A billionaire is wounded, maybe mortally. But will anything else change in the Democratic presidential primary?
Most of the Democrats on the debate stage Wednesday faced two existential threats: Bernie Sanders, who could be on track to rack up an insurmountable delegate lead; and Mike Bloomberg, whose off-the-charts ad spending instantly made him a contender.
For the candidates vying for the anti-Sanders spot, Bloomberg was the clear and present danger. So the former New York mayor drew most of the fire: for his onetime support for “stop and frisk,” his failure to release his tax returns, the accusations that his company was a hostile place for women. And he demonstrated why, while ads are nice, it’s useful to spend some time actually campaigning.
Debate stages are tough and unforgiving; it takes some candidates months to find their footing. (See: Amy Klobuchar.) Bloomberg, new to the arena, delivered little more than canned answers, entitled eye rolls and an energy level that seldom rose above just-woke-up-from-a-nap. His argument has been that he’s the best positioned to face Donald Trump one-on-one. But after Wednesday, it wasn’t hard to imagine a brutal Bloomberg-Trump debate: a two-toed sloth against a Tasmanian devil.
Whether Bloomberg is truly finished remains to be seen; he can afford another avalanche of ads on every possible platform. But the next-day news stories will be brutal. The narrative could be set.
And the other Democrats tried hard to take advantage. Time is drawing short — Super Tuesday, the next great winnowing, is less than two weeks away — so they made their cases with high energy and an undercurrent of desperation.
Elizabeth Warren, barely an entity in the last debate, did the best of anyone on Wednesday, attacking Bloomberg with law-professor gusto, managing some zingers against her other rivals, too. (Still the candidate with the plans, she called Buttigieg’s health care proposal a “PowerPoint” and Klobuchar’s a “Post-it note.”) At one point, she stepped out of warring mode to defend Klobuchar against attacks — from Pete Buttigieg and moderator Vanessa Hauc of Telemundo — for her inability to name the president of Mexico in a television interview. It was a telling, break-the-fourth-wall moment; a way to assert that Warren could think on her feet and separate policy messages from political gameplay.
Klobuchar was fiery, too, if not as sharp as she was in the debate before the New Hampshire primary. Her job, as always, was to position herself as the viable Midwestern moderate, which put her on a collision course with Buttigieg. And by this point, the hatred between the two of them is palpable. “I wish everyone was as perfect as you, Pete,” she snarled at one point when he challenged her Senate votes, launching into a lecture about what it’s actually like to “be in the arena.”
Buttigieg, as always, had a slick response that tied into his outsider message. “I’m used to senators telling mayors that senators are more important than mayors,” he said. “You don’t have to be in Washington to matter.”
It’s hard to accuse Sanders of being anyone but himself. His supporters are fine with that -- and, for better or worse, they’re not going anywhere.
Meanwhile, Biden, the ultimate insider, was running as just that — his dropping poll numbers have prompted him to shift his message from “most electable” to “most experienced.” He didn’t stumble enough to hurt himself, but might not have won over any new voters.
That left Sanders to skate through largely unscathed, parrying the same attacks he always has, requiring little effort to hold on to his frontrunner status. In fact, having Bloomberg on the stage was good news for Sanders, and not just because he drew so much fire. He was a perfect foil for a Democratic socialist who, at every turn, could draw a contrast between Bloomberg’s boasts of wealth and his own programs to support struggling workers, at the expense of the ultra-rich.
Even Bloomberg’s attempts to nail Sanders for hypocrisy — “the best known socialist in this country happens to be a millionaire with three houses” — didn’t seem to faze him. Yes Sanders has a place in Washington, a homestead in Vermont and a “summer camp,” which is Vermont-speak for a $575,000, 1,800 -square-foot house on Lake Champlain. It’s not quite proletarian fare, but it’s hardly a billionaire’s estate.
It’s hard to accuse Sanders of being anyone but himself. His supporters are fine with that — and, for better or worse, they’re not going anywhere.