Wednesday, January 15, 2020

BTRTN: Warren Had the TV Moment, but the Debate's Real Winner May Have Been Bloomberg

Last night's debate had one exceptionally viral-worthy moment, but there were no game-changers. And who, exactly, benefits from that? Steve thinks that Mike Bloomberg is enjoying the view from a distance.

It appeared that all the candidates in last night’s Democratic debate had decided that flinging mud,  picking fights, and throwing elbows was not the right impression to make in the last debate before the Iowa caucuses. As a result, last night’s debate was a relatively low-key, civil affair with one stand-out moment.

The implication? The Iowa caucuses are a mere three weeks away, and the four front-runners are densely packed together. Elizabeth Warren clearly had the most impactful soundbyte of last night’s debate, but it did not appear than any of the six candidates sustained a decisive, break-out performance for the full evening. So if last night amounted to a draw in which few minds were changed, it is entirely possible that the Iowa caucuses themselves will be a very close affair with no candidate emerging with a turbo-charge of momentum.

If that is indeed true, then the real beneficiary of last night’s debate may have been the guy who decided to stand on the sidelines. Michael Bloomberg did not participate in the debate, nor is he participating in any of the first four primaries. The point is simple: if no candidate is elevated above the field in the first four primaries, then Bloomberg’s sudden appearance on the national stage on Super Tuesday could give him the stature of “knight in shining armor” who saves the Democratic party from a field of undistinguished candidates.

Tuesday’s debate stood out from prior debates for its civility and relatively low-grade of internecine sniping.

For the first hour of the debate, CNN’s moderators asked banal questions and the candidates cycled through their talking point efficiently but mechanically, no doubt causing a percentage of the viewing audience to start popping the remote in search of highlights from last night’s vastly more exciting LSU triumph over Clemson.

By far, the most telegenic moment in last night’s debate came just prior to the commercial break at the one hour mark. CNN moderator Abby Phillip raised the elephant that had been lurking in the room all evening:

Phillip: Let’s now turn to an issue that’s come up in the last 48 hours. Senator Sanders, CNN reported yesterday that – and Senator Sanders, Senator Warren confirmed in a statement, that in 2018 you told her that you did not believe that a woman could win the election. Why did you say that?”

Sanders flatly denied the accusation… twice.

Brilliantly, Warren did not center her rebuttal around the question of whether Bernie Sanders had made his comment or not. Rather elegantly, she chose to address the broader, more inspiring, and more idealistic issue of whether a woman could be elected President. This allowed her to rhetorically soar on the wings of gender identity and equality, positioning her quest to become President as comparable to Kennedy winning as a Catholic and Obama becoming the first African-American President. The sub-text was every bit as powerful: in addressing the question of whether a woman could be elected President, she certainly seemed to be implying that Bernie Sanders had indeed said the offending quote.

Then, Warren pivoted to the issue of electability:

Phillip: "Sen. Warren, what did you think when Sen. Sanders told you a woman could not win the election?"

Warren: "I disagreed. Bernie is my friend, and I am not here to try to fight with Bernie. But, look, this question about whether or not a woman can be president has been raised, and it's time for us to attack it head-on. And I think the best way to talk about who can win is by looking at people's winning record. So, can a woman beat Donald Trump?
"Look at the men on this stage. Collectively, they have lost 10 elections. The only people on this stage who have won every single election that they've been in are the women...Amy and me."

Warren kept pushing, noting that she was the only candidate on the stage who had actually defeated in an incumbent Republican in the last 30 years. These two startling facts, launched in rapid succession, created a foaming moment of women power, and Bernie Sanders would have been wise to fold his tent.  

Bernie had been having his usual very solid debate performance, and he most certainly knew the issue would come up. He wanted to take it on. But he did not appear to have thought through how he would handle it, perhaps believing that emphatically denying the statement would make the issue go away. Worse still, he went on to lecture to Warren that he, too, had beaten a Republican incumbent.

Sanders: “Well, just to set the record straight, I defeated an incumbent Republican running for Congress.”

Warren looked befuddled, and asked him when that election had taken place. When Bernie noted that he had beaten a Republican incumbent in 1990, Warren slammed him again. “And I said I was the only one who’s beaten an incumbent Republican in 30 years.” At some meta level, Sanders’ embarrassment mushroomed. It appeared that he had his facts wrong, couldn’t handle arithmetic, and was on the wrong side of yet another “he said/ she said.”

As if things weren’t already bad enough for Bernie, CNN gave Warren the final word on this issue. And she knocked it out of the park:

Warren: "So I do think it's the right question, 'How do we beat Trump?' And here's the thing. Since Donald Trump was elected, women candidates have out-performed men candidates in competitive races. And in 2018, we took back the House; we took back statehouses, because of women candidates and women voters.
Look, don't deny that the question is there. Back in the 1960s, people asked, 'Could a Catholic win? Back in 2008, people asked if an African-American could win. In both times the Democratic Party stepped up and said yes, got behind their candidate and we changed America. That's who we are.”

After this electric exchange, the debate reverted to dry policy wonk discussion, as CNN insisted on asking the same old questions about healthcare in the same old way. It is worth taking a moment to call out the mediocre job CNN did moderating the debate. Aside from dull questions, CNN totally whiffed on what should have been one of the most animating issues of the night. Just the day before, Cory Booker had suspended his campaign, which left the debate and the overall Democratic field looking and sounding like a movie called The White Stuff.  

It would have been extremely interesting to hear the six white candidates on the stage address the issue of how their supposedly diverse party ends up with this all-white debate field. Nothing screams tone-deaf quite like a bunch of white, largely well-to-do, and mostly male people talking to an increasingly diverse party about a xenophobic, racist, bigoted President. But CNN completely snoozed on this issue. It was actually shocking.

In reviewing the individual performances for the evening, it’s fair to say that no one had a bad night. 

Pete Buttigieg turned in his ever ready-steady performance, but his rivals may have learned a vitally important lesson. If you don’t punch Pete, he can’t counter-punch. As a result, Buttigieg was as poised, articulate, and polished as ever – but his performance lacked the bite and impact he makes when he is responding to a direct hit. Mayor Pete was very good, once again demonstrating an uncanny ability to present complex issues in direct, human terms, and then provide sharp answers, all in his allotted minute. But there was no single issue in which he stood far above the pack, so it’s hard to see how he changed any minds last night.

As Joe Biden has become more comfortable on the debate stage, he has managed to solve one huge problem by creating an entirely different one. In the early debates, Biden appeared frantic and slapdash, answering questions at the fevered velocity of a Chipmunks recording, and conveying just about as much gravitas. He has clearly been coached to speak much more deliberately and calmly, and the result is that he is moribund and uninspiring. Make no mistake, he made no mistakes. But with the reckless foreign policy adventures of the Trump administration dominating the news, this should have been the debate that Joe Biden actually won. And he still has not won one. Still and all, there is the age-old wisdom: a tie simply re-inforces the status quo, and that is just fine with Biden.

It was close to a “do or die” moment for Amy Klobuchar last night, who has centered her entire campaign on the notion that she is the pragmatic centrist who can beat Trump in crucial swing states in the midwest. Were she to finish fifth in Iowa, that core premise of her campaign would likely collapse. But Klobuchar clearly seemed to have been coached to hold back from the razor sharp barbs that she was lobbing at candidates in the last debate, and was therefore less impactful than she has been in the past.  

Klobuchar continues to be very effective in advocating for the wisdom of centrist solutions, particularly in the face of the revolutionary changes to the healthcare system advocated by Warren and Sanders:

Klobuchar: “Yeah. Senator Sanders and I have worked together on pharmaceuticals for a long, long time. And we agree on this. But what I don't agree with is that we — his position on health care. This debate isn't real. I was in Vegas the other day and someone said ‘Don't put your chips on a number on the wheel that isn't even on the wheel.’ That's the problem. Over two-thirds of the Democrats in the U.S. Senate are not on the bill that you and Senator Warren are on. You have numerous governors that are Democratic that don't support this. You have numerous House members that put Nancy Pelosi in as speaker.”

One could argue, however, that the single most distinguishing aspect of Klobuchar’s performance for the evening was her relentless insistence on continuing to talk over the moderators long after her allowed time had expired. Almost every time Klobuchar spoke, she put the CNN moderators in the position of having to repeatedly and insistently interrupt her (“Thank you, Senator Klobuchar – thank you… we have to move on… Thank you, Senator Klobuchar… thank you…”). In so doing, Klobuchar at times appeared rude and disrespectful toward the moderators. All in all, Klobuchar needed a huge night to break into the top tier in Iowa, and it is hard to see how she made much progress.

It seems that Tom Steyer’s heart is genuinely in the right place. His debate performance tonight was generally solid, and he is right to say that climate change should be the single biggest priority of the next administration. But it does not feel right that his billions punched his ticket onto the debate stage tonight as we deal with the fact that none of Cory Booker, Kamala Harris, and Julian Castro could afford to carry on. And we know that the field is not big enough for two billionaires, particularly when the other one actually has twelve years of government experience holding down the “second toughest job in the country.” Steyer was solid enough that he may have gained some ground last night, but not enough to change the calculus in any significant way.

Which brings us to our conclusion. It’s likely that Elizabeth Warren picked up some ground on Bernie Sanders in their zero-sum contest to lead the progressive wing of the party. And all that does is put the two them back at even with each other. It is the worst case scenario for the progressives: Sanders and Warren remain deadlocked, preventing either from leveraging the full power of the progressive wing. It is mutually assured destruction.

In the centrist lane, Biden, Buttigieg, and Klobuchar each did enough to hold their own supporters, but no one seemed to be taking the risks you need to take to break out.

The bottom line: there simply will not be much movement in the polls based on this debate.

And which campaign is going to benefit the most from that?

Somewhere in a high rise in Manhattan, Michael Bloomberg was watching this debate, seeing no one break out from the pack. And if indeed no candidate breaks out decisively in these early races, it will have the effect of diminishing the entire field. 

The conclusion will not be that the five major candidates are equally good, it will be that none of them is good enough.

And who stands to gain in that scenario? 

Michael Bloomberg will cruise into Super Tuesday, untouched by the trauma of debate performance, and riding high on the carefully curated image that $100,000,000 in advertising can create. With 45% of the delegates at stake in one day, Michael Bloomberg could travel from last-one-in to instant front-runner… in part because last night’s debate did very little to change the core dynamic in this race.

Here is our scorecard for the evening:


Bloomberg (yes, yes… he was not actually in the debate. See above)

Held Serve:


Did fine, but did not do enough:


Did not help himself:




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  1. Audience estimate for the debate was 7.3 million on CNN (live). The first debate drew 18 million. I think there is good reason to consider cancelling this series.

    I wish there had been a question asking the candidates to describe Trump's biggest failure as a President and how, if elected, they could reverse the damage. There is a wide variety of topics available: Ukraine, Russia, China, North Korea, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Venezuela; NATO, dropping out of TPP, ramped up demands for money to continue having American troops; climate change; Puerto Rico and other natural disasters; undercutting the ACA; re-targeting money for his Wall; abandoning America's commitment to those seeking asylum and the various cruelties imposed on immigrants without authorization; leaving positions vacant and filling slots with "the acting;" avoidance of oversight -- there are plenty of topics to discuss. The question would allow candidates to differentiate themselves while still putting the focus on how best to oppose Trump and repair the vandalism.

  2. John,
    Wow... great question! I would have been very interested to hear the candidates respond to that, particularly the "how they would reverse the damage." Far more interesting to hear the candidates answer question than merely responding to the drivel we got from the CNN moderators. Thanks for the note!


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