s record in the Senate because she voted for a handful of Trump’s nominees. As he was finishing his attack he started speaking in Spanish.
At which point Klobuchar turned and said “I wish everyone was as perfect as you, Pete.”
I am not exaggerating when I say that the tone of her voice suggested she would not be unhappy if Buttigieg tripped and fell into a wood chipper.
And I’ll be honest: I don’t blame her. This line of attack was foolish and bad faith, the kind of thing you’d expect from a John Edwards.
Mayor Pete versus Bernie. What made Buttigieg’s two foolish attacks on Klobuchar so mystifying is that he was the most effective critic of Sanders all night long.
He crushed Bernie on the subject of his Troll Army. He hit him for his self-righteousness, saying out loud what everyone else is thinking. (“You’re not the only one who cares about the working class.”)
When Bernie then trotted out the—I don’t know what to call this, theory? suggestion? possibility?—that all of the mean Bernie Bros are really Russian bots and not actual, asshat supporters, Buttigieg made the deep point about how Bernie never seems to accept responsibility for all of these things that just happen to occur around him.
“Leadership is about what you draw out of people,” Buttigieg said. And he’s absolutely, 100 percent right about that.
When Bernie was evasive on the question of his medical records, Buttigieg tied him to Trump—which is, again, exactly on point. Why does Sanders think he doesn’t need to be transparent with voters?
Over and over, Buttigieg pounded the idea that he is “building a politics designed around inclusion” while Sanders starts out by saying that half the country isn’t good enough to be on his side.
Bernie has no answer for any of these charges except bluster. And yet, that might be enough.
Bernie versus Bloomberg. The main event was brief, but exciting. Bernie Sanders said that the existence of someone like Mike Bloomberg was immoral and attacked him for having supported George W. Bush.
What is especially interesting is what did not happen in either of these cases.
The moderators did not ask Sanders why being a billionaire, like Bloomberg, is immoral, but being a millionaire, like Bernie, is peachy keen.
And then, when Sanders attacked Bloomberg for having once supported George W. Bush, neither the moderators, nor Bloomberg, NOR ANYONE ON STAGE, attacked Sanders for having once supported the Soviet Union, or Marxist-Leninist candidates in America, or the Sandinistas in Nicaragua.
How is this possible? How can people sit there and let Bernie use support for a popular, two-term American president against a rival without ever even mentioning his continued support, year after year, for anti-American autocrats?
In a strange way, the very fact that Sanders hasn’t been asked about this—at any of the debates—is a sign of strength. It means that people have decided that there’s no advantage in it. And either they’re right—in which case he’s in a good position. Or they’re wrong—in which case their strategic mistake is his windfall. At least in the primaries.
Bloomberg has a good line about his money: He’s framing his insane spending spree as philanthropy—he’s just trying to rid America of Donald Trump.
And Bloomberg even had a great line about Sanders’s socialist hypocrisy: “What a wonderful country we have: the best-known socialist in the country happens to be a millionaire with three houses.”
But I don’t know that either of those lines will matter. Because Bernie Sanders has a very good line of his own: “We have socialism for the very rich and rugged individualism” for everyone else.
This is classic grievance politics, demagoguing the Other who is causing all of the problems for Us. Sanders promises a bunch of fantastical solutions, which most people are probably sophisticated enough to see as vaporware.
But the solutions aren’t the point. The revolution is. And the real point of revolution isn’t change. It’s punishing your enemies.
The fight between Bernie Sanders and Michael Bloomberg is the clash between two propositions: (1) That with enough money, you can buy anything. Or (2) that Americans now find the prospect of hurting their enemies more attractive than any positive good.
No matter who wins, we all lose.