Wednesday night’s Democratic presidential debate in Las Vegas was the best clash of the 2020 campaign. Six candidates went at it, driven by urgency, calculation, and sometimes animus. At the center was former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, appearing in his first presidential debate. In a campaign often framed around electability and the left-center divide, Bloomberg’s arrival has shaken up the race, forcing some candidates to change their strategies. Here’s how Bloomberg’s presence changes things, as reflected in the debate.
1. We have a real centrist. Up to this point, when progressives referred to centrist candidates, they meant former Vice President Joe Biden, former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, and Sen. Amy Klobuchar. Now we’re seeing the real thing: Bloomberg. In the debate, he defended fracking and multibillion-dollar fortunes. While saying he regrets stop and frisk, he pointed out that aggressive policing and prosecution were adopted in an era of high crime, which could return. These arguments reflect a point of view that until now was beyond the right edge of the Democratic field.
Unlike Biden, Buttigieg, and Klobuchar, Bloomberg doesn’t defend capitalism meekly or fret about socialism just as an electability concern. He’s a former Republican, and he attacks socialism the way a Republican would. After listening to an onstage discussion of whether companies should be required to surrender partial ownership to their workers, Bloomberg pronounced the conversation “ridiculous.” “We’re not going to throw out capitalism,” he said. “Other countries tried that. It was called communism, and it just didn’t work.” Later, Bloomberg hit Sen. Bernie Sanders with the kind of punch you’d expect from the Republican National Committee: “The best-known socialist in the country happens to be a millionaire with three houses.” Bloomberg isn’t just a centrist in the Democratic field. He’s a centrist in the general.
2. The populists have a foil. Tom Steyer, a low-grade billionaire, has been in the race all along. But he’s an orthodox progressive, and despite his pricey ad buys, he hasn’t been much of a factor. Instead of going after him, Sanders and Sen. Elizabeth Warren have attacked Buttigieg for taking campaign money from billionaires. Now, in Bloomberg, they have a more obvious target. Warren, in her opening remarks of the debate, said Democrats shouldn’t “substitute one arrogant billionaire for another.” Sanders, in his closing statement, warned against “an oligarchy controlled by billionaires.”
As an adversary, Bloomberg also gives Sanders an opportunity to appeal to Democratic unity. Sanders has never run for Congress as a Democrat. He has always declared himself an independent, and he has criticized Biden and other candidates for not being progressive enough. That can make Sanders look extreme. But in this debate, Sanders embraced Biden as a comrade in arms against Bloomberg. “Mayor Bloomberg in 2004 supported George W. Bush for president,” said Sanders. He “put money into Republican candidates for the United States Senate when some of us—Joe and I and others—were fighting for Democrats to control the United States Senate.”
3. Biden is using his Obama cred from the left. Bloomberg’s entry helps Biden in the same way it helps Sanders, but from the other direction. Until now, Biden had to defend President Barack Obama’s moderate record—on immigration, for example—against criticism from more progressive candidates. Now Biden can remind Democrats that he and Obama had to fight Bloomberg and other Republicans. In the debate, Biden lambasted Bloomberg for calling Obamacare a “disgrace” and for resisting the efforts of “our administration, President Obama,” to halt New York’s stop-and-frisk policy. Later, in an MSNBC interview, Biden said the debate showed Bloomberg was “basically Republican. … He didn’t support Obama. He didn’t support the Affordable Care Act. He didn’t support the vast majority of what we tried to do, including on Wall Street.”
4. Warren has a platform to talk about sexism. Lately, in a campaign dominated by Sanders, Warren has been overlooked. Bloomberg’s allegedly callous behavior toward women gives her a chance to stand out. Her first words in the debate were, “So I’d like to talk about who we’re running against: a billionaire who calls women ‘fat broads’ and ‘horse-faced lesbians.’ ” She challenged Bloomberg to release former female employees from nondisclosure agreements. Afterward, in a CNN interview, she warned, “If he won’t let these women talk, then you have to assume this is a man who not once, not twice, but repeatedly, repeatedly engaged in harassment, engaged in discrimination.”
Warren is using this issue to target two audiences. The first is people who care about mistreatment of women. The second is Democrats who worry about choosing an electable nominee. “This is also a question about electability,” she argued in the debate. “We are not going to beat Donald Trump with a man who has who-knows-how-many nondisclosure agreements and the drip, drip, drip of stories of women saying they have been harassed and discriminated against.” Warren is also seizing the opportunity to show that she’s a fighter, rather than just calling herself one.
5. Buttigieg is recasting himself as the real Democrat. Buttigieg fought his way into the top tier by attacking Warren and Sanders from the right on health care and free college. He also advertised his appeal to “future former Republicans.” Now he’s portraying Sanders as a fake Democrat to his left and Bloomberg as a fake Democrat to his right. In the debate, Buttigieg chastised Bloomberg for criticizing Obama and for opposing a higher minimum wage. In a post-debate interview on CNN, Buttigieg said Bloomberg was out of touch with “our party” on wealth inequality. Buttigieg noted that he, Sanders, and Bloomberg “have each been mayors. But I’m the only one of the three of us who’s been a Democratic mayor.”
After months of being pummeled for accepting campaign money from billionaires, Buttigieg is now running as an ordinary guy competing against a billionaire. In the debate, he accused Bloomberg of trying to “buy this party out.” In lieu of his usual attacks on Washington, Buttigieg denounced “both Wall Street and Washington.” He positioned himself as the sensible alternative to “a socialist who thinks that capitalism is the root of all evil and a billionaire who thinks that money ought to be the root of all power.”
Not every candidate has adjusted to Bloomberg. At the start of the debate, Klobuchar complained about a Bloomberg campaign memo that said she, Biden, and Buttigieg should get out of the race. Then, perversely, she and Buttigieg spent much of the evening ripping into one another. Each time, Klobuchar escalated the exchange. “Are you trying to say that I’m dumb?” she asked. “Are you mocking me here, Pete?” Later, she snarked, “I wish everyone was as perfect as you, Pete.” Instead of capitalizing on Bloomberg’s presence and his weak performance, she helped him by ratcheting up the war among his opponents. To clear the field for a one-on-one fight against Sanders, Bloomberg doesn’t need to persuade the moderate candidates to drop out. He just needs them to destroy each other.