The Best Democratic Debate Ever

Nevada is once again a nuclear proving ground.
by Jim Swift
February 20, 2020
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(Digital collage by Hannah Yoest / photos: GettyImages / Shutterstock)

We’ve had ten debates so far in the 2020 Democratic primary season. The eleventh—on MSNBC on Wednesday night—was better than any of them.

It wasn’t just because El Bloombito made his Quinceañero after showering Democratic organizations and voters with a third of a billion dollars in ten weeks. It wasn’t because the first five minutes were spicier than any debate to date, with everyone taking shots at Bloomberg in their opening statements. There were so many woos from the audience, you might be pardoned for confusing the debate with a Kenny Chesney concert.

The whole debate was hot fire. While Nevada hasn’t tested nuclear weapons in a few decades, one might dare call last night’s debate just that: nuclear. For all of the caution exhibited in the earlier debates, you knew it would come to this with Super Tuesday fast approaching.

Nobody on the stage really cared about Nevada. Sure, the state has more delegates to offer than Iowa and New Hampshire combined, but since the Democratic nomination process has gone to a proportional system, it has become less important to suck up to all the early primary voters—to tell the Iowans you love their sacred ethanol, make sure the New Hampshirites know you love their state, say lots of nice things about culinary unions and hospitality workers in Nevada. And since we’re probably not going to get much polling between now and the Nevada caucuses on Saturday, this week’s contest is a gamble on momentum heading into Super Tuesday.

With that in mind, here’s my ranking of how each of the candidates performed in the debate:

1. Joe Biden. Uncle Joe takes the top spot. He needed a good night after sub-par performances in Iowa and New Hampshire, and he got one. The smaller debate crowd and tighter shots from NBC were helpful for his image. His eye didn’t explode, although his makeup was kind of Trumpian. And aside from a few verbal flubs—as when he stumbled over a question about energy, seeming confused and then giving an answer that did not come across as sincere—he didn’t go full Biden, which is to say he didn’t have any major gaffes. In a setting where Bloomberg was the main target, Biden was able to score some points without taking lots of lumps or looking like he was trying to steal the show.

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2. Mike Bloomberg. I know what you’re thinking: Really? Yes, it was not a fantastic night for Mike Bloomberg, but it was not an awful night for him. If you were to judge just from the opening statements, he’d be the clear loser: He took punches from everybody, and Elizabeth Warren in particular landed a heavy blow comparing Bloomberg’s reported coarse language about women’s appearances to that of Donald Trump.

Warren also attacked Bloomberg on the nondisclosure agreements he and his company have with women over alleged inappropriate workplace conduct. Bloomberg refused to say how many such NDAs he or his company have entered into, and Warren tore in: “The question is, are the women bound by being muzzled by you and could you release them from that immediately? Understand, this is not just a question of the mayor’s character. This is also a question about electability.” Joe Biden, no stranger to getting inappropriate with members of the opposite sex, joined in and encouraged Bloomberg to release the women from their NDAs.

It was a damning moment, but we’ve long passed the time when bad behavior by a candidate is enough to sink a campaign. Besides, Bloomberg’s night wasn’t all bad. He came out swinging on healthcare and went after the frontrunner, saying that if Bernie Sanders were the nominee, he would lose to Donald Trump in the general election: “You don’t start out by saying I’ve got 160 million people I’m going to take away the insurance plan that they love. That’s just not a way that you go and start building the coalition that the Sanders camp thinks they can do.”

In any pre-2016 cycle, Bloomberg would not be here at this point, and he would not be polling where he is. (Free food and top-shelf booze at campaign events ain’t a bad strategy—in fact, the practice has a venerable history.) Bloomberg’s moderately good night was made possible by nearly $400 million in spending over ten weeks, sure, but he gets the #2 ranking from me because his lowest lows aren’t going to knock him out, his debate demeanor was pretty good for being out of practice, and he got in a few jabs at Bernie Sanders and others. It seems that Bloomberg is already trying to appeal to voters who—presumably like many Bulwark readers—aren’t dyed-in-the-wool Democrats. Yes, he was once a Republican. Yes, he once supported George W. Bush. Yes, he was tough on crime. Yes, he is pro-capitalism, and, the line “I’m the only one here I think that’s ever started a business. Is that fair?” is effective. Bloomberg earns this spot on a graded curve, but let’s be straight: He’s only in the debate and polling where he is for one reason—money. (And no, before you ask, I didn’t get any of that sweet, sweet Bloombito cash. Or liquor.)

3. Bernie Sanders. For as much as Sen. Sanders hates the billionaire class, the addition of Mike Bloomberg to the stage had to be a welcome prospect. It’s an opportunity to personalize his message in that he has somebody feet away from him whom he can attack. (Tom Steyer was occasionally attacked in previous debates for how he made his fortune, but for the most part was not a serious enough threat for anyone to go after in a sustained way.) Also, Bloomberg’s presence on the stage helped Sanders by giving everyone else a target other than Sanders to shoot at. Sanders didn’t suffer many blunders, at least ones that would jeopardize his frontrunner status—although he didn’t come across well when Bloomberg went after him for being a millionaire socialist and for owning three homes.

Bloomberg also got under Sanders’s skin with a dig about communism, saying: “I can’t think of a way that would make it easier for Donald Trump to get re-elected than listening to this conversation. . . . This is ridiculous. We’re not going to throw out capitalism. We tried that. Other countries tried that. It was called communism and it just didn’t work.” Sanders called that a “cheap shot” and then praised the virtues of democratic socialism. Not a great strategy to attract the undecided.

4. Elizabeth Warren. She’s still there fighting. Chris Christie’s attack on Marco Rubio in 2016 may have been a suicide mission, but Elizabeth Warren was able to get in a big hit and survive. As Saturday Night Live has parodied, she tends to get a little too wonky. How many viewers know what IDEA is? Or caught that she’d be okay with making exceptions to restrictions on mining on public lands for something important like lithium? Warren clearly doesn’t understand Southwestern land-use issues, but this was a national debate in front of a regional audience. She gets this rank not because she still has much of a chance—she doesn’t—but because a worse performance would have likely resulted in her dropping out after Super Tuesday. Which she is still likely to do, only maybe a week or two later.

5. Pete Buttigieg. Mayor Pete didn’t blow it on Wednesday night, but it wasn’t a great debate for him. His attacks on moderates like Biden and Klobuchar got mixed results, and he came off as too rehearsed—to the point of insincerity. You can take the mayor out of McKinsey, but you can’t take the McKinsey out of the mayor.

It’s not clear why Buttigieg repeatedly went after Sen. Amy Klobuchar as he did. Maybe he was trying to blunt the momentum of a surging moderate rival. Maybe it was just because they were standing next to each other. But Klobuchar effectively fended off the attacks, the first time by asking Buttigieg if he thought she was stupid, the second time by coldly responding “I wish everyone was as perfect as you Pete.” Yikes.

Buttigieg had his best moments attacking Sanders—a politician he used to look up to—for having an unrealistic health care proposal and for his flip-flop on disclosing his personal health records. Normally, youth and inexperience in a candidate as young as Buttigieg is a liability, but he drew laughs from the audience when he said that he’d be happy to release his physicals.

6. Amy Klobuchar. After her surprisingly good third-place finish in New Hampshire, Sen. Klobuchar hoped this debate would help her keep up the Klomentum. It didn’t. She relied too much on what sounded like focus-group-tested lines before responding to whatever the question at hand was. She came across as a Senate-style debater, when what the evening called for was more of a brawler. She didn’t quite manage to recover from moderator Vanessa Hauc’s challenge about having recently failed to name Mexico’s president—Klobuchar rightly explained that everyone makes mistakes—and the exchange got so bad that Elizabeth Warren had to jump in and save her, in an intervention reminiscent of when Bernie said in a 2015 debate with Hillary Clinton that “the American people are sick and tired about hearing about your damn emails!” When you’re fighting with Mayor Pete in the somewhat-moderate lane and your colleague who is just to the right of the democratic-socialist who honeymooned in the USSR has to save you, it is not a good night.

The Democrats are probably looking at a brokered convention, and with the exception of Sanders none of the candidates on the debate stage last night supported the idea of giving the nomination to the person with the plurality but not the majority. No one on the stage seems to be angling to be the VP—running a campaign as a ploy to amass delegates to make that choice easier.

In a way, the Democratic field resembles the 2016 Republican field: They all seem to think they can win. Mathematically, at this point, they all still can. That fact might change by Super Tuesday. But it probably won’t change this weekend at the Nevada caucuses.

Jim Swift

Jim Swift is a senior editor at The Bulwark.