Thursday, February 20, 2020

BTRTN Nevada Debate Analysis: The Bloomberg is Off the Rose

Seeming to be expecting a cordial coronation, Michael Bloomberg got a baptism in fire last night in his first Presidential debate. He learned a painful lesson from Elizabeth Warren: it is not how much money is in the fight, but how much fight is in the money.

There are a whole lotta things that $52 billion dollars can buy, one of which is to make a $350 million advertising spending spree feel like the rest of us do when we splurge for the side of fries with our burger.

And then there are things that fifty-two billion dollars cannot buy.

Last night in Las Vegas, Mike Bloomberg discovered what eight debates, dozens of town halls, hundreds of hours on selfie lines, and thousands of hours talking one-on-one to actual living, breathing voters earned the other candidates: ready, razor-sharp, battle-tested one-minute answers to just about any conceivable question on the planet earth.

Worse still: Bloomberg discovered that his competitors on the stage had learned in prior debates how to skewer an opponent on a clear area of vulnerability, and how to keep twisting the knife until an impatient moderator, a commercial break, or a complete bleed-out put an end to the agony. Elizabeth Warren, in particular, came battle-ready with a take-down strategy aimed at the new kid on the block, and she was devastatingly effective.
Las Vegas was the perfect setting for an explosive stage show in which a seasoned troupe of performers each had to place big bets. All week, cable anchors had been hoisting crystal balls and haughtily informing their viewers that the campaign was already a “two person race” between Bloomberg and Bernie Sanders. In so doing, they summarily dismissed the extremely impressive Iowa and New Hampshire finishes of Pete Buttigieg, the surging “Klomentum” of Amy Klobuchar, all while effectively administering last rites to the flatlining the campaigns of Elizabeth Warren and Joe Biden.  Everyone on the stage knew that they needed to score their viral moment, least they die a death by a thousand pundits.

And the results were simple: all the battle-tested veterans of a year of campaigning were tough as nails, and Michael Bloomberg staggered off the stage finally understanding that $52 billion does not buy on-the-ground campaign experience.

Mike Bloomberg is in this game big time, and he certainly is not going away. But his first performance in a presidential debate was akin to the overconfident splat of a high-diver who did not notice that the pool had been drained. Bloomberg came into the evening expecting to elicit three puffs of white smoke from a party that is craving a sure bet. At times halting and unsteady, other times arrogant and aloof, and in one shocking instance thoroughly unprepared for an obvious question, the former Mayor of New York may have single-handedly reinvigorated the sagging campaigns of Elizabeth Warren and Joe Biden. Still more profound: in absorbing all the incoming for the evening, Bloomberg allowed Bernie Sanders to skate through unscathed in his first debate as the clear front runner. 

It did not take long for the knives to come out.

Elizabeth Warren was the third candidate to speak on the very first question, and the Massachusetts Senator quickly established that her M.O. for the evening would be to shove a sharp poker up the nose of every rival on the stage in a last-ditch gambit to resuscitate her campaign.

“So I'd like to talk about who we're running against, a billionaire who calls women ‘fat broads’ and ‘horse-faced lesbians.’ 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 redlining and stop and frisk. 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.”

There was an audible ripple of gasps across the auditorium as Elizabeth Warren appeared to go for the knockout punch a scant few minutes into the debate. 

Shortly after, the moderator went after Bloomberg on the racial-profiling law enforcement employed in New York City known as “stop and frisk.” The former Mayor expressed his repentance and remorse, and expected that his genuflecting supplications would suffice. Not with Elizabeth Warren, who fileted his language and then ate his lunch. 

“I do think that this really is about leadership and accountability. When the mayor says that he apologized, listen very closely to the apology. The language he used is about stop and frisk. It's about how it turned out. No, this isn't about how it turned out. This is about what it was designed to do to begin with. It targeted communities of color. It targeted black and brown men from the beginning. And if you want to issue a real apology, then the apology has to start with the intent of the plan as it was put together and the willful ignorance, day by day by day, of admitting what was happening even as people protested in your own street, shutting out the sounds of people telling you how your own policy was breaking their lives. You need a different apology here, Mr. Mayor.”

Only a half hour into the debate, Hallie Jackson of NBC brought up the topic of misogyny in Bloomberg’s company, and Bloomberg was mercilessly crushed by Warren. Other candidates, sensing vulnerability, piled on.  After Bloomberg attempted to breeze through the topic by citing positive statistics about his company’s employment of women, Warren began ripping him to shreds: 

“…I hope you heard what his defense was. ‘I've been nice to some women.’ That just doesn't cut it. The mayor has to stand on his record. And what we need to know is exactly what's lurking out there. 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. So, Mr. Mayor, are you willing to release all of those women from those nondisclosure agreements, so we can hear their side of the story?”

Warren pressed relentlessly, demanding that Bloomberg say the number of nondisclosure agreements.

Bloomberg had a terrible moment as he struggled to defend himself. 

None of them accuse me of doing anything, other than maybe they didn't like a joke I told. And let me just -- and let me -- 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.”

Warren went in for the kill: “So, wait, when you say it is up to -- I just want to be clear. Some is how many? And -- and when you -- and when you say they signed them and they wanted them, if they wish now to speak out and tell their side of the story about what it is they allege, that's now OK with you? Is that right, tonight?”

Biden piled on. Warren kept demanding that Bloomberg release the obligations of the NDA. Staggering under the assault, Bloomberg held tightly to his shredded defense:  I've said we're not going to get -- to end these agreements because they were made consensually and they have every right to expect that they will stay private.”

The audience lustily booed.

Welcome to the NFL, Mayor. Within 45 minutes of his arrival on your first debate stage, Bloomberg was black and blue, reeling and retreating. The scorching criticism would continue for the entire evening. In addition to “stop and frisk” and the “me too” issues in his company, Bloomberg was taken to task for failing to promptly release his taxes, for his mixed messages on ObamaCare, and for his support of George W. Bush in 2004.

It was a very, very tough debut for Michael Bloomberg, underscoring once again the enormous advantage held by candidates who have spent the last year in the bruising off-Broadway rehearsals in hamlets across Iowa and New Hampshire. Bloomberg was not ready for prime time. 

The undeniable winner for the evening was Elizabeth Warren, whose campaign had been on life support after a mediocre showing in Iowa was followed by an utterly abysmal showing in her backyard in New Hampshire. Warren had essentially been written off, and, in fact, it is still very hard to see how she can make the delegate math work. But in a last-ditch effort to reignite her candidacy, she was an equal-opportunity offender, lashing out with hard-edge criticisms and insults for every candidate on the stage. 

She demeaned Pete Buttigieg as a candidate of a “slogan that was thought up by consultants.” Turning to Amy Klobuchar, she ridiculed her healthcare plan as a “Post-It Note.”

But it was her scorched earth annihilation of Michael Bloomberg on the issue of his company’s treatment of women that earned her the victory for the night.

Bernie Sanders may have struggled to run a hard-edged campaign against an endearing Minnesota Mom or a super-smart gay veteran, but telling him that he must campaign against the seventh wealthiest man in the world is like handing enriched plutonium to a nuclear engineer. 

We’ve been watching Bernie Sanders in over 30 debates starting in 2016, and there is nothing by way of surprise in his approach. Last night was no exception. He is intense, angry, passionate, and articulate. He knows his stuff and makes his points efficiently and emphatically. He was not shy about confronting Bloomberg, but it was a hyooooge boon to his evening that he didn’t have to take on Bloomberg single-handedly. For large chunks of the evening, Bernie stood by and let Warren, Biden and others do the bloody work of eviscerating an opponent. 

In fact, the mantle of front-runner seemed surprisingly comfortable to Bernie. He is impossible to rattle: he has heard it all. Who knows? He may be happier to be facing Bloomberg than Biden, because he can paint Bloomberg as symptomatic of every ill he has be campaigning about for years. Bernie had a very good night on Wednesday. 
Pete Buttigieg faced a particularly thorny problem last night. By rights, he had fought tooth and nail in Iowa and New Hampshire to emerge as the voters’ choice to lead the centrist lane in the Democratic Party. He had won the most delegates in Iowa, and nearly toppled Sanders in Bernie’s own backyard. And yet he was no doubt shocked to discover he was being marginalized in the media as not one of the two candidates in a “two person race.”

So Pete took it to the two people in the two person race. It happens that one of the most influential unions in Nevada is the Culinary Workers Union, and they shoved a sharp one up Bernie’s nose by coming out against Sanders' “Medicare for All.” But in a slap to Joe Biden, the Union refused to endorse any candidate in the centrist lane. Pete introduced this issue to the debate, and deriding Bernie Sanders (and Elizabeth Warren) for being so far out of step with the needs of union workers on what is arguably the single most important policy issue in the race.
“This idea that the union members don't know what's good for them is the exact kind of condescension and arrogance that makes people skeptical of the policies we've been putting forward.”

Pete continues to show an amazing ability to succinctly identify and tee up a critical issue in a highly memorable way. This is how he took it to both of the supposed “front-runners” in a concise, elegant turns of phrase.

“Yes, we've got to wake up as a party. We could wake up two weeks from today, the day after Super Tuesday, and the only candidates left standing will be Bernie Sanders and Mike Bloomberg, the two most polarizing figures on this stage. And 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… 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. We can do better.”

On a stage of righteous indignation, cutting insults, and raised voices, Pete retained his signature poise, calm demeanor, and steady optimism. About the only critique to be made of Pete is that he allows himself to be goaded into a sideshow with Amy Klobuchar, who singles Pete out for snarky jibes in every debate. Yes, candidates need to defend themselves, but Pete seems to give Klobuchar oxygen by engaging with her rather than simply rising above.

In turn, Amy's obsession with Pete Buttigieg is puzzling. Challengers take on the leader... not the person directly in front of them. Amy Klobuchar came into the debate fresh off her startling “Little Engine That Could” third place finish in New Hampshire, a classic example of how in primary season “beating expectations” can be as good as a win. Knowing full well that it was her feisty and emotional debate performance that triggered her stunning surge in the final hours of New Hampshire, Klobuchar set out to replicate the formula. 

She has perfected her attack on the controversial “Medicare for All” plans of Sanders and Warren, and it is very effective:

“And the way I look at it, since we're in Vegas, when it comes to your plan, Elizabeth and Bernie's, on Medicare for all, you don't put your money on a number that's not even on the wheel. And why is Medicare for all not on the wheel? Why is it not on the wheel? Because two-thirds of the Democratic senators are not even on that bill, because a bunch of the new House members that got elected see the problems with blowing up the Affordable Care Act. They see it right in front of them. And the truth is that when you see some troubled waters, you don't blow up a bridge, you build one. And so we need to improve the Affordable Care Act, not blow it up.”

Amy had a decent night, as she has learned to leaven her attacks with wit, and she remains the most emotionally warm and appealing candidate on a stage filled with left-brain policy wonks. But it seemed that she repeatedly came out on the short end of her side-barbs at Pete. At the end of the day, Amy's problem is simple: despite her terrific closing in New Hampshire, she still hasn’t won anything, and that could well be true even after every Super Tuesday state votes. Did another good performance last night change her trajectory that much? It is highly unlikely.
Joe Biden, who arrived at the auditorium last night as a walking, talking verse in Tom Petty’s “Free Falling,” has been helplessly watching the hot air gushing out of his balloon, losing altitude daily as he clings to stay viable until South Carolina. The painful irony is that his listless showings in Iowa and New Hampshire have already triggered a loss of enthusiasm in his firewall state. 
In the seven debates thus far, Joe Biden has alternated between two extreme stage personalities. There is feisty, “hi-T” Joe, who strives to project energy, vigor, and pugilistic bravado, but achieves this by racing pell-mell past crucial nouns, verbs, and direct objects. On the alternative setting, we see calm, Presidential Joe, who comes off like a cup of chamomile tea at bedtime. There has been no Momma Bear in Joe’s debate style.  
But give the man his due. Last night – finally – Joe Biden showed flashes of a commanding presence, and gave his most impressive performance.  He, too, enjoyed having a big bullseye in Bloomberg, whose occasionally contentious relationship with the Obama administration provided Biden with plenty of fodder. Perhaps the biggest surprise was that Biden failed to call Bloomberg out on the television ad that seems to imply that Barack Obama had endorsed Bloomberg.

In that Biden’s recent decline in the polls has reflected in some measure the entry of Bloomberg, it is likely that Biden could rebound if Bloomberg’s numbers suffer from his debate performance. The question, however, if Biden’s showing was too little, too late. 

The ninth Democratic debate was a bruising internecine drama as candidates realized that time was running out to keep their campaigns viable. They fought hard and no holds were barred.

Michael Bloomberg learned the hard way that the real winner of last night’s debate was “campaign experience.” Every candidate who has been at this for months did well.

Only the new guy had a terrible night. He has the money to persevere, and he is a smart guy. He will do better next time.

But for now, the Bloomberg is off the rose. 

Here’s how we grade it:


Strong Performance

Same as Usual

Good but Not Good Enough

Better than Usual, but Too Little Too Late


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1 comment:

  1. Here's hoping the various campaigns will take a lesson from the Nevada debate seen by a large audience -- beating up on each other does not provide a great deal of clarity about who will be best able to pull together a coalition, demonize Trump, and not give the Republicans enough to successfully demonize the Democratic candidate more. The debate did not increase the sense of a clear path to party unity. There was no focus on Trump and his behavior, and the best lines of the night were not about Trump. And the jibes at one another are being carefully recorded so the Trump campaign can test them as the basis for social media campaigns to drive down Democratic and independent votes.

    By now, everyone who wants to can find statements about core commitments and relative priorities among issue areas for each candidate. We know that every Democrat on the stage will sign legislation sent by Congress, as long as it moves in the right direction.

    So, the best use of the chance of time in front of a large audience is highlighting each candidate's best lines of attack on Trump.


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