Former mayor Michael Bloomberg, Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Sen. Bernie Sanders debating Wednesday in Las Vegas
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) may be the frontrunner for the Democratic presidential nomination, but you wouldn’t have guessed it by watching Wednesday’s debate in Las Vegas. Throughout the night, his rivals focused much of their fire on a candidate who hasn’t appeared on a single ballot and who hasn’t collected a single delegate: former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg.
By the time it was over, Bloomberg was reeling — and Sanders was still standing.
Leading the attack against the former mayor was Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), who just moments into the debate referred to him as an arrogant billionaire “who calls women ‘fat broads’ and ‘horse-faced lesbians.’” Later, in the most memorable exchange of the night, she eviscerated him over allegations of sexual harassment at his company, Bloomberg L.P., and mocked his explanation.
“I hope you heard what his defense was: 'I’ve been nice to some women,'” she said. “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.”
When Warren pressed Bloomberg to release those women from the agreements, Bloomberg said, “None of them accuse me of doing anything other than maybe they didn’t like a joke I told.” The audience gasped. “These are agreements between two parties that wanted to keep it quiet, and that’s up to them," he continued. "They signed those agreements and we’ll live with it.”
Warren wouldn’t let up, asking Bloomberg how many such agreements there were and again pressing him to release the women who signed them. She closed her case by arguing that the matter was “not just a question of the mayor’s character” but a question of electability. “We are not going to beat Donald Trump with a man who has who-knows-how-many nondisclosure agreements and the drip, drip, drip of stories of women saying they have been harassed and discriminated against,” she said. “That’s not what we do as Democrats.”
Bloomberg never quite recovered from the dressing down.
Though Warren, former vice president Joe Biden and Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) appeared more interested in battling Bloomberg, former mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Ind., kept his eye on Sanders. The two led the pack in Iowa and New Hampshire earlier this month and are leading in the delegate count.
Calling Sanders and Bloomberg “the two most polarizing figures on this stage,” Buttigieg described the former as “a socialist who thinks that capitalism is the root of all evil” and the latter as “a billionaire who thinks that money ought to be the root of all power.” Referring to their democratic socialist and Republican roots, respectively, he said, “Let’s put forward somebody who’s actually a Democrat.”
Buttigieg also criticized Sanders for failing to rein in overzealous supporters on social media, and he questioned whether the senator had disclosed enough about his physical health after suffering a heart attack last fall. “Transparency matters,” Buttigieg said.
Sanders argued that he had sufficiently addressed the matter by releasing several letters from physicians who had treated him — and attempted to deflect it by raising Bloomberg’s own health history. “I think the one area, maybe, that Mayor Bloomberg and I share: You have two stents, as well,” Sanders said.
“Twenty-five years ago,” Bloomberg responded.
“Well, we both have two stents. It’s a procedure that is done about a million times a year,” Sanders said, adding, “Hey, follow me around the campaign trail three, four, five events a day. See how you’re doing compared to me.”
Sanders and Bloomberg showed little affection for one another throughout the night. At the start of the night, Sanders said that Bloomberg’s support for stop-and-frisk policing during his tenure as mayor would dissuade African Americans and Latinos from voting in the general election if he won the nomination. “That is not a way you’re going to grow voter turnout,” Sanders said.
Bloomberg responded by blasting Sanders’ own electability. “I don’t think there’s any chance of the senator beating President [Donald] Trump,” he said. Later, Bloomberg suggested that Sanders’ worldview was akin to communism, which the senator called a “cheap shot.” The former mayor really seemed to get under Sanders’ skin when he raised the senator’s own wealth.
“What a wonderful country we have!” Bloomberg said. “The best-known socialist in the country happens to be a millionaire with three houses. What did I miss here?”
“Well, you missed that I work in Washington,” Sanders responded. “House one.”
“That’s the first problem,” Bloomberg interjected.
“Live in Burlington,” Sanders continued. “House two.”
“That’s good,” Bloomberg said.
“And like thousands of other Vermonters, I do have a summer camp. Forgive me for that,” Sanders concluded. “Where is your home? Which tax haven do you have your home?”
“New York City, thank you very much,” Bloomberg said. “And I pay all my taxes, and I’m happy to do it because I get something for it.”
Perhaps foreshadowing the possibility that no candidate wins an outright majority of delegates to the Democratic National Convention, moderator Chuck Todd asked each whether they would support the candidate who won a plurality. One by one, each of Sanders’ opponents declined to commit to doing so.
Sanders, who is expected to take a wide lead in the delegate count next month on Super Tuesday, stood apart from the crowd. “I think that the will of the people should prevail,” he said.