I have no idea if one strong debate performance will be enough to reinvigorate Elizabeth Warren’s presidential bid after her disappointing finishes in Iowa and New Hampshire. But the senator seemed to give her campaign some new, much-needed energy on Wednesday night during the Democratic showdown in Nevada, where she pretty much laid Michael Bloomberg out on the stage and then ran a truck back-and-forth over him while the crowd cheered like it was a Monster Jam rally. Then she gunned it for her other opponents.
I mean, it was brutal. It was crushing. It was a command performance full of zingers that drew roars, even if they were a bit obviously pre-written. And perhaps everyone should have seen it coming. Warren, after all, has often been at her best during this primary campaign when going toe-to-toe in the media with billionaires fearful of her candidacy. What better foil could she ask for than Bloomberg, the billionaire former mayor of New York who has surged in the polls after blitzing the country with TV ads, despite his history of lewd and sexist comments and conservative positions on law enforcement and finance? On Wednesday night, Warren stood just to Bloomberg’s left, which allowed the cameras to capture one face-to-face confrontation after another.
It started from the moment Warren opened her mouth. “I’d like to talk about who we’re running against: a billionaire who calls women ‘fat broads’ and ‘horse-faced lesbians,’ ” she began. “And no, I’m not talking about Donald Trump, I’m talking about Mayor Bloomberg.” The line elicited a long, low “oooooooooooh” from the audience, while Warren continued to cast her opponent as Trump lite:
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. Look, I’ll support whoever the Democratic nominee is, but understand this: Democrats take a huge risk if we just substitute one arrogant billionaire for another.
The pulverizing continued from then on. Every time Bloomberg tried to defend himself over a controversy, Warren was there to undercut him. When the mayor tried to show remorse over stop and frisk (“we stopped too many people,” he admitted), Warren eviscerated his apology: “This isn’t about how it turned out—this is about what it was designed to do to begin with. It targeted communities of color. It targeted black and brown men from the beginning.” When he tried to push back against the accusations that his firm was rife with sexism (“In my company, lots and lots of women have big responsibilities. They get paid exactly the same as men.”), Warren had another withering response. “I hope you heard his defense. ‘I’ve been nice to some women,’ ” she said to laughter and applause. “That just doesn’t cut it.” That set up the most dramatic moment of the night, when Warren challenged Bloomberg to release former employees from nondisclosure agreements they signed barring them from talking about their claims of discrimination or harassment. Bloomberg demurred, but in the process made a horribly cringe-y aside: “None of them accuse me of doing anything, other than maybe they didn’t like a joke I told,” he assured viewers. The crowd jeered. Bloomberg tried to trudge on. But Warren wouldn’t let up. “This is not just a question of the mayor’s character. This is also a question about electability,” she said. “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.” There was more wild applause. Bloomberg looked ashen and wan, the opposite of the commanding Trump killer he’s pitched himself as to voters.
Warren didn’t only aim at Bloomberg. She also took swings at Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar over health care, for instance, resorting to some nerdy but memorable disses of the supposed quality of their proposals. “Mayor Buttigieg really has a slogan that was thought up by his consultants to paper over a thin version of a plan that would leave millions of people unable to afford their health care. It’s not a plan. It’s a PowerPoint. And Amy’s plan is even less. It’s like a Post-It note: Insert plan here.” After running into trouble by waffling health care, Warren was attempting to reassert herself as the party’s fighting wonk, while cutting down two opponents who’ve won over many of the college-educated voters she needs to win.
Warren had other good moments too. When Bloomberg referred to her as “the senator next to me,” she turned, glared, and said “Elizabeth”—another pointed, real-time reminder that Bloomberg seems to have trouble talking to or about women. Were all of her attacks fair on substance? Not necessarily. She suggested that Bloomberg supported redlining, the discriminatory practice through which banks refused to lend in black and other minority neighborhoods. That’s almost certainly not true, despite the way some people have interpreted awkward, recently surfaced audio where the mayor talks about the subject. Buttigieg’s health care plan is much more substantive than she let on. (Klobuchar’s could, however, be fairly described as a Post-It note.)
But debates aren’t about being scrupulously fair. They’re about scoring points and demonstrating your presence on stage. After months of seemingly fading toward the background, Warren gave everyone a reminder that she’s at her best when she’s fighting, especially someone with a massive fortune. It may or may not be enough to bring back her candidacy from the brink. But I’m sure at least a few voters found themselves thinking it would be fun to see her give Donald Trump the same treatment as the billionaire she embarrassed in Nevada.
Support Slate’s politics coverage
Slate is covering the stories that matter to you. Join Slate Plus to support our work. You’ll get unlimited articles and a suite of great benefits.