One of the most anticipated aspects of the Democratic candidate debate in Las Vegas was the first appearance on any stage (other than a TV set) by former New York mayor Mike Bloomberg. The billionaire candidate has been pursuing a strategy that involved skipping the four early states and spending unimaginable sums on ads and staff in states that vote on Super Tuesday or later. And experts differed as to whether descending to a debate (as the DNC basically forced him to do by waiving a grassroots-fundraising requirement for debate qualification) instead of buying himself a “bye” to the later rounds of the campaign was a mistake.
Indeed, Bloomberg’s unconventional strategy seems to be working out for him pretty well so far: He’s already in third place in the RealClearPolitics national polling averages, and is in first or second place in a number of the March primary states where he’s blanketing the airwaves with ads and the landscape with staff. His support is also relatively broad-based, including reasonably strong numbers among minority voters. Before tonight he seemed, on paper, well-positioned to take over the so-called “moderate lane” of the 2020 race if Biden continued to falter and Buttigieg and Klobuchar couldn’t make much progress in the expensive and diverse states ahead on the calendar.
But Bloomberg walked out on that stage in the Paris Theater and directly into a buzzsaw. It began early on, as the New York Times reported:
After Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont answered the opening question — about what it would take to beat President Trump, and why he believed he was better equipped than Michael R. Bloomberg to do it — and Mr. Bloomberg responded, Ms. Warren raised her hand and interjected.
“I’d like to talk about who we’re running against: a billionaire who calls women fat broads and horse-faced lesbians,” she said. “And no, I’m not talking about Donald Trump. I’m talking about Mayor Bloomberg.”
Bloomberg never really recovered. Trying to defend himself from his well-known record of incurring accusations and lawsuits involving sexual harassment and discrimination, Bloomberg stepped into and failed to parry a Warren question about the number of nondisclosure agreements he has coerced female employees into signing, and why he hasn’t released them from those contracts. His argument that these were “consensual” agreements elicited a groan from the debate audience. Warren’s subsequent disclaimer that she’d support the Democratic nominee seemed to imply the most grudging acceptance of this ex-Republican interloper that you can imagine.
The former mayor stayed on the defensive much of the debate, hit with challenges on his past support for GOP candidates and policies, and his advocacy of “stop and frisk” police tactics, among other controversial positions. On crime policy, he got mired in a complicated rationalization that was only matched by Amy Klobuchar’s tortured defense of her own record in this area. And he was, from beginning to end, anti-charismatic, even bored looking, appearing every bit the “arrogant billionaire” Warren labeled him.
The question is probably how much money Bloomberg will have to spend to make up for the damage he inflicted on his campaign in this debate. He should have stayed far away. The other candidates nicked each other sufficiently to help him position himself as the candidate who is, if nothing else, electable. But the Bloomberg we saw tonight was a punching bag who wouldn’t last more than a round in the ring with Donald Trump.