Michael Bloomberg may not have brought a box to stand on during last night’s debate, as President Trump suggested he might, but he may need one for next Tuesday’s event in South Carolina. Elizabeth Warren cut him off at the knees within the first five minutes of her opening statement. “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,” she said. Later, after Bloomberg defended his record of hiring women, Warren twisted the knife again. The former mayor, she said, had convinced “some number of women, dozens, who knows, to sign nondisclosure agreements both for sexual harassment and for gender discrimination in the workplace.”
Warren’s questions revealed a valuable piece of information about Bloomberg. The billionaire is unaccustomed to criticism. He was defensive and evasive. He couldn’t tell her how many NDAs his companies had actually enforced. “None of them accuse me of doing anything, other than maybe they didn’t like a joke I told,” he added, bestowing a precious gift on Warren and to everyone else onstage. An NBC News analysis of the debate concluded that it was the first in which Warren and Senator Amy Klobuchar talked more than the men standing next to them, and a representative for the Warren campaign tweeted that it led to their best hour of fundraising to date.
But Warren’s debate performance wasn’t just notable for its fundraising prowess. In her interactions with Bloomberg, Warren displayed a facet of her candidacy that has felt muted for weeks. As her campaign faltered, Warren made subtext into text. The idea that she could be a unity candidate, a bridge between the Democratic Party’s leftmost and centrist factions, has always been nascent in her campaign strategy. After Warren’s September rally in Washington Square Park, I wrote that she was “well on her way” to persuading liberals who are skeptical of Sanders but wary of another Hillary Clinton that “she was the Goldilocks candidate.” Warren’s trying to embrace that role now. In the process, she’s also inflicted real damage on her campaign.
Warren would need a mighty debate boost indeed to catch up with either Bernie Sanders or Pete Buttigieg in the delegate count. Her campaign’s downward spiral has been the stuff of cable-news fulmination for weeks. So many Nevadans participated in early voting that her debate performance might not be enough to net her a decent performance in the state, and she trails Sanders and Joe Biden in South Carolina, the next primary state. Her debate performance doesn’t fundamentally change her odds of becoming president.
When a woman’s campaign craters, as Warren’s has recently done, the failure invokes an old question. How much should we blame sexism, and how much should we blame the campaign itself? It’s a truism that Warren, indeed any woman running for office, faces gendered double standards that govern her behavior. If Warren strikes outward, sounds angry, she puts her candidacy at risk, or so the reasoning goes. It’s easier, still, for men to adopt hostile personas. This dynamic is real, and it is influential, but it doesn’t explain everything about Warren’s troubled campaign.
In the days before the Nevada debate, Warren also mired herself in attacks on Sanders. She may have believed there was a logic to doing so: He is an obstacle in her path to viability. The result, however, looked cynical. Warren waded into a knife fight over the powerful Culinary Union’s campaign against Medicare for All — a campaign that criticized her policies in addition to those proposed by Sanders. After union leadership reported receiving threats over their strategy, Warren, like several other candidates, recognized an opportunity.
Warren then told press that Sanders “had a lot of questions to answer” about the behavior of his online followers.
But this opportunity was more of a trap. No one who’s spent any amount of time on the internet can credibly deny the real vitriol directed at the Culinary Union’s leadership. (It is worth noting, though, that the Nevada Independent’s report on the attacks mistakenly attributed at least one threat to a Sanders supporter; in fact, it came from a Trump supporter.) Sanders doesn’t instigate harassment, can’t control the behavior of others, and has for years condemned online abuse when it does occur. The idea that his followers are uniquely vicious also carries with it a high burden of proof. Anyone who’s been on the receiving end of attacks from Clinton supporters before and after her loss, or the K-hive — as supporters of Kamala Harris call themselves on Twitter — can tell you that people across the political spectrum behave very badly online. Sanders’s counter-complaint during the debate — that the female representatives of his campaign receive volumes of sexist and racist abuse — is true, and easily verifiable. Warren’s decision to lend the Bernie Bro narrative some credence thus looked like an unforced error. So too did her handling of an earlier squabble over whether or not the Vermont senator once told her that voters would not elect a woman.
Warren’s attempts to attack Sanders have been awkward and ineffectual: Her natural prey, instead, are men like Michael Bloomberg. The version of Warren that defenestrated Bloomberg on live television is the version most voters initially got to know. She took on credit-card companies, the leadership of Wells Fargo, even the Obama administration when she felt it was necessary. She is a capitalist, as she reaffirmed during the debate, but one whose anger at plutocrats always felt credible. Her recent pivot to petty infighting obscures her best qualities. For a while, it looked like she’d forgotten who her real enemies are.
There is a basic incoherence to the very notion of Warren as a unity candidate. If she tries to make the branding stick, she’ll have to keep going after Sanders, all while laying into Bloomberg, Buttigieg, Biden and Klobuchar. Warren has to persuade voters that her big structural change is not only preferable to Sanders’s revolution, but that the former is meaningfully distinct from the latter, and distinct again from the incrementalism of moderate candidates. It sounds impossible because it probably is. At this point in the primary, Warren should ask herself if there’s still time to emerge from the contest with her identity as a fighter intact.