Coming into Wednesday’s Democratic primary debate in Las Vegas, idiot pundits were mainly concerned with how Michael Bloomberg’s first performance would reflect on Michael Bloomberg. Stupid! It turns out the big story, Bloomberg-wise, was how well everyone else would come off while they dunked repeatedly and remorselessly on him over the course of exposing his candidacy as the vanity project of a low-charisma onetime Republican with a history of red-flag positions and behavior.
It started almost immediately, as Elizabeth Warren jumped into a discussion of electability with a prepackaged zinger that, unlike almost all prepackaged debate zingers, actually drew some blood:
So I’d like to talk about who we’re running against, a billionaire who calls women “fat broads” and “horse-faced lesbians.” And, no, I’m not talking about Donald Trump. I’m talking about Mayor Bloomberg. Democrats are not going to win if we have a nominee who has a history of hiding his tax returns, of harassing women, and of supporting racist policies like redlining and stop and frisk.
(Here’s what she was talking about.)
Amy Klobuchar popped up soon after to note that Bloomberg’s campaign had given a memo to Axios Wednesday morning—i.e., before he’d appeared in front of a national audience as a candidate for a single second—that suggested she, Pete Buttigieg, and Biden should drop out of the race:
I actually welcomed Mayor Bloomberg to the stage. I thought that he shouldn’t be hiding behind his TV ads, and so I was all ready for this big day. And then I looked at the memo from his campaign staff this morning, and it said that he actually thought that three of us should get out of the way. That is what his campaign said—because we should “pave the way” for him to become the nominee.
Klobuchar steered the story into a riff about not letting men tell her what to do, which was fine, but substantial damage was done just by stating the premise of the leaked memo out loud and letting the arrogance sink in.
After some discussion of Bloomberg’s (as-yet-unreleased) tax returns and his crude comments about stop-and-frisk policing—during which he didn’t need any help from other candidates to look ill at ease—NBC moderator Hallie Jackson asked Warren for comment on the nondisclosure agreements that Bloomberg (the company) has signed with women who have accused male co-workers (including Bloomberg the person) of fostering a hostile, sexist work environment. What followed was a political evisceration:
JACKSON: Sen. Warren, you’ve been critical of Mayor Bloomberg on this issue.
WARREN: Yes, I have. And I hope you heard what his defense was. “I’ve been nice to some women.” That just doesn’t cut it. The mayor has to stand on his record. And what we need to know is exactly what’s lurking out there. He has gotten some number of women, dozens, who knows, to sign nondisclosure agreements both for sexual harassment and for gender discrimination in the workplace.
So, Mr. Mayor, are you willing to release all of those women from those nondisclosure agreements so we can hear their side of the story?
BLOOMBERG: We have very few nondisclosure agreements.
WARREN: How many is that?
BLOOMBERG: Let me finish.
WARREN: How many is that?
BLOOMBERG: None of them accuse me of doing anything, other than maybe they didn’t like a joke I told. And let me just—and let me—there’s agreements between two parties that wanted to keep it quiet and that’s up to them. They signed those agreements, and we’ll live with it.
BIDEN: Come on.
WARREN: So, wait, when you say it is up to—I just want to be clear. Some is how many? And —and when you—and when you say they signed them and they wanted them, if they wish now to speak out and tell their side of the story about what it is they allege, that’s now OK with you? You’re releasing them on television tonight? Is that right?
BLOOMBERG: Senator …
WARREN: Is that right, tonight?
BLOOMBERG: Senator, the company and somebody else, in this case—a man or a woman or it could be more than that, they decided when they made an agreement they wanted to keep it quiet for everybody’s interests.
WARREN: I’m sorry. No, the question is …
BLOOMBERG: I heard your question.
WARREN: … are the women bound by being muzzled by you and you could release them from that immediately? Because, understand, this is not just a question of the mayor’s character. This is also a question about electability.
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. That’s not what we do as Democrats.
A few minutes later, Bernie Sanders took his turn:
You know, we talk about electability, and everybody up here wants to beat Trump, and we talk about stop and frisk, and we talked about the workplace that Mayor Bloomberg has established and the problems there.
But maybe we should also ask how Mayor Bloomberg in 2004 supported George W. Bush for president, 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.
Maybe we can talk about a billionaire saying that we should not raise the minimum wage, or that we should cut Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. If that’s a way to beat Donald Trump, wow, I would be very surprised.
After a subsequent discussion of Bloomberg’s wealth during which he said he had “worked very hard” for his multi-multibillion-dollar fortune, Sanders noted to him, to oohs and aahs and oh snaps from the audience, that “maybe your workers played some role in that as well.”
It was a very hard night for Bloomberg, and a big part of why it was so hard is that the other Democrats were so sharp and confident in their criticisms of him. They weren’t flustered by his dismissive speaking style or shaken by his poll standing and spending power, and they all seemed to find it easy to articulate (even during heated back-and-forths) why his record and personality were objectionable.
This should be good news for Democrats for two reasons. One is that, despite the intraparty sniping and snarking that is taking place in this primary, Bloomberg’s competitors demonstrated that they do, in fact, share common values that animate them more than their differences do, and can snap quickly into a unified front. The other is that, in an environment in which Democratic voters have become obsessed with finding a nominee who can “stand up” to Trump, all five of the non-Bloomberg candidates onstage stood up to someone who shares a few of Trump’s most unsavory traits and came out as clear winners.
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