Warren's debate evisceration of Bloomberg shows why her 2020 bid is still so important

In so precisely and thoroughly exposing Bloomberg's weaknesses, Warren has shown why progressives, and really the Democratic Party, benefit from having her in the race.
Image: Elizabeth Warren
Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., arrives to speak at the McIntyre-Shaheen 100 Club Dinner in Manchester, New Hampshire, on Feb. 8, 2020. Matt Rourke / AP file
Get the Think newsletter.
SUBSCRIBE
By Noah Berlatsky

A little more than a week ago, Sen. Elizabeth Warren's campaign for president seemed to be on its last legs. The once-surging Warren finished third in Iowa, a state she had looked set to win earlier in the campaign. She finished a "dismal" fourth in New Hampshire, which borders her home state, Massachusetts. Slate wrote an autopsy concluding that "it's unclear how, exactly, she could make a comeback at this point." The left-wing publication Jacobin suggested that Warren should drop out after South Carolina to ensure a victory for Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., her fellow progressive.

A little more than a week ago, Sen. Elizabeth Warren's campaign for president seemed to be on its last legs.

Sanders supporter Matt Bruenig, who runs his own think tank called the People's Policy Project, was even more adamant, arguing that Warren should end her campaign immediately, before Nevada's caucuses on Saturday. Establishment media venues seemed to co-sign Bruenig's belief that Warren's days were numbered: An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll didn't even include her in its section measuring Democratic candidates against President Donald Trump.

After the debate this week in Nevada, though, Warren suddenly looks much stronger and in a position to once again be a serious contender for the nomination. She's demonstrated, once again, that her presence in the race is valuable and that declaring her candidacy dead after only two contests is premature. Warren may drop out eventually. But it's not time yet.

The Las Vegas debate on Wednesday was a bracing illustration of why a Warren run is good for progressives. Billionaire former New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg, one of the richest men on Earth, has been rising steadily in the polls, buoyed by massive ad spending and the media's fascination with the very wealthy. Progressives horrified by the prospect of an oligarch's simply buying the presidency and leftist journalists like Benjamin Dixon have worked hard to show Bloomberg for who he really is. That includes very damaging audio in which Bloomberg makes excuses for his disastrous stop-and-frisk policing policies targeting people of color and argues that the end of redlining practices that hurt minority homeowners was to blame for the 2008 financial crisis.

But many more Democrats hoped that the debate would damage Bloomberg — and Warren, especially, made sure that it did. The most indelible moment of the night was an exchange in which she confronted him about his and his company's history of alleged sexual harassment complaints and the use of nondisclosure agreements, or NDAs, to prevent employees from speaking out about them. Warren repeatedly demanded that Bloomberg release employees from their NDAs and pressed him to state exactly how many people were bound by them. When Bloomberg insisted many female staffers were happy at his company, Warren responded that this was little more than claiming he had "been nice to some women." Bloomberg rolled his eyes in a condescending dismissal that made him look almost as cartoonishly callous as Trump.

Warren's calm, uncompromising evisceration of Bloomberg was easily the most comprehensive and devastating attack of the primary campaign so far. At the end of it, Bloomberg looked weak, mean-spirited and embarrassingly unprepared for a nomination fight, much less for running the country. Nobody who witnessed the debate can possibly believe that Bloomberg would be the best candidate to challenge Trump in the general election.

Of course, it's unclear whether the debate will move Bloomberg's polling. But it got a huge amount of coverage, and journalists will certainly treat Bloomberg's campaign, and his competence, much more skeptically going forward. That's all to the good. And it wouldn't have happened if Warren had dropped out immediately after New Hampshire.

Warren's campaign said it pulled in $2.8 million on the strength of her debate performance, her biggest debate night haul, narrowly outdistancing even Sanders, the current polling front-runner. She's also getting extensive media coverage. Sanders is the favorite in the Nevada caucuses on Saturday, but polls have been all over the place. Warren may finally be in a position to beat expectations, solidify her third-place delegate count and start moving back up in the polls in time to challenge Sanders, former Vice President Joe Biden, former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, the current delegate leader, and Bloomberg in the 15 Super Tuesday contests on March 3.

Journalists will certainly treat Bloomberg's campaign, and his competence, much more skeptically going forward. That's all to the good.

Some progressives are understandably nervous about a Bloomberg victory. Some have called for Warren to drop out in the hope that her voters will go to Sanders and therefore beat back a moderate challenge. It's true that 40 percent of her supporters list Sanders as a second choice, according to an analysis by The Economist. But that means 60 percent of her voters prefer someone else — which isn't surprising, since voters often don't cast ballots on purely ideological lines. In New Hampshire, where Warren did poorly, her misfortune did not appear to boost Sanders. Instead, exit polls indicated that it was Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota who made inroads with Warren's support among college-educated women.

The truth is that the Democratic primary campaign right now remains exceedingly fluid. Biden's lead in polling through 2019 collapsed as he underperformed in a series of debates, as well as in Iowa and New Hampshire, and everyone is now scrambling for position. Sanders holds the lead, but he's still got only about 25 percent of the electorate. Voters have not yet coalesced around a single candidate. That's why Bloomberg has been able to win at least nominal support with big ad buys. It's why Buttigieg, Klobuchar, billionaire Tom Steyer and Biden himself haven't thrown in the towel yet, either.

In such an uncertain race, it's valuable to have Warren arguing so clearly and forcefully for progressive change — for universal health care, free college, universal child care and holding billionaires accountable for exploitation and abuse of power. She made that case better than anyone else onstage Wednesday. And it's still possible that the Democratic electorate will see her as the best candidate to do the same against Trump. In the meantime, in so precisely and thoroughly exposing Bloomberg's weaknesses, she's shown why progressives, and the Democratic Party, benefit from having her in the race.