The Democrats’ Brutal Debate Night: What Makes For Good TV May Be Even Better For Donald Trump

The Democratic presidential debate wasn’t even over and many had declared a winner: President Donald Trump.
It’s perhaps a bit too easy to say that the president, reviled by Democrats, can only be happy by the way that things played out. The candidates at the Las Vegas debate went after each other like no previous encounter this cycle, and in ways that were snippy, harsh and scorching.
It also made for some compelling television. “It was a little like a presidential version of Survivor,” former senator Claire McCaskill said on MSNBC just minutes after it all ended.
But perhaps this is just par for the course for a primary race, the inevitable result of months of campaigning, dozens of debates and town halls and a primary schedule that is pointing to a shakeout.
The night had the feel of a group of candidates — Joe Biden, Amy Klobuchar, Pete Buttigieg and most especially Elizabeth Warren — seeing this as one of their last best opportunities to slow Bernie Sanders rise in the polls or blunt the impact of Michael Bloomberg’s spendthrift march to Super Tuesday.
There was little indication that they had done much to stop Sanders; there were plenty of reasons to wonder whether the debate hurt Bloomberg.
He came into the debate as the new guy on stage, and it showed. “What am I, chicken liver?” he said at one point after being ignored, not getting that this debate was a bit more of a free-for-all than what he is used to.
He didn’t directly respond to some of the early attacks, instead focusing his attention on casting himself as best positioned to beat Donald Trump, but he could not avoid confrontation later on. It wasn’t pretty.
Elizabeth Warren called him out for not releasing women workers at his company from non-disclosure agreements and, appearing a bit annoyed or rolling his eyes, he tried to defend the NDAs. “None of them accuse me of doing anything, other than maybe a joke I told,” he said. The audience booed. Warren’s takedown will get played over and over again, perhaps mitigated by Bloomberg’s ad blitz. If he starts to slide, the moment likely will be looked upon as a turning point in the 2020 campaign and of the MeToo movement.
Bloomberg later started to come off the sidelines, as when he talked of his work on climate change and when he defended his wealth against Sanders’ attacks. And he went a bit on the offensive, as when Sanders proposed a massive overhaul of the economy. Bloomberg called it “ridiculous.” “It’s called communism. It just doesn’t work.”
But Bloomberg suffered for not having been on stage against five other presidential candidates, all of whom have learned something about the dynamics at work when they are the target.
That was the case with Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar, who could not stop fighting one another. They had so many confrontational moments that NBC News started to give their back-and-forth faceoffs a different camera angle. Pete attacked Amy for not being able to name the president of Mexico at a recent event, something that came across as a bit too petty or even mansplaining. Klobuchar, who could not disguise her look of contempt for the unrattled Buttigieg, later sniped, sarcastically, “I’m sorry I’m not as perfect as you, Pete.”
Joe Biden actually looked and sounded more vigorous than in previously debates, especially when challenging Bloomberg’s claims to have been an enthusiast of the Obama agenda, when in fact he had called its signature initiative, health reform, a “disgrace.”
The candidates were given a bit more freedom to confront each other, which certainly made the debate more interesting. But the moderators’ questions also were specific and pointed, jumping off points that inevitably led to a more acrimonious evening.
No one, though, had more standout moments than the energized Warren, who didn’t pass up an opportunity to try to take down a rival, at one point even going through the list of candidates one by one. She had the most talking time than any other candidate; Bloomberg had the least. Her backers loved it, but others wondered whether it was just too much. After a lackluster showing in New Hampshire, she doesn’t have a whole lot to lose.
Trump, finishing up a rally around the same time that the debate ended, surely was pleased by the Bloomberg pile on in particular, as he has fixated on his fellow billionaire as his most threatening foil.
Relatively unscathed was Sanders, who has “got to feel good about tonight,” in the words Andrew Yang, who ended his presidential bid last week and is now a CNN commentator.
But Sanders biggest advantage may not be what was said on stage but the calendar, particularly as moderates battle among themselves. Less than two weeks away is Super Tuesday, which is the closest thing to a national primary and when more than one-third of the delegates will be chosen. By then, he may open up a lead that makes him almost impossible to beat.

PREVIOUSLY: Bernie Sanders frequently takes aim at the wealth of billionaires, and he directed his campaign theme at Michael Bloomberg’s vast fortune as indicative of income inequality.

“Mike Bloomberg owns more wealth than the bottom 125 million Americans, and that’s obscene,” Sanders said.

Moderator Chuck Todd asked Bloomberg, “Should you exist?”

“I can’t speak for all billionaires. All I know is, I’ve been very lucky, made a lot of money, and I’m giving it all away to make this country better,” Bloomberg responded.

Bloomberg delivered his sharpest attacks on Sanders when he criticized his economic policies.

“I can’t think of a way that would make it easier for Donald Trump to get reelected than listening to this conversation,” Bloomberg said. “It’s ridiculous. We are not going to get rid of capitalism. We tried that. Other countries tried that. It’s called communism. It just doesn’t work.”

PREVIOUSLY: Michael Bloomberg was asked about recent reports of former employees who have accused him of sexist and misogynistic remarks, detailed in a recent story in The Washington Post.

“I have no tolerance for the kind of behavior that the Me Too movement has exposed,” Bloomberg said.

Elizabeth Warren pounced on his answer.

“I hope you heard what his defense was: I have been nice to some women,” Warren said. Bloomberg rolled his eyes.

“What we need to know is what is lurking out there. He has gotten some number of women, dozens, who knows, to sign non-disclosure agreements for sexual harassment and for gender discrimination in the workplace.” She asked Bloomberg whether he would release those women from the agreements “so we can hear their side of the story.”

“We have a very few non-disclosure agreements,” he said.

“How many is that?” Warren interrupted.

“None of them accuse me of me of doing anything, other than maybe they didn’t like a joke I told.” Some in the audience booed. He said that they were agreements between two parties who “maybe wanted to keep it quiet, and that is up to them. They signed those agreements, and we will live with it.”

Warren then pressed him. “Some is how many?” She said that if the women wanted to tell their story, “you are releasing them on television tonight?’

The audience then cheered.

“They decided when they made the agreement they wanted to keep it quiet. That is in everybody’s interests.”

Warren said, “Understand. This is not just a question about the mayor’s character. This is also a question about electability. We are not going to beat Donald Trump with a man who has who knows how many non-disclosure agreements and the drip, drip, drip of stories of women saying they have been harassed and saying they have been discriminated against.”

PREVIOUSLY: Michael Bloomberg made his debut on a presidential debate stage on Wednesday and, as predicted, he very quickly became the target of fierce attacks from his Democratic rivals.

As NBC Nightly News anchor Lester Holt posed the first question — having to do with who is best prepared to beat Donald Trump — Elizabeth Warren took the cue to give the most blistering criticism of the former New York mayor.

“I’d like to talk about who we’re running against: a billionaire who calls women fat broads and horse-faced lesbians,” Warren said. “No, I’m not talking about Donald Trump. I’m talking about Michael Bloomberg.”

She added, “Democrats take a huge risk if we just substitute one arrogant billionaire for another.”

Bloomberg did not respond directly to her criticism, but said that he was the best prepared to beat President Donald Trump.

“I am a New Yorker,” he said. “I know how to take on an arrogant con man.”

Bernie Sanders, who may emerge as his chief rival in the primary race, slammed Bloomberg for New York City’s stop-and-frisk policy

“That is not a way you are going to grow voter turnout,” Sanders said.

Bloomberg said that he did not think that there was “any chance” of Sanders, currently leading in the polls, beating Trump.

“If he is the candidate we will have Donald Trump another four years,” Bloomberg said.  “We cannot have that.”

The stakes in the debate were higher than perhaps any previous debate this cycle, what with the pending Nevada caucuses on Saturday, the South Carolina primary on Feb. 29, and Super Tuesday on March 3. That was apparent with the aggressive tone among the candidates right off the start.

Pete Buttigieg, who has a slight lead in the delegate count, chided Bloomberg and Sanders, calling them “the two most polarizing figures on this stage,” and warning that if the presidential race came down to a contest between the two, it would only exacerbate party divisions. He later focused on Sanders for failing to win the support of the Culinary Workers Union and for the tone of the rhetoric of some of his supporters, known as “Bernie Bros.”

Bloomberg has spent almost $339 million on TV and radio ads, according to Advertising Analytics, setting an all-time record. But up to now, he has not faced off against any of his Democratic rivals on a debate stage.

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