Can Elizabeth Warren be the “centrist” alternative to Bernie Sanders? As the political world reacts to the fallout from Wednesday’s explosive Democratic presidential debate in Las Vegas, Warren may emerge as the only remaining candidate with the potential to build a coalition broad enough to contest the deep, unwavering support that has propelled Bernie to frontrunner status and allowed him to command a fragmented field.
It wasn’t supposed to play out this way. For weeks leading up to last night, Michael Bloomberg was hyped as the savior who would come to the rescue of anti-Sanders Democrats as he rocketed ahead of a hapless Joe Biden on the strength of an unprecedented ad blitz worth hundreds of millions of dollars. Those ads allowed Bloomberg to craft an image, ignore his primary opponents, and train his fire on Donald Trump. Voters who do not know him, which is to say pretty much everyone outside New York City, were introduced to a fighter who was taking it to Trump — what every Democratic voter wants and what none of the other candidates have the luxury to do as they battle amongst themselves like mortals without a bottomless bank account. Even better, Barack Obama appears so often in Bloomberg’s ads that to uninitiated voters he looks like the natural heir to the Obama presidency. No wonder he was benefiting from Biden’s dissipating support.
But when Bloomberg finally appeared on a debate stage with the other candidates, he looked like an astronaut who went on a space walk without his helmet. Forced to leave his multi-million dollar bubble, Bloomberg was unprepared to survive in an environment he couldn’t control. To say Bloomberg’s national debut was a disaster is to understate how deeply unready he is for prime time. Surly and ill-tempered, his demeanor was of a candidate who felt it was beneath him to have to share the stage with second-rate talents, and he was bafflingly unable to address the most predictable attacks on his record and personal history. His bottomless checkbook will no doubt blunt the damage — he can compete as long as he wishes and there will be a significant pool of voters who will only be exposed to his ads. But campaigns are never won exclusively over the air. Bloomberg will have to grow his support and then close the deal in the flesh, in competition with Sanders and whoever else may be standing in the end, and it is hard to see how he does that without drowning in his own toxicity.
Which brings me back to Warren. Most of the damage to Bloomberg came from her precise, withering, relentless cross examination. Warren needed a breakout performance to rescue a sagging campaign that has been invisible for weeks as the spotlight passed from Pete to Amy to Bernie to Bloomberg, and she came through when it mattered. The two-minute exchange where she pressed Bloomberg to release female former employees from non-disclosure agreements will be studied by debaters for years. Apart from the substance, Warren scored points for taking down the guy who claimed to be best prepared to take on Trump, demonstrating the kind of dominating leadership Democrats have been craving. I don’t think I have ever seen a candidate eviscerate an opponent on a debate stage the way Warren vivisected Bloomberg. Here are your entrails, Mr. Mayor. Thank you for playing.
After rising to temporary frontrunner status in October, Warren faltered when she was unable to offer a satisfying defense of her position on Medicare for All. In the ensuing months, she lost the battle for the left flank of the party to Bernie and saw her support dwindle to the point where she arrived yesterday in Las Vegas on the brink of falling below the 15% viability threshold for winning delegates. But in this unsettled season, Warren may have another life. She is trying to resurrect her campaign by presenting herself as the alternative to Bernie and Bloomberg, as the non-revolutionary capitalist who wants to save capitalism from the excesses exemplified by the guy who bought his way onto the debate stage.
It will be a remarkable pivot if she pulls it off, but when you survey what’s left of the field it’s possible to believe she has a chance, if for no other reason than through the process of elimination. Mayor Pete and Amy Klobuchar, who spent the evening locked in a death match as they compete for the same small slice of the white Nevada electorate, both face problems as the campaign is about to go national. Buttigieg has money and enough organization to be competitive, but he has yet to improve his standing with the voters of color who will now figure prominently in the balloting. Klobuchar reaped a cash windfall following her New Hampshire debate performance and got a polling boost, but she remains mired in single digits, lacking in organization, and — with the spotlight stolen from her by Warren — may soon have trouble hanging on. Joe Biden survives but is badly damaged. In the post-debate spin room he was lowering expectations for his performance in South Carolina, long heralded as his firewall where he is now locked into a close contest with Sanders. The challenges for Bloomberg couldn’t be more evident. And as for the frontrunner — Bernie is poised to be the delegate leader well into the primary season, but his lead will not be commanding unless he can expand beyond the 25-30% level where he has been stuck in the early contests, and the prospect of his nomination frightens plenty of status quo Democrats who believe he will lose.
Which leaves Warren. On the debate stage yesterday, she exhibited the fire and skill Democrats have been looking for as someone you could picture doing to Donald Trump what she did to Michael Bloomberg. As she repositions herself away from the left flank, she will have to calm Democrats who have worried that her politics are too extreme. And she will continue to face doubts from voters who fret that a woman cannot win in 2020. But someone has to win the nomination and every candidate has flaws. For a year, Democrats have been searching for a candidate tough enough, smart enough and focused enough to take on Donald Trump and win. Warren used yesterday’s debate to audition for that role. No question, she faces significant obstacles if she is going to emerge as the Democratic nominee at this fraught moment. But she has the opportunity. And she has been known to persist.