Six Democratic presidential candidates were in Las Vegas Wednesday night for the ninth Democratic debate hosted by MSNBC and NBC News. And after eight previous debates, the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary, and a considerable thinning of the roster, the remaining candidates came ready to spar.
The lineup Wednesday included primary latecomer Mike Bloomberg, who qualified for the debate despite not appearing on the ballot in this weekend’s Nevada caucuses — and only after the Democratic National Committee changed qualification requirements to accommodate him.
Unsurprisingly, given those circumstances Bloomberg’s presence in the debate didn’t sit well with the other presidential hopefuls, and so it was that they tore into the former New York mayor from the get-go. But that wasn’t the only highlight. The night also featured a debate over Bernie Sanders’ allegedly toxic fans, yet another interruption by protesters, and many, many good zings.
Here are 5 of the spiciest moments from the big event, which took place at the Paris Las Vegas Theater.
1. A Bloomberg Pile-On Right Off the Bat
Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren came out swinging as she responded to question about why any of the other Democratic contenders are more fit for the Democratic nomination than newcomer Bloomberg.
“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,” she said.
— MSNBC (@MSNBC) February 20, 2020
Sanders meanwhile criticized Bloomberg’s stop-and-frisk policy during his tenure as New York City’s mayor, which he noted “went after African American and Latino people in an outrageous way.”
“That is not a way you’re going to grow voter turnout. What our movement is about is bringing working-class people together. Black and white and Latino, Native American, Asian American, around an agenda that works for all of us and not just the billionaire class,” Sanders said.
In order to beat Donald Trump we are going to need the largest voter turnout in the history of our country. Mr. Bloomberg’s record of stop-and-frisk is not going to do that. #DemDebate pic.twitter.com/GD2CwkGi5b
— Bernie Sanders (@BernieSanders) February 20, 2020
Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, meanwhile, took issue with insinuations from the Bloomberg campaign that she and other candidates “step aside” for Bloomberg.
“I think we need something different than Donald Trump. I don’t think you look at Donald Trump and say we need someone richer in the White House,” Klobuchar said.
2. Bernie Sanders Confronted Over His Supporters
Sanders has been frequently criticized for behavior attributed to a sizable fraction of his supporters, colloquially referred to as “Bernie Bros,” and for what critics say is his apparent indifference to that behavior. It was even mentioned in a recent “Saturday Night Live” sketch.
On Sunday, former vice president Joe Biden appeared on “Meet the Press,” where he accused Sanders’s followers of bullying and saying “vicious, malicious, misogynistic things” about union leaders in Nevada and asked if Sanders and his supporters were “making it harder for Democrats to unify in November.” And earlier this week, the issue was at the center of a Bloomberg ad.
Asked about Biden’s comments during the debate, Warren said “Look, I have said many times before, we are all responsible for our supporters. And we need to step up. That’s what leadership is all about.”
Sanders replied that such followers are a mere fraction of his actual base. “We have over 10.6 million people on Twitter, and 99.9 percent of them are decent human beings, are working people, are people who believe in justice, compassion, and love,” Sanders replied. “And if there are a few people who make ugly remarks, who attack trade union leaders, I disown those people. They are not part of our movement.”
Pete Buttigieg, however, honed in on why some of Sanders’ followers were behaving that way in the first place. “Senator, when you say that you disown these attacks and you didn’t personally direct them, I believe you,” he began. “But at a certain point, you got to ask yourself, why did this pattern arise? Why is it especially the case among your supporters that this happens?”
The two candidates continued to have a back and forth, with Sanders accusing the supporters of other candidates (who he did not name) of equally awful behavior, until Klobuchar chimed in.
“I have an idea of how we can stop sexism on the internet. We could nominate a woman for candidate for president of the United States,” she said.
3. Candidates Go After Bloomberg for Stop-and-Frisk and Accusations of Sexism (Again)
Several candidates attacked Bloomberg for the stop-and-frisk policy that in part defined policing during his three terms as New York mayor. The practice allowed NYPD officers to temporarily detain, question, and “frisk” people suspected of engaging in criminal activity.
Defenders claimed the policy reduced crime, but in fact the majority of the detainees targeted were innocent young black and Latinx men, and almost no crimes were ever discovered. And in 2013, a judge ruled that stop-and-frisk was deployed unconstitutionally and ordered the city to stop until it could articulate a clear, racially unbiased version of it.
“I’ve apologized. I’ve asked for forgiveness,” Bloomberg said when the policy was brought up during the debate. He also said the policy was “embarrassing” and that “it got out of control,” and claimed that as a result he reduced it by 95%.
In reality, Bloomberg consistently defended the policy as mayor and continued to do so until just before he announced his intention to enter the Democratic primary. He only apologized in 2019. And that 95% drop he mentioned occurred only after the judicial ruling, a ruling Bloomberg angrily denounced at the time.
Subsequently, the other candidates weren’t convinced. Warren for instance addressed him directly with one of the night’s most memorable mic-drops: “You need a different apology.”
“It’s not whether he apologized or not. It’s the policy. The policy was abhorrent. And it was a fact of violation of every right people have,” said Biden.
Later, Warren also hit Bloomberg hard for the non-disclosure agreements his companies required female employees to sign, which critics say are written so that they appear to protect abusive bosses. Warren, joined by Biden, asked Bloomberg to release women from those agreements right there during the debate. He declined.
“They signed the agreements and that’s what we’re going to live with,” Bloomberg said.
4. Protesters Interrupt Proceedings (Not a Repeat)
For the fourth time, a Democratic primary event was interrupted by protesters, this time during Biden’s closing remarks. It was difficult to make out precisely what the demonstrators were chanting while watching the debate on television but, early on, one protester could be heard saying, “You deported 3 million people!” — a frequent criticism of the Obama administration’s immigration policies.
The activist wing of the immigrants-rights organization RAICES claimed credit for the demonstration on Twitter. Read more about it here.
5. Lots and Lots of One-Liners
As you probably noticed above, almost all the candidates came prepared with memorable zingers to fling at opportune times — almost too many to count. Some we didn’t mention above include:
Buttigieg called attention to Klobuchar’s recent foreign policy blunder –forgetting the name of Mexico’s president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, at a recent candidates’ forum — to question her fitness to become the U.S. president. To that, said Klobuchar: “Are you trying to say I’m dumb? Are you mocking me here, Pete? I said I made an error. People sometimes forget names.”
Later on, Buttigieg presented himself as the unity candidate in between former Republican Bloomberg and self-declared democratic socialist Sanders. “Let’s put someone forward who’s actually a Democrat,” he said.
He continued: “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,” he said. “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.”
Sanders didn’t shy away from his retort, either. “If speaking to the needs and the pain of a long-neglected working class is polarizing, I think you got the wrong word,” he said. “What we are saying, Pete, is maybe it’s a time for the working class of this country to have a little bit of power in Washington, rather than your billionaire campaign contributors.”
At another point, while dismissing health care plans put forward by Buttigieg and Klobuchar, Elizabeth Warren joked that Buttigieg’s proposal “is not a plan, it’s a power point. And Amy’s plan, it’s like a Post-It Note.”
But Klobuchar had a ready retort for that one: “I must say I take personal offense since Post-It Notes were invented in my state.” (This is true, incidentally.)