Mike Bloomberg took the stage in Las Vegas for his first debate on Wednesday night, and promptly walked into an ambush.
The billionaire former New York mayor took repeated attacks from the five other candidates in the opening minutes of the ninth Democratic debate.
“Democrats take a huge risk if we just substitute one arrogant billionaire for another,” said Sen. Elizabeth Warren, comparing Bloomberg to President Trump and slamming him for referring to women as “fat broads and horse-faced lesbians.”
Sen. Bernie Sanders attacked Bloomberg on “stop-and-frisk,” the New York policing policy that was ruled unconstitutional, while former Vice President Joe Biden argued that he, not Bloomberg, is the most electable candidate against Trump.
Bloomberg argued that he is best positioned to defeat Trump, which he said would be “a great contribution to America and to my kids.” On stop-and-frisk, he noted that he has apologized.
“We stopped too many people,” he said.
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Later on, Warren and Biden challenged Bloomberg to release women who have filed gender discrimination and harassment complaints from their non-disclosure agreements.
Bloomberg declined. “None of them accuse me of doing anything, other than maybe they didn’t like a joke I told,” he said.
The tenor of the debate took on new urgency, as several campaigns are fighting for survival. Mayor Pete Buttigieg warned Democrats to “wake up” before Super Tuesday, saying the race could quickly come down to Bloomberg and Sanders, whom he called “the two most polarizing figures on this stage.”
“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,” he said.
Sanders attacked Buttigieg for taking money from 46 billionaires, and then Buttigieg attacked Sanders over the vicious attacks some of his supporters have engaged in.
“Leadership is about what you draw out of people,” Buttigieg said. “It’s how you inspire people to act… I think you have to accept some responsibility and ask yourself what it is about your campaign in particular that seems to be motivating this behavior.”
Warren was particularly aggressive, attacking three of her rivals’ health care plans in less than a minute. She said that Buttigieg’s plan was “more like a PowerPoint,” and that Sen. Amy Klobuchar’s plan is “like a Post-it that says ‘insert plan here.’” She also faulted Sanders on Medicare-for-all, calling his proposal a “good start,” but said that his campaign “relentlessly attacks everyone who asks a question or tries to fill in details about how to actually make this work.”
Buttigieg and Klobuchar also got into a fight over Klobuchar’s failure to recall the name of the president of Mexico.
“Are you trying to say that I’m dumb?” Klobuchar asked, and then attacked Buttigieg’s lack of experience.
Warren then defended Klobuchar, saying a memory lapse should not be grounds for an attack. As the debate collapsed into cross-talk, Biden noted, “I’m the only one who knows this man and met with him.”
In the second hour of the debate, Bloomberg and Sanders got into a extended tussle over capitalism. Sanders called out the “grotesque level of income and wealth inequality,” and said that Bloomberg has more wealth than 125 million Americans.
“That’s wrong,” Sanders said. “That’s immoral.”
Bloomberg was asked if he deserved to have billions of dollars.
“I worked very hard for it and I’m giving it away,” he said.
Sanders shot back, “Maybe your workers played some role in that as well.”
Sanders also defended a proposal to mandate 20% employee ownership of large companies.
“I can’t think of a way that would make it easier for Donald Trump to get re-elected than listening to this conversation,” Bloomberg said. “This is ridiculous. We’re not going to throw out capitalism. It was called communism and it just didn’t work.”
Sanders called that a “cheap shot.”
Perhaps the most vicious back-and-forth was between Klobuchar and Buttigieg, as the former South Bend mayor attacked Klobuchar’s votes on Trump appointees.
“I wish everyone was as perfect as you, Pete,” Klobuchar said, telling him he had no experience “in the arena.”
“You’ve memorized a bunch of talking points,” she said.