Feb 20, 2020

SPECIAL EDITION: Democratic debate finally has some fireworks.

SPECIAL EDITION: Democratic debate finally has some fireworks.

After a series of snoozers, last night was must-watch TV.

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Today’s read: 8 minutes.

This is a special edition of Tangle to cover the Democratic debate. Unlike most editions, there won’t be a “what the left is saying” or “what the right is saying” section, or a reader question. You’ll see how I like to cover these things below. I also sent today’s newsletter a little early so you can get “in the know” as soon as possible.

Elizabeth Warren, who stole the show, tries to get a word in while standing between the two favorites in the primary race. Screenshot: NBC News.

Debate coverage.

A quick note on covering debates: In many ways, debates are performing arts. As always, I’ll do my best to stick to the facts and be clear when I’m making subjective analysis — but debates lend themselves to subjective thinking. I’m going to weave in as many views as I can but I recognize that everyone sees these television events differently. So feel free to write in and push back if you see me writing something here that’s my opinion and you don’t agree.

The debate.

Fireworks! Drama! One-liners! Last night, Democrats had their ninth debate of the presidential primary. It was the first debate for billionaire Mike Bloomberg and it was missing two candidates who are still in the race but didn’t qualify: Rep. Tulsi Gabbard and billionaire Tom Steyer. Unlike past debates, though, which were largely written off as “snoozers,” this one grabbed everybody’s attention. Political commentators from the left and right both conceded that the debate was entertaining television, regardless of where you stood politically. That’s because the entrance of Bloomberg turned up the heat between the progressive and moderate wings, gave the other candidates a fresh target and got everyone in the fighting mood.

  • Most folks left the night feeling like Sen. Elizabeth Warren had put on the best “performance.” Right-wing analysts described her as “filleting” Mike Bloomberg, progressives cheered her on, noting it was the performance they’d been waiting for. And I thought she had the strongest responses on how far-left progressive policies could be inclusive and work for rural parts of the country.

  • Bloomberg was underwhelming and struggled for the first hour of the debate. Badly. He took lumps out of the gate and a lot of people — including me — expressed shock at how unprepared he looked to be up there. Even his own campaign conceded that it “took him 45 minutes” to get his legs after 10 years without a debate. He got it together late in the game with questions on climate change and job creation. But even Bloomberg News was left running the headline that Bloomberg got “hammered.”

  • Bernie Sanders may have left the night in a stronger position than he entered it. The anti-billionaire, anti-establishment Sanders-Warren tag-team on Bloomberg was devastating for most of the night, and even though Warren could surely pick up some Sanders supporters — and may get a post-debate pop — all that really matters for Sanders is fending off Bloomberg and the moderate Democrats on the stage. If he can do that, he has a clear path to the nomination.

First words.

What candidates say first is usually a good indication of the message they’re trying to get out. Here’s a brief summary of the first things we heard from each candidate, in the order they spoke. Moderators kicked things off with a question about why Sanders’ message was the best one to beat Trump.

Bernie: In order to beat Donald Trump, Sanders made the case that we’re going to need the largest voter turnout in the history of American elections. Bloomberg’s stop and frisk policies in New York City, which targeted and harassed minorities, would be a ridiculous piece of baggage to have on a candidate. Sanders said his plan is to bring the working class together, raise the living wage to $15 an hour, have the guts to take on the fossil fuel industry and guarantee health care for all.

Bloomberg: “I don’t think there’s any chance of the senator beating President Trump,” Bloomberg said. “You don’t start out by saying I’ve got 160 million people and I’m going to take away the insurance plan that they love.” That’s just not the way to build a coalition, Bloomberg contended. If Bernie wins and is the candidate we will have Donald Trump for another 4 years. Bloomberg also made the case that he’s a  New Yorker, was mayor of the biggest and most diverse city, and has worked as a philanthropist — all qualifications that he could beat Trump and knew how to bring the country together.

Liz: Warren’s first words were perhaps the most memorable of the entire night. Right when Bloomberg was done talking, she jumped in with this line: I’d like to talk about who we are running against. A billionaire who calls women fat broads and horse-faced lesbians. And no, I am not talking about Donald Trump. I am 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 policies like redlining and stop and frisk.” Audible “whoas!” came from the crowd and social media immediately exploded. You can see the clip below:

Klobuchar: Amy made the case that the path to the White House is high voter turnout and she’s the one on the stage who had the highest voter turnout of any state in the country. She also thinks you have to bring in rural and suburban voters and is the only one on stage who has done that in Republican congressional districts. She also added that she actually “welcomed” Bloomberg to the stage, only to see a campaign memo from his team that called on her, Biden and Buttigieg to simply drop out of the race and pave the way for him because moderates were fractured while Sanders was rising. As a woman, Klobuchar said, she’s been told to wait her turn and step aside. But she’s not going to do that now and she’s not going to do that for Mike Bloomberg.

Joe: The former Vice President hopped in and said “in terms of who can beat Donald Trump, NBC did a poll yesterday and it said Joe Biden was best equipped to beat Donald Trump. That’s what your poll said,” Biden said with a smile.  He claimed he was better positioned in the swing states than anyone on the stage. Then he went after Bloomberg for not getting a whole lot done in New York City besides stop and frisk which he used to throw millions of black men up against walls.

Mayor Pete: Buttigieg immediately pleaded that “we’ve gotta wake up as a party,” noting that everyone could wake up two weeks from today — a day after Super Tuesday — and the only candidates left standing will be Bernie Sanders and Mike Bloomberg, the two most polarizing figures on the stage. “Most Americans don’t see where they fit if they have to choose between a socialist who thinks that capitalism is the root of all evil and a billionaire who thinks that money is the root of all power,” he said. Then he made the case to put forward a candidate who actually works in a middle-class neighborhood in an industrial midwest city, or put forward somebody who “is actually a Democrat.” “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.”

The moments.

Every debate has a few moments that will be talked about and run across television networks for a few days. Here are some of the big moments from last night.

Warren shreds Bloomberg again. Fox News described Bloomberg’s night as a “bloodbath.” Mary Anne Marsh wrote that Warren “flattened” Bloomberg. Guy Benson said she “filleted” him. Part of that was due to exchanges over Bloomberg’s treatment of women, and the many non-disclosure agreements women at Bloomberg’s companies have signed. Bloomberg dismissed sexual harassment allegations against him as maybe “a joke I told” that people didn’t like, drawing groans from the audience. Warren called him out on it and asked him if he would release those women from their NDAs. She asked how many women have NDAs. Bloomberg stumbled on the responses.

Sanders (kind of) denounces some of his supporters. Last week, I answered a reader question about why some people “hate Bernie.” Part of my response was about the flack his supporters get for being mean online. Bernie was asked about it last night and said “99.9 percent of them are decent human beings, are working people, are people who believe in justice, compassion and love. And if there are a few people who make ugly remarks, who attack trade union leaders, I disown those people.” Pete Buttigieg hopped in to criticize Sanders, saying “I think you have to accept some responsibility” and “leadership is about what you draw out of people.”

Warren hammers the health care plans on stage. Again, Warren was aggressive and on fire, hitting in all directions last night. At one point, she described Amy Klobuchar’s health care plan as something you could fit on a “post-it” note, said Buttigieg’s plan is a “PowerPoint” with slogans “thought up by consultants” and criticized Bernie for attacking anyone who asks questions about his plan.

The Amy-Pete feud continues. Throughout the campaign, there’s been a lot of fun speculation online that Amy Klobuchar and Pete Buttigieg loathe each other. Last night on stage, the two had podiums next to each other, and they spent a good part of the night going at it. But it just… felt different than the other attacks. It seemed deeply personal, especially from Amy to Pete. Buttigieg criticized her for forgetting the name of Mexico’s president after a moderator asked about the gaffe. “I wish everyone was as perfect as you Pete,” Klobuchar said at one point — from a very, very deep place in her heart. “You’ve memorized a bunch of talking points,” she told him at another point. Buttigieg maintained his composure but didn’t back down off his criticism, which largely amounted to making the case experience in Washington was not the only kind of experience that qualified someone to be president. He also hammered home the name gaffe, noting that Klobuchar had high-level Senate positions where she should know the basics of the conversation about Mexico. At one point Klobuchar responded, “are you saying that I’m dumb?”

Bloomberg gets under Bernie’s skin. Later in the debate, Bloomberg had a few strong moments discussing the way bold climate action may impact jobs and his plans for addressing global economic issues. But the most dramatic moment came when he referred to Sanders’ platform as “communism” (Bernie called it a “cheap shot”) and then ruffled Bernie’s feathers by calling out the fact he owns three houses. “The best known socialist in the country happens to be a millionaire with three houses,” Bloomberg said. Sanders, in a surprise to me, actually took the bait by trying to explain that he had a house in Washington D.C., a house in Vermont and — like thousands of Vermonters — owned a “summer camp.” He then asked Bloomberg where his house was, to which the former mayor coolly responded “New York City.”

Joe Biden connects with closing statement. Biden needs a lot of help to get back in this thing, but his closing statement is why the former Vice President is so endearing to so many voters. “Regular Joe” is a character that’s easily accessible for him because it’s genuine. He talked about growing up in Scranton, PA, having to move a lot as a kid, getting “knocked down” and fighting, providing safety and security for American people, addressing gun violence, expanding Obamacare and sending an immigration bill to Congress on day 1. All in about one minute.

Sanders sticks out on the final question. The last question of the debate was perhaps the most interesting. Moderators asked each candidate whether the candidate with the most delegates should win the party’s presidential nomination or whether the party rules — which dictate that the winning candidates must have more than 50 percent of all delegates — should be enforced. If no candidate has more than 50 percent of the delegates by the convention, then multiple rounds of delegate voting will ensue to decide the nominee. Some of the delegates, called Superdelegates, are members of Congress and other party leaders, who seem to have an unfavorable view of Sanders (the most likely candidate to gain the most delegates). It will set up quite the party clash if it happens that way. Every candidate on stage said the party rules should play out, except Sanders, who said whoever has the most delegates should be the nominee (in other words, every candidate gave the most self-serving answer possible).

What you missed.

Watching the debate live can be a crazy spectacle. Here are a few moments you may have missed that should have gotten some more attention.

Bloomberg rolling his eyes at Elizabeth Warren while she buried him:

Pete Buttigieg and Klobuchar sharing a laugh over Bloomberg’s evasiveness.

Warren saying after the debate she had no doubt Bloomberg would spend another $100 million to make everyone forget what they just saw.

Klobuchar blowing Mayor Pete off for a handshake after the debate.

Biden gets heckled for “deporting 3 million people” during the Obama admin.


  • $2.8 million. The amount of money Elizabeth Warren said she raised yesterday, largely off the best hour of funding her campaign has ever had in the first hour of the debate.
  • $2.7 million. The amount of money Bernie Sanders said he raised yesterday, coming from 150,000 donors, the best debate day haul of his campaign yet.
  • #1. Elizabeth Warren’s ranking in mentions on Twitter last night during the debate.
  • 18.5 million. Bernie Sanders’ organic interactions across all of social media for the week ending on Feb. 16th, best of any candidate.
  • 16:35. The time, in minutes and seconds, that Elizabeth Warren spoke during last night’s debate — the most of any candidate on stage.
  • 13:02. The time, in minutes and seconds, that Mike Bloomberg spoke during last night’s debate — the least of any candidate on stage.
  • -15.4%. The drop in Mike Bloomberg’s odds to win the Democratic nomination in the last 24 hours, according to the election betting markets.
  • This insane graphic from Mother Jones that illustrates exactly how wealthy Mike Bloomberg is:

My take.

I’ll try and be quick. Warren was phenomenal last night — the best I’ve ever seen her on any stage in any race. It looked a lot like the Senate hearings that she’s famous for where she pins corrupt CEOs or politicians against a wall and keeps hammering them with lawyerly precision. I’m not sure where this version of her has been for the last few months — maybe she just needed someone like Bloomberg to really hammer — but it was impressive. My suspicion is she’s too far behind to make up any ground going forward. But if debates do matter, which I’m unconvinced of, then Warren should see a healthy bump in the coming weeks.

Bloomberg — for most of the debate — was the opposite. I was legitimately shocked and how bumbling and uncomfortable he seemed early on. For a guy who has the money he has, you’d think his team would have prepped him for the most obvious lines of attack he was hit with (stop and frisk or his comments on women). He seemed wholly unprepared and if I’m a Democratic voter I do not leave last night feeling like he could go toe-to-toe with Trump on the debate stage. From a policy perspective, he seemed his strongest discussing climate change and addressing it in a way that didn’t wipe out industries in major swing states, but I’m not sure that’s a message that gets him across the finish line. Regardless, the debate could do literally nothing to stop him. As Warren said, Bloomberg has the money to reach far more people than who watched the debate last night, and he can continue to craft his image and message however he wants. It’s quite possible that even this poor performance doesn’t hurt him.

Sanders escaped without anyone really landing a glove on him. Buttigieg had the best line of attack, which is how uninviting and divisive Sanders’ “my way or the highway” attitude is, adding that he’s not the only one who cares about working-class Americans. But I think there are enough pissed off people in the Democratic base that a message of unity and kumbaya isn’t really going to do it — Sanders’ anger is part of the reason he’s winning. Biden had perhaps his best debate performance yet, avoiding the typical blunders and gaffes that come with his public speaking appearances, but he was totally drowned out by the strength of the people around him. Klobuchar seemed a bit out of sorts to me and I think her New Hampshire buzz is over — I’d put my money on her being the next candidate to drop out.

While Tulsi Gabbard and Tom Steyer were both absent from the stage, their relevance shouldn’t be undersold. Gabbard has the power to fracture the party depending on where she throws her support, and Steyer has spent so much money and time campaigning in South Carolina that he may actually make some waves there and get back in this thing. This next week, like the last few, will be some of the most unpredictable of any presidential race I can imagine.

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