Piñata Pete

The upstart mayor is the target of a debate beatdown.

Journalists, seen from behind, sit watching a large screen above a small screen, both showing the same image of South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg against the debate backdrop covered with the logos of the sponsoring news organizations. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)
Journalists watch South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg speak on a monitor during the Democratic presidential primary debate at Loyola Marymount University on December 19, 2019 in Los Angeles, California. Mario Tama/Getty Images

After an unusually peaceful and policy-centric first 75 minutes in Thursday night’s Democratic presidential debate, Elizabeth Warren laid the bait.

The subject was the workings of corruption. “I think the best way to understand that is to look at how people are running their campaigns in 2020,” Warren said. “Most of the people on this stage run a traditional campaign, and that means going back and forth from coast to coast to rich people, and people who can put up $5,000 or more, in order to have a picture taken, in order to have a conversation, and in order, maybe to be considered to be an ambassador.”

It was obviously, if implicitly, a criticism of Pete Buttigieg, whom Warren has begun targeting more directly since he’s benefitted from her recent slip in the polls. Buttigieg could’ve just let it hang there and allowed the conversation to move on. Instead, he chose to speak up and identify himself as the target of Warren’s inveighing against corruption, and in doing so unsealed an hour of inveighing against Pete.

Here was the brawling debate we thought we’d see last month. Buttigieg had risen to the top in Iowa and New Hampshire, and the other candidates—who’d successfully brought Warren down to earth during October’s debate—seemed ready to try to bring down, too. It never happened, though not because the candidates held a special, warm place for Mayor Pete in their hearts. Maybe they didn’t think he was worth it at the time? A month later, they did.

“Can’t help but feel that might have been directed at me,” Buttigieg said to Warren, before explaining Democratic candidates would need all the money they could get to beat Donald Trump. He urged graduate students to donate at his website.

With Buttigieg having identified himself, Warren made her criticism a little more direct in her response, bringing up a recent fundraiser “the mayor” held in a “wine cave” full of “crystals” where he served “$900 bottles of wine.”

“Billionaires in wine caves should not pick the next President of the United States,” she said.

Buttigieg, say what you will about him, has never heard a retort to which he has not had a long-prepared response, and noted that Warren was a millionaire, unlike him.

“This is the problem with issuing purity tests you yourself cannot pass,” Buttigieg said, to which Warren responded, tersely, “I don’t sell access to my time.”

After a couple more rounds, Amy Klobuchar stepped in and tried to play the Let’s stop arguing and talk about what unites us card. (Picking up the torch for Cory Booker, who had failed the qualifications for this debate.) She couldn’t stop Bernie Sanders, though, who jumped in on the money-in-politics argument right where Warren had left off, with a jab at Joe Biden and a roundhouse shot to Buttigieg.

“Now there’s a real competition going on up here,” Sanders said. “My good friend Joe, and he is a good friend, he’s received contributions from 44 billionaires. Pete on the other hand”—not Bernie’s “good friend,” mind you—“he’s trailing—you’ve only got 39 billionaires contributing.

“So Pete, we look forward to you—I know you’re an energetic guy and a competitive guy—to see if you can take on Joe on that issue,” Bernie said.

That moment aside, Biden had his best debate of the cycle, with none of the usual third-hour mental perambulations leaving him stranded in the woods. But there was more trouble to come for Pete. And from who? The candidate who just 15 minutes earlier had implored everyone to be friends.

“When we were in the last debate, mayor, you basically mocked the 100 years of experience on this stage,” Klobuchar said, ticking off legislative accomplishments of Biden, Sanders, Warren and herself. She said that since she had not denigrated his experience “as a local official,” Buttigieg shouldn’t denigrate theirs.

“Local official” was some prime denigration, and Buttigieg responded by saying that Klobuchar had denigrated him earlier, too, but he had let it pass because he felt there were “bigger fish to fry.”

Klobuchar cut him off: “I don’t think we have bigger fish to fry than picking a president of the United States.”

Buttigieg, when he was allowed to continue, tried to recover by bringing up his military experience. But Klobuchar wasn’t done mocking his lack of political experience.

“I know you ran to be chair of the Democratic National Committee,” she said. Left unsaid: She knows he lost the race. “That’s not something I wanted to do. I wanted to be president of the United States. And the point is, we should have someone heading up this ticket who has actually won, and who has been able to gather up the support that you talk about.”

“I think winning matters,” Klobuchar said.

“If you want to talk about the capacity to win,” Buttigieg responded, “try putting together a coalition to bring you back to office, with 80 percent of the vote, as a gay dude in Mike Pence’s Indiana.”

That received a good share of applause, but it was also the perfect set-up for Klobuchar to bring up another race that Buttigieg had lost.

“Again, mayor, if you had won in Indiana, that would be one thing,” Klobuchar said. “You tried, and you lost by 20 points.” Well, 25, but who’s counting?

Right now, Klobuchar has a pulse in Iowa, but she’ll be out the night of the Iowa caucuses if she doesn’t make a leap. Sanders is in second, nipping at Pete’s heels, and has the opportunity to run the table in Iowa, New Hampshire, and Nevada—or to lose Iowa and fizzle out. Elizabeth Warren had the Iowa lead until Buttigieg took it from her. She wants it back. All three need to drag Buttigieg down before voting begins. On the national stage, Thursday was the debut of that effort, an effort in which all three seem to take a visible amount of joy.