By the relatively tame standards of the other Democratic debates, last night was all-out war.
From the opening question, the crowded cluster of candidates running behind Sen. Bernie Sanders and neck-and-neck with billionaire newcomer Michael Bloomberg trained their fire on both. The first few minutes, in particular, were open season on Bloomberg, who was slammed on his history of sexist comments, his former support of stop and frisk, and not releasing his tax returns.
It didn’t take long for the candidates to turn their fire on each other, however, and repeated attempts to one-up each other were a consistent theme throughout the night in what was hands-down the spiciest debate so far.
Warren: “I’m talking about Mayor Bloomberg”
Before Sanders was even done answering the opening question, Warren’s hand shot up. After Bloomberg said that Sanders couldn’t beat President Donald Trump in a general election, Warren tore into him.
“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.”
“Democrats are not going to win if we have a nominee who has a history of hiding his tax returns, of harassing women, and of supporting racist polls like red-lining and stop and frisk,” she continued. “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.”
Sanders slams Buttigieg for “billionaire donors”
Throughout the debate, former South Bend mayor Pete Buttigieg hit on a theme that both Sanders and Bloomberg were too “polarizing” to be the nominee. “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,” Buttigieg said early on.
“We are giving 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,” Sanders countered. “And that's what we are saying, Pete, is 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.”
“My campaign is fueled by hundreds of thousands of contributors,” a flustered Buttigieg started, before Sanders shot back: “Including 46 billionaires.”
Warren sticks a fork in everyone else's healthcare plan
When Warren was a front-runner throughout the summer and fall, her plan to pass Medicare for All by the end of her first term came under intense scrutiny from opponents, who claimed it would cost too much and kick too many people off health insurance plans that they like.
After Sanders was asked about a recent spat with the powerful Culinary Union over Medicare for All, Warren jumped in to turn the tables on her opponents. Buttigieg “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,” she said. “It's not a plan. It's a PowerPoint.”
Turning to Amy Klobuchar, she said of the Minnesota senator’s plan: “It's like a Post-It note, ‘Insert Plan Here.’” (Later, she would say that Klobuchar’s plan takes up just two paragraphs on her website, but it’s much longer than that.)
And finally, looking to distinguish herself from Sanders on the issue, she remarked that “his campaign relentlessly attacks everyone who asks a question or tries to fill in details about how to actually make this work.”
Bloomberg gets busted on NDAs
When Bloomberg was asked by moderator Hallie Jackson about his history of sexist remarks, he responded by pointing out that his company, charitable foundation, and mayoral administration had women in them. Warren wasn’t having it.
“I hope you heard what his defense was. ‘I've been nice to some women,’” she said, in what might as well be the “binders full of women” moment of the 2020 race so far. “That just doesn't cut it.”
Warren then cornered Bloomberg on his reluctance to release former female employees from non-disclosure agreements.
“He has gotten some number of women, dozens, who knows, to sign nondisclosure agreements both for sexual harassment and for gender discrimination in the workplace,” Warren said, and then asked him him directly if he would release those women from NDAs.
Bloomberg had zero good things to say.
Claiming that there were “very few” NDAs, Bloomberg also tried to distance himself from the issue. “None of them accuse me of doing anything, other than maybe they didn't like a joke I told,” Bloomberg said, to groans from the audience. “There's agreements between two parties that wanted to keep it quiet and that's up to them. They signed those agreements, and we'll live with it.”
Later, in an exchange with former Vice President Joe Biden on the same topic, Bloomberg said that the agreements were made “consensually,” and that his former employees “have every right to expect that they will stay private.” Strong choice of words there, Mike.
It’s no secret that Buttigieg and Sen. Amy Klobuchar are in each other’s way, as both are running on the same sort of moderate Midwestern electability argument. But after Klobuchar stumbled and was unable to name the Mexican president earlier this week, Telemundo correspondent Vanessa Hauc wouldn’t let it go, and Buttigieg seized on the opportunity.
“I wouldn't liken this to trivia,” Buttigieg said. “You're staking your candidacy on your Washington experience. You're on the committee that oversees border security. You're on the committee that does trade. You're literally in part of the committee that's overseeing these things 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 I’m dumb? Or are you mocking me here, Pete?” Klobuchar said. “'I’m saying you shouldn't trivialize that knowledge,” he responded.
“I’m the one, not you, who’s won statewide,” Klobuchar shot back. “And I will say, 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.”
Buttigieg, as if he’d been waiting his entire life for this moment, went straight for the jugular. “This is a race for president. If winning a race for Senate in Minnesota translated directly to becoming president, I would have grown up under the presidency of Walter Mondale,” Buttigieg said.
For all of the fighting, however, this particular episode ended with Warren sticking her neck out for Klobuchar.
“Can I just defend Senator Klobuchar for a minute? This is not right. I understand that she forgot a name,” Warren said. “It happens. It happens to everybody on this stage… Missing a name all by itself does not indicate that you do not understand what's going on. And I just think this is unfair.”
See, we’re all friends here, right? Right?
Cover: From left, Democratic presidential candidates, former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., participate in a Democratic presidential primary debate Wednesday, Feb. 19, 2020, in Las Vegas, hosted by NBC News and MSNBC. (AP Photo/John Locher)