On Wednesday night, the ninth debate of the Democratic primary was the most vicious one yet. With the event being held in Las Vegas, the night ironically felt like a two-hour boxing promo. No punches were pulled as the candidates threw caution to the wind and engaged in tense back and forths while the moderators may as well had been wearing referee shirts.
The stage was set as Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-VT), former Vice President Joe Biden, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), former South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) sought to rally their troops and make their case for the presidency. A notable absence from the stage came via businessmen Andrew Yang and Tom Steyer. After laying off over a hundred members of his staff subsequent to his dismal sixth-place Iowa finish, Yang ended his campaign a week prior to the debate.
Steyer, who saw a brief boost in interest after his fiery showing in the New Hampshire debate, wasn’t able to qualify for Nevada’s debate stage in time for the Feb. 18 deadline. However, Steyer, a billionaire funding his own campaign, was replaced by another billionaire who’s not only doing the same, but has managed to even outspend him in campaign ads: former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
Bloomberg—a businessman who Forbes lists as having a net worth of $65.2 billion dollars, making him the eighth richest person alive—has been viewed by many as nothing more than an out-of-touch billionaire trying to “buy” the nomination. Facing online backlash and mockery soon after launching his campaign back in November, the former three-term mayor grated on more nerves after it was revealed in January that the Democratic National Committee had altered its debate appearance requirements in a way that worked in Bloomberg’s favor.
However, his long-awaited first-time appearance on the debate stage Wednesday night left not the impression of a new challenger offering a new perspective but rather one of a man who received a verbal beatdown so brutal that it almost felt like a pay-per-view event. The fact that it all went down in Las Vegas made it even more fitting.
With barely five minutes having passed after moderator Lester Holt’s opening question to Sanders and Bloomberg about which of the pair was best poised to defeat President Donald Trump this November, Warren immediately shifted the focus to what became the main theme for the night: the democratic candidates’ unified takedown of Bloomberg.
The Massachusetts senator fired the first of many bullets engraved with the mayor’s name on them, equating him with another New York billionaire by the name of Donald Trump.
“I’d like to talk about who we’re running against, a billionaire who calls women ‘fat broads’ and ‘horse-faced lesbians,’” Warren said. “And no, I’m not talking about Donald Trump. I’m talking about Mayor Bloomberg.”
After the surprised murmurs from the audience subsided, she continued, driving her point home with a warning to the Democratic party.
“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.”
Next, it was Klobuchar’s turn at bat, pivoting from her response to a question about what the path from the debate stage to the Oval Office looks like.
“I actually welcomed Mayor Bloomberg to the stage…And then I looked at the memo from his campaign staff this morning, and it said that he actually thought that three of us (herself, Biden and Buttigieg) should get out of the way…[that] we should ‘pave the way’ for him to become the nominee.”
Then, just as Warren had done, the Minnesota senator compared Bloomberg to Trump.
“I think we need something different than Donald Trump. I don’t think you look at Donald Trump and say we need someone richer in the White House.”
Appearing somewhat unnerved, Bloomberg offered a rebuttal.
“I think we have two questions to face tonight…who can beat Donald Trump? And, number two, who can do the job if they get into the White House? I would argue that I am the candidate that can do exactly both of those things…I know how to take on an arrogant conman like Donald Trump…I know how to run…the biggest, most diverse city in this country…And I’m a philanthropist who didn’t inherit his money but made his money. And I’m spending that money to get rid of Donald Trump, the worst president we have ever had.”
Prompted by Holt, Biden took issue with Bloomberg’s claim.
“In terms of who can beat Donald Trump, NBC did a poll yesterday. It says Joe Biden is best equipped to beat Donald Trump,” said Biden. “The mayor says that he has a great record…the fact of the matter is…He didn’t get a whole lot done. He had stop and frisk (the infamous racialized policy utilized by the New York Police Department that Bloomberg supported), throwing close to 5 million young black men up against a wall.”
Next up was Buttigieg, who chose to attack both Bloomberg and Sanders in one shot, painting himself as the alternative to whom he called “the two most polarizing figures on this stage.”
“Most Americans don’t see where they fit 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.”
Following some brief applause, the former South Bend, Indiana mayor continued framing himself as the better choice.
“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. We can do better.”
Looking nonplussed at Buttigieg’s “polarizing” charge, Sanders fired back.
“If speaking to the needs and the pain of a long-neglected working class is polarizing, I think you got the wrong word…What we are trying finally to do is to give a voice to people…who are saying we are sick and tired of billionaires like Mr. Bloomberg seeing huge expansions of their wealth while a half-a-million people sleep out on the street tonight. Maybe it’s time for the working class of this country to have a little bit of power in Washington, rather than your billionaire campaign contributors.”
For the rest of the night, it became clear that the only person on stage that had a completely unsalvageable performance was Bloomberg. While his weak explanations for his prior support of stop and frisk and the multiple women who have sued him for harassment were bad enough, his implication that he simply “can’t go to TurboTax” to file his tax returns due his wealth and his refusal to release his sexual harassment accusers from the nondisclosure agreements that they signed elicited groans and derisive laughter from the audience.
Though Sanders and Warren were the standout performers of the night, nobody onstage did worse than the one man who spent half a billion dollars to be there. For Bloomberg, the silver lining—in addition to half a billion dollars being like mere pocket change to him—is that he’s already qualified to appear in the next debate.