Nevada Democratic Debate Roundup

Most national pundits saw it differently than I did.

Democratic presidential candidates, former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg, left, and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., talk before a Democratic presidential primary debate Wednesday, Feb. 19, 2020, in Las Vegas, hosted by NBC News and MSNBC. (AP Photo/John Locher)

Early this morning, I gave my hasty reaction to last night’s debate. It is, as several commenters pointed out, not in step with what most observers saw.

I’ll round several of those up momentarily. But the bottom line is that I’m almost certainly 1) not the target audience and 2) looking for something different than most observers. First and foremost, I’m not a partisan Democrat. While I’ll vote for the eventual nominee against Trump, I’m still relatively conservative politically and am unimpressed with much of the progressive agenda. Secondly, having paid rather close attention to the race—albeit mostly via reading rather than watching television—for going on eighteen months, I have pretty firm opinions on the candidates. So, my reaction to the debate had to do with whether anyone made me more or less likely to think they’re Presidential material—not whether they’re scoring points in a horse race.

Almost everyone seems to think that Bloomberg was badly hurt last night.

Neocon John Podhoretz pronounced that the “Nevada Democratic debate was the greatest debate in human history.”

Mike Bloomberg’s millions in campaign spending flew right out the window Wednesday night.

The billionaire’s self-bankrolled presidential bid was torn to shreds in the opening minutes of Wednesday’s Democratic debate as his opponents skewered him for his checkered past on sexual harassment and his record on stop-and-frisk.

NYT columnist Frank Bruni (“Despite His Billions, Bloomberg Busts“):

You can buy ads and saturate the airwaves with them. You can buy allies, especially with the right budget.

But you can’t buy a debate performance, and that’s why Mike Bloomberg’s on Wednesday night mattered so much. This was the man talking, not the money.

And the man needed rescue — from his bloodthirsty rivals and even more so from himself.

Making his first appearance alongside other contenders for the Democratic presidential nomination, Bloomberg knew that he would be under furious attack and had clearly resolved not to show any negative emotion. But that meant that he often showed no emotion at all. Or he looked vaguely bemused, and that didn’t communicate the coolness that he intended. It signaled an aloofness that he very much needed to avoid.

Bruni and I are in agreement here:

Ugly: That’s the word for this ninth debate of the Democratic primary season. It had the fewest candidates — six — but the most nastiness, because those candidates clearly felt an urgency to diminish their competitors and elevate themselves before it was too late. A meager haul of votes in the Nevada caucuses this coming Saturday could effectively undo one or more of them; a poor showing on Super Tuesday less than two weeks from now would definitely be the end of the road.

His colleagues Shane Goldmacher and Reid J. Epstein offer “6 Takeaways From the Democratic Debate in Nevada.” I’ll let you click through and read the details but the toplines were:

  • Things got ugly in Vegas, and fast.
  • Bloomberg came close to going bust.
  • Warren had a very good night.
  • Sanders, the polling leader, is unscathed once again.
  • Biden seemed like an afterthought for his rivals.
  • Klobuchar and Buttigieg may take each other down.

Since their assessment of Warren was so different from mine, I”ll focus on parts of it:

After the New Hampshire debate early this month, Ms. Warren said she had her hand up a lot but didn’t get called on much. This time, she not only spoke more than any of her rivals, but she also often set the terms of the debate.

It was the kind of aggressive performance that allies and even some of her campaign advisers had been hoping for, even if it marked a sharp shift from her recent strategy of appearing as an above-the-fray candidate who could unite Democrats.

She had one-liners. And twice she plowed through the weaknesses of so many of her opponents in a single answer that it left moderators struggling to even give everyone a chance to respond. Perhaps most notably, she forcefully addressed health care and her “Medicare for all” plan, which has been a liability for months.

She said that former Mayor Pete Buttigieg’s health care plan was “not a plan, it’s a PowerPoint” and that Senator Amy Klobuchar’s was more “like a Post-it note.” She said even advisers to Mr. Sanders admitted his package “probably won’t happen anyway.”

How the performance will play out among voters in the coming days and weeks remains to be seen. Ms. Warren had stagnated in recent weeks. But on Wednesday night she looked like a fighter determined to go the distance, and her campaign wasted no time boasting of a huge financial haul — $1 million raised during the debate itself, and $2.8 million raised throughout the day — as a potential sign of a revival.

I don’t disagree with any of that and the fundraising haul is perhaps the most important point. The difference in my reaction is that I don’t think ‘It’s not a plan, it’s a PowerPoint” is that big of a burn. No plan is going to survive first contact with Congress, anyway, and voters are looking for a vision, not a wonk. (And I say that as something of a wonk.) More importantly, though, I think Bernie emerging as unscathed—their follow-on point—mitigates whatever advantage Warren got from taking shots at Bloomberg.

Axios’ Mike Allen (“Bloomberg’s rough debut“):

Mike Bloomberg was booed during his debut debate as a Democratic presidential candidate — indicative of a rusty outing where the former New York mayor looked unprepared to respond to obvious lines of attack.

Why it matters … The debate underscored the Bloomberg’s campaign biggest fear: It’s hard to hide to his prickly demeanor. Bloomberg had all the time, practice and forewarning money could buy — and still struggled mightily on the public stage.

But it’d be foolish to assume blanket ads can’t undo the damage. Elizabeth Warren said on MSNBC: “I have no doubt that he is about to drop, tonight, another hundred million dollars on his campaign … in order to try to erase America’s memory of what happened on that debate stage.”

One contrarian view came from Josh Greenman of the NY Daily News (“With the exception of that one exchange, Bloomberg’s debate performance was good enough“):

Too bad Mike Bloomberg doesn’t have enough money to get everyone who saw an embarrassing exchange on sexual harassment claims at his company to sign a non-disclosure agreement. Or does he?

[…]

Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play? Not bad for Bloomberg. Although he was probably the weakest on points of everyone on stage — they pretty much all delivered strong performances, with Warren and Pete Buttigieg and Biden especially vigorous, and Bernie Sanders his standard old self — he did fine.

He survived many quivers of slings and arrows without making big mistakes. Nobody expects raw, pulsing magnetism from Mike Bloomberg. He came across as calm and competent, more no-nonsense manager than persuasive politician, which is kind of the point.

When Biden said Bloomberg called Obamacare “a disgrace” (which is true — in a 2010 speech he said it was just “another program that’s going to cost a lot more money”), Bloomberg correctly responded that he’s “a fan of Obamacare” and referenced a Daily News op-ed he wrote in 2009 making the case for a public option.

His language in that piece was clear: “A public health insurance option would create a competitor to private insurers that could potentially drive down costs across the board.”

He was strong on climate change and energy. He gave a fluid answer on his billions, saying simply that he now wanted to spend his money to defeat Trump, as a legacy to future generations. His now-canned response on stop-and-frisk worked well enough.

Greenman’s take is more optimistic than mine but not that dissimilar. But, again, my take was about how it influenced my perception of Bloomberg. While Warren and Allen are likely right that lots of money in advertising can help reverse any damage here before Super Tuesday—the first time Bloomberg will actually appear on a ballot—this was a terrible rollout for a candidate most Americans—indeed, even most debate watchers—were meeting for the first time. (Then again, by Super Tuesday we may well have winnowed the field further.)

POLITICO’s Elaina Schneider focused on a sideshow among the bottom-two candidates on the stage (“Loathing in Las Vegas: Amy and Pete’s resentment boils over“):

The hostility building between the two Midwestern Democrats burst dramatically into the open in Nevada, as they clashed repeatedly on the debate stage and tried to slash the momentum out of each other’s campaigns. Klobuchar and Buttigieg have fought before over their experience and their political records in past debates — but the feud took a deeply personal turn.

After the Minnesota senator defended her “momentary forgetfulness” when she failed to name the president of Mexico in a recent Telemundo interview, Buttigieg leaped in, surely thinking of the criticism he’s taken from Klobuchar in recent debates.

“You’re staking your candidacy on your Washington experience. You’re on the committee that oversees border security. You’re on the committee that does trade,” Buttigieg said, turning to face Klobuchar just to his left on the stage. “You’re literally in part of the committee that’s overseeing these things and were not able to speak to literally the first thing about the politics of the country to our south.”

“Are you trying to say that I’m dumb? Or are you mocking me here, Pete?” Klobuchar shot back.

It exploded again when Buttigieg blasted Klobuchar on her vote to confirm President Donald Trump’s nominee for Customs and Border Patrol, who “was part of family separation policy,” Buttigieg said.

“I wish everyone was as perfect as you, Pete,” Klobuchar said. “But let me tell you what it’s like to be in the arena.”

It’s clear that the fury is rooted in the personal as well as the political for the two Democratic campaigners.

Politically, Buttigieg and Klobuchar are both hawking middle-of-the-road, tell-it-like-it-is personas, which they argue Democrats need to carry the Midwest, the region they call home. They are both competing to emerge as the main moderate alternative to Bernie Sanders, the current polling frontrunner.

But the rivalry runs deeper than their political positioning. Klobuchar has regularly spoken about sexism on the campaign trail, explaining that she is willing to call out “double standards” for female candidates because “we have to grapple with the fact that some people think a woman can’t win” against Trump, she told POLITICO in January. And this fall, Klobuchar said that a woman with the former mayor of South Bend’s resume and qualifications would likely not be on the presidential debate stage or get treated as a serious national candidate.

Klobuchar’s frustration with Buttigieg bubbles up most intensely when it comes to that experience.

While one understands Klobuchar’s frustration on this, politics ain’t beanbag and life ain’t fair. Just look at the last four Presidents.

Bill Clinton was the least seasoned Democrat running in 1992 and he not only cruised to the nomination but bested George H.W. Bush, arguably the most qualified President in the modern era.

George W. Bush beat a more seasoned field in the Republican primaries and then beat a two-term Vice President and longtime Senator.

Barack Obama hadn’t been in Washington to find a dry cleaner before throwing his hat in the ring against Hillary Clinton and other longtime hands. He not only won the nomination but turned around and walloped John McCain, who had been in his country’s service since before Obama was born.

And then there’s Donald J. Trump.

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FILED UNDER: Campaign 2020, Elizabeth Warren, Mike Bloomberg, US Politics
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Michael Reynolds says:

    As you know, I’ve been open-minded on Bloomberg and asked other to be as well. But the data is in. He was arrogant, unprepared and supercilious. Add that to the fact that as far as I could see he had no vision going forward. His political skills are non-existent. It was a complete and abject failure.

    I don’t know how many Dems watched the debate, but I really doubt we’re going to see his numbers take an up-tick.

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  2. James Joyner says:

    @Michael Reynolds: I think it all depends on how fast the field winnows. Presumably, everyone on the stage last night makes it to South Carolina. But what if neither Biden nor Klobuchar do well in either Nevada or South Carolina? Do they stay in as Super Tuesday spoilers?

    For that matter, it’s not inconceivable to me that Warren, despite whatever momentum she picked up last night, does poorly in those states and is pressured to clear the field for Bernie. As you know, the current 538 projections in both look awful for her.

    1
  3. Michael Reynolds says:

    @James Joyner:
    I don’t see Warren doing well enough in SC or Super T. She may well fail to carry her own state. I think at this point Warren’s best bet is a brokered convention. The Dems can’t go to Biden or Klobuchar without dismissing the Bernie Bros, which would not be a good look. Warren has essentially the same policies but with less of an extremist vibe.

    1
  4. Modulo Myself says:

    The Democrats made so many blunders with moderates. The same groupthink that put Biden as the favorite then went with Bloomberg, who sneers at the proles who use Turbotax. Seriously, days after the 2016 election they should have been thinking about what went wrong and how to lay the groundwork for someone like Cory Booker. Instead they went right back to the status quo and gave us Biden.

    If I were working for Bernie, I would be trying to find ways to throw some bones to the terrified members of Dem establishment so they have something to cling to in the slightly-possible chance that Bernie wins. And also I would tell them to get a grip–this is not 1968 and we don’t have a war going on and the Bernie Bros are about to splinter into factions of the Weathermen. Democrats talking about Bernie Bros are sounding like Republicans when they talk about taxes.

    And talking about a brokered convention is laughable. They would get a candidate, but they would be a joke, just like Bloomberg saying he’s 5’8″ or Chuck Todd’s haircut.

    2
  5. charon says:

    More importantly, though, I think Bernie emerging as unscathed—their follow-on point—mitigates whatever advantage Warren got from taking shots at Bloomberg.

    Bloombergs vote share take helps Bernie, hurts everyone else. Unless Bloombergs tanks almost totally, everyone but Bernie needs a brokered convention. Warren needs to force a brokered convention by holding down Bernie;s delegate haul – something that hurting Bloomberg helps accomplish.

    1
  6. Kathy says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    It was a complete and abject failure.

    But how will he do in the next debate?

  7. SKI says:

    @Modulo Myself:

    The Democrats made so many blunders with moderates.

    Not to pick on you but anyone talking about “the Democrats” as a singular group forgets the historic and continued reality of the Democratic Party – its complete and utter dysfunction and lack of organization.

    2
  8. SKI says:

    @Guarneri:

    And the country is doing just fine,

    Strong disagree – particularly for folks who aren’t white, Christian or wealthy.

    4
  9. grumpy realist says:

    @Guarneri: Actually it isn’t. Your comment indicates you don’t worry about corruption, Trump’s trashing of political and legal norms, or the obsequiousness of the Republicans in the face of Trump twitters.

    They’re NOT living up to their responsibility to uphold the Constitution.

    7
  10. senyordave says:

    @Guarneri:This is a serious question. We have a president who manipulated US foreign policy to try to damage a political foe. There is no question this happened, it was proven in the impeachment hearings and subsequent trial. Afterwords several Republicans admitted that Trump was guilty. Do you just say that it doesn’t matter because you like the job he’s doing? And if the answer to that question is yes, what could happen that would make you change your mind? Bear in mind that the WH has already made it clear that they will not cooperate in any House investigations since they don’t recognize hat the House has any legitimate oversight role.

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  11. Modulo Myself says:

    @SKI:

    Trump’s appeal has always been to miserable podunk rich people and the wannabees standing in line at a crappy country club buffet before going home to speedball Tucker and Hannity. Democrats have to factor that into the fact that Trump is polling better–but better operates in a way which involves rage and paranoia and boasting how successful and happy you are. It doesn’t have anything at all to do with the good life.

  12. Gustopher says:

    And this fall, Klobuchar said that a woman with the former mayor of South Bend’s resume and qualifications would likely not be on the presidential debate stage or get treated as a serious national candidate.

    A man with those qualifications would likely not be on the stage either.

    Buttigieg’s prominence is bizarre and freakish. It’s a lot of hard work, it’s a lot of luck, and it’s a fabulous media team. And even still, it’s weird as can be.

    4
  13. Gustopher says:

    @Modulo Myself:

    The Democrats made so many blunders with moderates. The same groupthink that put Biden as the favorite then went with Bloomberg, who sneers at the proles who use Turbotax.

    He was not sneering at the proles who use TurboTax. He points out that his taxes are complicated, and they undoubtably are, and will be released soon.

    He should have added a date. Even if it was “soon, definitely by April 15th, but we are aiming for X”

    There’s plenty wrong with Bloomberg that you don’t have to twist things to show him in a bad light.

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  14. Gustopher says:

    @Guarneri:

    And the country is doing just fine, despite hysterical immediate post-election predictions and subsequent commentary.

    I don’t see factories moving back to small towns.

    Parts of the country are doing great. The country overall is doing fine by some metrics, but large swaths of the country are not doing good at all.

    1
  15. Michael Reynolds says:

    And the country is doing just fine

    By which he means, he’s doing just fine. There is no one in Guarneri’s universe but himself, right now, today. He’s got some money, so, really what else matters? You might as well ask a blind man to comment on the sunset – he can’t see anyone but himself. No wonder he worships the narcissist in chief, two peas in a pod: dishonest, hypocritical, racist, sexist, corrupt, and for sale.

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  16. charon says:

    @Gustopher:

    He points out that his taxes are complicated, and they undoubtably are, and will be released soon.

    If he had any intention of releasing them, he could have been putting the information together long ago. He is stalling to con the gullible.

    3
  17. Teve says:

    @Gustopher: and despite Trump’s promises of 4,5, even 6% growth, the administration now says we we’ll have 2.x% growth for the rest of the year, and slightly lower growth next year, so more tax cuts and deficits please.

    5
  18. charon says:

    Re: Bloomberg

    A) He is using twitter to push a misleadingly edited video of the debate:

    https://www.vox.com/2020/2/20/21145926/mike-bloomberg-debate-video-twitter-fake

    B) He is running a push-poll through TNR online that is begging for donations to participate.

    2
  19. de stijl says:

    @Gustopher:

    Per the then standard, Obama was laughably unqualified. And he was the best President in my lifetime by far.

    Credentialism is just manufactured bullshit.

    Talent. Predilection. Ability to both assign responsibility and absolutely take it. That is not credential based. Trait versus skill.

    Senators. Governors. Representatives. They are not better than us. They actively chose to be politicians, therefore arguably definiteivly worse than us.

    1
  20. Scott F. says:

    @James Joyner:

    For that matter, it’s not inconceivable to me that Warren, despite whatever momentum she picked up last night, does poorly in those states and is pressured to clear the field for Bernie.

    Pressured by whom? What politically influential body is going to want to force a qualified woman out for Sanders’ sake?

    Nope. When the eventual nominee has the requisite delegates to take the nomination, Senator Warren will graciously concede and throw her full support behind the Dem candidate. But until that moment, she’ll persist.

    1
  21. de stijl says:

    @Scott F.:

    Joyner is newly free. But instincts dig hard. You cannot expect a person like Joyner to get her and her vibe so soon.

    That would be a reach. James is James. Allow him to be him. One, maybe two generations behind us. He’s plenty smart. He’ll catch up.

    Warren rocked pretty hard.

  22. de stijl says:

    @Scott F.:

    I am a “Scott F” IRL, so whenever I read your posts I immediately think “I don’t recall saying that.” for just a second or two.

    You inadvertently make me check my shit, which is an absolute good. You make me better.

    2