I don’t know if Donald Trump’s assessment of Mike Bloomberg’s “stumbling, bumbling and grossly incompetent” performance—“perhaps the worst in the history of debates”—is literally true.
But it would probably make the top five.
For once, Trump and the dreaded mainstream media are in complete alignment. Bloomberg was so awful, so tone-deaf, so completely decimated, that it’s hard to fathom what he was doing in debate prep. I said beforehand that the former New York mayor was not a good debater but all he needed to do was survive. Instead, the MSNBC faceoff in Las Vegas was like a gamble where the house takes all your chips.
Where does that leave the Democratic race? With Bernie Sanders galloping toward the nomination. By obsessing on the billionaire, Bernie’s rivals largely gave him a pass, with the criticism they offered bouncing off him like rubber arrows. If Bloomberg missed his moment, Sanders is on track to get the biggest delegate haul on Super Tuesday.
The reality is that this race could effectively be over in a dozen days. As the Pete Buttigieg campaign says in a memo, “If the dynamics of the race did not dramatically change, Democrats could end up coming out of Super Tuesday with Bernie Sanders holding a seemingly insurmountable delegate lead.”
Elizabeth Warren is being widely praised as the lead attack dog against Bloomberg, though it’s unlikely that her feisty performance can fully resurrect her candidacy. But she can stop complaining for now about the media ignoring her.
Joe Biden was also very aggressive, joining in the Bloomberg pile-on. But the glaring fact that the former VP took very little incoming, reflecting his sinking fortunes as the former front-runner. Biden has to bet on a good showing Saturday in Nevada and a win in South Carolina the following Saturday.
The press had mostly convinced itself that Bloomberg, who’s already spent $400 million on the race, was the one guy who could stop Sanders and potentially defeat Trump. But the cosseted nature of his campaign became clear when he had to step out from behind his machine and face the MSNBC moderators—who, it must be said, were pointed, aggressive and often just let the contenders go at it.
Had Bloomberg done a series of television interviews, he would have been forced to hone his defenses. But because he did only a couple of friendly sessions, he flailed again and again at predictable questions. Shielding a man who owns a media organization from the media turned out to be a terribly strategy.
Since the Washington Post had compiled all of his alleged sexist and profane remarks toward women, and lawsuits charging harassment, it was folly for Bloomberg to sidestep the question by saying how many women he’s employed. Warren called him on that and his refusal to waive the non-disclosure agreements that keep some female complainants muzzled. Nor did Bloomberg utter a word of regret for his past remarks, saying only that some women might not have liked a joke.
The ex-mayor was slightly better in saying he was embarrassed by the now-disavowed stop and frisk policy, but had no effective rebuttal to the arguments by Warren and Biden that he’d set out to discriminate against young black men. And no one seemed convinced by his argument that he hasn’t had enough time to release his tax returns.
The testy exchanges between Amy Klobuchar and Buttigieg were difficult to watch, as if they were offended by each other’s presence. He hit her on having forgotten the name of Mexico’s president. She came back with “Are you trying to say that I’m dumb? Or are you mocking me here, Pete?” And: “I wish everyone was as personal as you, Pete.” With both struggling to capitalize on their strong showings in New Hampshire, I don’t think the condescending backbiting helped either one.
This is the moment of reckoning for Democrats. Bloomberg might improve in next week’s debate, but he no longer looms quite as large. It’s not clear that the Democrats can stop Bernie even if they want to.