It was Pete Buttigieg who laid out the subtext of Wednesday night’s merciless Democratic debate in Las Vegas early in the proceedings.
“We’ve got to wake up as a party,” Buttigieg said. “We could wake up two weeks from today, the day after Super Tuesday, and the only candidates left standing will be Bernie Sanders and Mike Bloomberg, the two most polarizing figures on this stage.”
It was not the usual message you hear from a candidate who’s atop the delegate leaderboard after Iowa and New Hampshire. But whether or not you agree with Buttigieg’s premise that such a one-on-one would be an unfortunate endgame for the nomination, that was the direction the race was heading in as the debate began. Sanders’ poll numbers said he was on a course toward building up a delegate stockpile that only one thing—Michael Bloomberg’s unlimited money—would have been able to slow down. With Sanders’ early-state competitors in Warren, Biden, Buttigieg, and Klobuchar all mired down with weaknesses or problems of their own, Bloomberg would float past them on his untrammeled personal cash flow to claim the opposition to Sanders for himself.
Wednesday’s debate was by far the nastiest (and, let’s be honest, easily the most entertaining) of the cycle because of the last-gasp urgency that those candidates facing extinction—Biden, Buttigieg, Warren, and Klobuchar—were forced to act on.
No candidate looked more different in this debate relative to previous performances than Elizabeth Warren.
Warren has spent most of the campaign trying to stay above the fray, save for one halfhearted debate effort in December to go after Pete Buttigieg for his high-dollar fundraisers. After a mediocre third-place performance in Iowa, a good state for her, and a disastrous fourth-place finish in New Hampshire, a better state for her, Warren’s justification for staying in the race is that she’s still the best positioned to unite competing wings of the party.
She did more than just say it, though: She worked to box out her competitors, one by one, and clear the space for herself. It wasn’t just her relentless raking of Bloomberg, who served as an effective proxy to demonstrate how she might debate Donald Trump. She also was much sharper in separating herself from Buttigieg and Klobuchar, on one end, and Sanders on the other—the three candidates who have, bit by bit over the past six months, eroded the support that once made her a front-runner in the race.
Nowhere was this strategy more evident than in her answer on health care. “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,” Warren said. “It’s not a plan. It’s a PowerPoint.” She thought “even less” of Klobuchar’s plan, calling it a two-paragraph “Post-It note.”
Warren, who had spent the first, unscrutinized months of the race simply saying that she was “with Bernie” on health care, said of Sanders that “his campaign relentlessly attacks everyone who asks a question or tries to fill in details about how to actually make this work.” It was the first time that Warren looked comfortable—eager, even—to weigh in on health care since the race began.
Buttigieg is also, from a more moderate perspective, trying to capture the real or imagined space for a unity candidate. His pitch was a repurposed version of his closing message in Iowa. A few weeks ago, he was selling himself as the compromise between Biden and Sanders, with the former “falling back on the familiar” and the latter telling people “who are not sure about going all the way to one side that they don’t fit.” Bloomberg had replaced Biden, and with the new dynamic came a new, workshopped line, with a sharper blade on either end.
“Most Americans don’t see where they fit,” Buttigieg said, “if they’ve got to choose between 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.” And one more, for good measure: “We shouldn’t have to choose between one candidate who wants to burn this party down and another candidate who wants to buy this party out.”
Amy Klobuchar, meanwhile, fought with all the gusto of an unseeded, surprise quarterfinalist not ready to see her run come to an end. That materialized most notably in her interactions with Buttigieg, whom she visibly hates, and who’s blocking her ability to consolidate the “folksy Midwestern white person with zero appeal to minorities” sub-lane. At times it seemed as if Buttigieg was trying, as some elaborate chess move, to get her to throw any object within arm’s length at him, such as when he homed in on her inability in a recent interview to remember the Mexican president’s name.
“You’re literally in part of the committee that’s overseeing these things,” Buttigieg said, “and were not able to speak to literally the first thing about the politics of the country to our south.”
“Are you trying to say that I’m dumb?” Klobuchar said. “Or are you mocking me here, Pete?” She turned to mockery of her own. “When you tried in Indiana, Pete, to run, what happened to you? You lost by over 20 points to someone who later lost to my friend, Joe Donnelly. So don’t tell me about experience.”
“This is a race for president,” Buttigieg responded. “If winning a race for Senate in Minnesota translated directly to becoming president, I would have grown up under the presidency of Walter Mondale.”
Everyone got their hits in on Bloomberg throughout the night—he was a bad debater, an easy target, and also, who the hell does he think he is?—but there was one candidate for whom it was most directly vital. While all of the Sanders alternatives trying to stay alive beyond Super Tuesday have a common interest in arresting Bloomberg’s rise, one candidate is competing more directly with him: for moderates, for black voters, and for those whose top priority is defeating Donald Trump.
Though Joe Biden would disappear at times in the rolling melee, he stayed largely focused in training his fire on Bloomberg. His verbiage, as usual, wasn’t perfect. More than one time, he referred to the officials that the Obama administration sent to New York City to monitor the city’s stop-and-frisk policing tactic as “moderators.” (The Obama administration never deputized Chuck Todd to oversee New York City police policy.) But beyond that, the point was an effective one for him: It emphasized how he and President Barack Obama, whom Bloomberg has been pitching in recent advertisements as his best friend, had tried to stop a policing policy of Bloomberg’s that targeted young black people. Elsewhere, Biden wasn’t too proud to take partial credit. As Warren was hounding Bloomberg on why he wouldn’t release former employees from nondisclosure agreements detailing sexual harassment at his company, Biden joined the pile on.
“You think the women, in fact, were ready to say ‘I don’t want anybody to know about what you did to me’?” Biden said. “The way it works is they say, ‘Look, this is what you did to me,’ and the mayor comes along and his attorneys said, ‘I will give you this amount of money if you promise you will never say anything.’ That’s how it works.”
Sanders jumped in to take his cut, noting Bloomberg’s support for Republican Senate candidates “when some of us—Joe and I and others—were fighting for Democrats to control the United States Senate.”
“And [he] didn’t support Barack,” Biden followed up.
The last debate before the Iowa caucuses brought out none of the sharp elbows that tonight brought out. (Campaign operatives will say that Iowa Democrats don’t respect nastiness, unlike those vultures in Nevada.) But nothing breaks open the smelling salts more than the recognition that one-third of all delegates will be up for grabs in a mere two weeks. You could call this the nastiest debate yet, but it was also the sharpest, aside from the dullard who was making his debut.
And this, by the way, was only the second-to-last debate before Super Tuesday.