Wednesday's debate was historic: for the first time, an entirely self-funded candidate, former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg, was a participant. Of course, Bloomberg also made history by joining the fray remarkably late. He is skipping the first four primaries and caucuses in favor of an aggressive and very expensive strategy focusing on the delegate-rich contests on Super Tuesday and beyond.
Democrats are divided (as per normal) on the question of Bloomberg's participation in the debates. Some regard it as outrageous that the DNC reworked its rules for qualifying, seemingly to accommodate Bloomberg. According to many Democrats, Bloomberg is attempting to buy the nomination — and the craven DNC is rolling over and letting him do it.
Other Democrats, however, believe that all credible candidates for the nomination should be allowed to participate in the debates. Quite a few believed that Bloomberg would wilt under the scrutiny of his fellow candidates and the professional journalists moderating the debate. In Las Vegas, Bloomberg showed how naive those assumptions were.
Mike Bloomberg proved on Wednesday's debate stage that, at least in terms of intellect, command of policy specifics, and executive and business experience, he merits his status as a frontrunner in the race for the Democratic nomination.
We might recall, in this light, that the current delegate leader among the Democrats is a man — Pete Buttigieg — who barely qualifies to run for president in terms of age, and who has served just two terms as the mayor of a small city. Bloomberg, on the other hand, has built and run a vast media empire, and he has led New York City, one of the world's largest, most complex, and most diverse urban conglomerations, for 12 years. He has also prospered as a politician under daily scrutiny from the cantankerous New York press corps. Anyone who expected him to be out of his depth in a presidential debate, or to be intimidated by the gravitas of his fellow candidates, was living in a dream world. Bloomberg has the intelligence, experience, and toughness to be president. No one should question that.
Bloomberg's major test in Wednesday's debate was therefore to prove that he had the stature (not the same as height — apologies to President Trump) to compete with the “big boys”. He passed with flying colors. That's a testament to the political chops of Bloomberg, but it's also a reminder of how small the “big boys” on the debate stage have seemed up to now. Holding one's own with the master debater Sleepy Joe Biden, after all, is not a herculean challenge.
As the Democratic field engaged in a two-hour food fight, Bloomberg suffered the fools around him with dignity. While he was clearly flummoxed by pointed questions about his record on stop-and-frisk policies and his non-disclosure agreements with some female employees, he coolly explained why his record as New York Mayor qualified him for the presidency, and he made a virtue out of his immense wealth, emphasizing his charitable giving and his contributions to Democrats.
Make no mistake — Bloomberg is not a gifted debater, but his goal was not to dominate the debate but to survive it (and to let his massive ad campaign do his talking for him thereafter). As it turned out, the other candidates made his job easy. The audience was too dumbstruck by the constant barrage of attacks flying in all directions to notice Bloomberg's occasional stumbles. In fact, Bloomberg's reserve and his poise may have set him apart in a positive sense, on a night when virtually everyone else seemed determined to draw blood.
Meanwhile, Sanders' major test in the debate was to maintain his forward momentum as the rising leader of the progressive wing of the Democratic Party. That means, naturally, that Sanders had to parry a certain number of attacks on his “extreme” socialist agenda, to beat his usual drum regarding the corruption and greed currently infecting American politics and big business, and to avoid any missteps that might reinvigorate the candidacy of his chief rival among progressives, Elizabeth Warren. Warren, fortunately for her, came out swinging and may have arrested the precipitous decline of her campaign, but there is little indication in the polls that she can compete with Bernie directly even on her home turf of Massachusetts. In other words, while Sanders has not yet monopolized the progressive lane, he is well on his way.
In sum, therefore, what we find is that Wednesday's debate has one thing in common with all the other debates that Democrats have engaged in since June: it did not meaningfully alter, in and of itself, the trajectory of the race. Before the candidates took the stage, Sanders and Bloomberg were in the ascendancy, Warren and Biden were slumping, and Buttigieg and Klobuchar were battling one another for the same cache of moderate voters, while struggling vainly to make a major impression in the national polls. Little has changed since then.
If the race does finally become a contest between Sanders and Bloomberg, one has to like Bloomberg's chances, because, for one thing, there are more moderates in the race, and when those moderates drop out Bloomberg will be much more likely than Sanders to inherit their supporters and their delegates. Stranded moderate delegates could, in fact, become a major factor in the race, and we have to assume that their sympathies will be more with Mr. Moneybags than with Red Bernie.
On the other hand, if the field remains heavily divided for much longer, and a brokered convention is the result, we may find that Democrats will throw up their hands and reach into their bag of tricks for a presidential candidate that no one has yet named or thought of. In 2020, anything short of 51% of the pledged delegates — a very high bar, given the system of proportional representation in place — could spell disappointment, even for titans like Sanders and Bloomberg.
All the furious debating we witnessed in Las Vegas, in other words, and indeed all the voting that takes place between February and June, could end up being, in the immortal words of Shakespeare, “all sound and fury, signifying nothing.” The real battle for the Democratic nomination may not begin until the gavel comes down in Milwaukee in July, and the Democratic National Convention opens for business.