From the moment the six Democratic presidential contenders took to the stage at Paris Las Vegas Hotel & Casino on Wednesday evening, it was clear that the Nevada primary debate was going to be an altogether different animal than the ones that had come before. Whereas the previous eight — yes, eight — Democratic debates had felt like anodyne slogs, overcrowded with candidates largely content to underwhelm their audiences, what happened Wednesday night in Vegas seemed like the first time the crowded primary field was willing to truly draw blood from one another, and let their actual personalities come through — for better or worse.
In no small part, Wednesday night's debate owed its electricity to the presence of former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg, whose very existence as a formerly-Republican billionaire with a history of racial discrimination and sexist behavior offered the other candidates a big fat target toward which they could launch a series of brutal attacks on any number of his personal and professional failings. And boy did they.
Leading the charge was Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who wasted no time sinking her teeth into Bloomberg's very expensive bones by labeling him an "arrogant billionaire" whose comments about women, and subsequent nondisclosure agreements with those he allegedly offended, should disqualify him from the race.
For Warren, who has been struggling to define herself as a candidate by oscillating between progressive firebrand and pragmatic achiever, Bloomberg's presence was a blessing, a foil toward which she could unleash genuine venom — and against which her message of the systemic disenfranchisement of vulnerable communities could be honed.
For frontrunner Bernie Sanders, the Vermont senator, Wednesday night's debate — and Bloomberg's involvement therein — offered some of his finest moments of the campaign so far, as well. Pressed to define his democratic socialism, Sanders presented his political philosophy by invoking Martin Luther King Jr. to explain how the government subsidizes the wealthy through tax breaks and bailouts — "socialism for the rich," he called it — while forcing the working class into "rugged individualism."
And with Bloomberg standing just feet away, Sanders didn't hold back on criticizing the oligarch class for the self-satisfied belief that their fortunes were the result of their work, and their work alone. Bloomberg was asked whether he "should exist," as a billionaire, and whether he should've been able to amass such a personal fortune in the first place; he responded that yes, because he'd "worked hard" for his money.
"You know Mr. Bloomberg, it wasn’t you who made all that money," Sanders declared during one of the more contentious moments of the night. "Maybe your workers played some role in that as well. ... It is important that those workers are able to share the benefits also."
But while Bloomberg's presence on stage may have been what initially galvanized the mood for the evening, it was clear that the entire field was eager to land haymakers. And no one seemed to be ready to unleash atomic-grade hatred than Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, whose visceral dislike of Pete Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, could have powered the entire Las Vegas Strip.
In one sense, Klobuchar and Buttigieg's multiple clashes could be distilled to the cold calculus that there is only room for one centrist in this race — a lane Mayor Pete seemed desperate to smother with his characteristic streams of inoffensive word salad. (One example: "We must step forward into the future in order to win and in order to govern a country that will be facing issues the likes of which we barely thought of just a few years ago.") But time after time, it seemed clear that Klobuchar's attacks on Buttigieg stemmed not simply from political triangulation, but from a very real dislike for someone who, as she accused Mayor Pete at one point, was "trying to say that I'm dumb?" And while the intra-centrist sniping may not convince voters to actually make either of them president, Klobuchar and Buttigieg's dust-ups were, if nothing else, a moment for each of them to show their actual personalities beyond canned stump speeches and slickly packaged PowerPoint presentations — something Buttigieg was accused of relying upon by Warren during a segment on health care.
For a time, even Joe Biden, the former vice president and also former frontrunner of the race, seemed to be operating at an order of magnitude higher than his previous debate performances, laying into Bloomberg for New York's former policy of stop and frisk policing, which overwhelmingly targeted people of color.
"The mayor says that he has a great record, that he's done these wonderful things," Biden chastised Bloomberg during the debate's opening moments. "Well," he continued, "the fact of the matter is, he has not managed his city very, very well when he was there. He didn't get a whole lot done. He had stop and frisk, throwing close to 5 million young Black men up against a wall."
For Biden, whose plummet in the polls owes as much to Sanders's ascendency as it does to Bloomberg's snipping at his heels, it was a rare moment of lucidity, after a series of bizarre rambling tangents in previous debates. Still, it was clear that Biden was — at least for a short while — fighting for his political life, stridently defining himself as the most accomplished do-er on stage before slipping into his well-worn shtick of relying on the achievements of the Obama administration to bolster his credibility.
But while the five non-billionaire candidates were taking great pains to let their genuine differences shine through, Bloomberg — in his first debate as a Democratic contender — seemed bizarrely content to do the opposite, incomprehensibly acquiescing to every criticism lobbed at him.
Asked about stop and frisk, Bloomberg halfheartedly apologized for the outcome of the bigoted policy while assiduously avoiding the discriminatory foundation it was based on. Pushed to defend his history of alleged sexist remarks, Bloomberg insisted that none of the women bound to silence by non-disclosure agreements had been targeted by him personally, and that "maybe they didn't like a joke I told." And in one of the more bizarre exchanges of the night, Bloomberg — who is worth upwards of $50 billion dollars — seemed to think attacking Sanders for owning a home in Vermont, where he's from; a home in Washington, D.C., where he works; and a cabin was an effective tactic to pivot away from his own vast financial holdings.
It's hard to say how, if at all, this latest debate will actually shake up the Democratic primary field. If there's any justice in the world, Bloomberg's ego-driven run should be finished after his performance in Vegas, and no amount of money should be able to buy it back.
But even if Bloomberg trudges on, Wednesday evening was at least a net positive for Democratic voters frustrated by what has thus-far been an interminable slog toward Election Day: a genuine debate over genuine issues in which each candidate was able, if only for a short while, to engage beyond the plasticine facade of civility and show the country what they really are.