Democrats forgot about unity for a night. Good.
From the outset of Wednesday night's debate in Nevada, it was clear that most of the candidates on stage had decided to stop playing nice. It wasn't long before the atmosphere felt like something more out of an episode of the Maury Povich show — replete with audience booing — than any of the earlier primary-season debates where candidates only occasionally tried to draw blood from each other.
Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) opened fire with a broadside against former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg.
"I'd like to talk about who we're running against," she said. "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."
It was a fiery opening to a fiery evening. And honestly: Good.
Democrats have tried so hard to tip-toe around each other during this primary season that occasional signs of conflict — say between Warren and Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) — were treated as major crises for the party, a sign that the party is prone to internal divisions that will make it difficult to unseat President Trump this fall. And indeed, some observers spent this debate fretting about the divisions on display.
But that isn't how politics works.
Democrats, being the party of the left, tend to prefer consensus-building. And certainly, there is plenty of evidence that Democratic voters don't much enjoy watching primary candidates attack each other. But American politics is not The Great British Baking Show, where contestants support each other and everybody goes home kind of a winner even if there is only one real champion. Instead, the democratic process is more like Highlander. There is only one victor — and everybody else gets their head chopped off. That means these kinds of fights are inevitable.
What's more, voters don't just select candidates based on an algorithm of who they believe has the best policies. For better or worse, voters want to see that candidates are people, that they are more than the sum of their resumes — and, yes, that they have enough fire in their bellies to fight for the office they seek. For all their fear of disunity, most of the candidates may find they come out of Wednesday's scrum looking better than they did before.
The primary process is not always pretty, or pleasant, or even rational. Maybe it should be changed someday. Right now, though, it's the process we have.
On that basis, the Nevada debate taught us some helpful lessons about the remaining Democratic field:
Elizabeth Warren isn't ready to go home. There has been a lot of talk this week suggesting the media had essentially erased Warren from the primary race after mediocre showings in Iowa and New Hampshire. But Warren came to Nevada in a fighting mood: she attacked Bloomberg, but so did everybody else. She also got in notable shots at former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) — likening Buttigieg's health plan to a "PowerPoint presentation" and Klobuchar's to a "Post-It note." If Tuesday's debate really was about showing voters who had fire in their belly, Warren may have shown the most fire of all.
Warren's feistiness may earn her a second look from voters — and, perhaps as important, the media. Until Tuesday night, she was being counted out of the race. Nevertheless, she persisted.
Mike Bloomberg isn't ready for prime time. The former mayor should've been ready for criticism of his stop-and-frisk policies and allegations of sexism in the workplace. He wasn't. Bloomberg gave stiff, off-putting answers to the challenges from other candidates — "Maybe they didn't like a joke I told," he said of the harassment allegations, sounding like every ugly bro mystified at why he's been dragged before human resources — and seemed, for all the world, like he was biding his time till he could get off stage and spend millions of dollars on TV and internet ads that will probably be seen by bigger audiences than that which witnessed his stumbles during the debate.
Pete Buttigieg seemed kind of creepy. Let's be honest: It's not great that Klobuchar couldn't remember the name of the Mexican president during a recent TV interview. (We're betting she could've remembered the name of Canada's leader, Justin Trudeau, if asked about that country.) It's also the kind of slip-up that didn't merit nearly the time spent on it during the debate, nor Buttigieg's suggestion that perhaps she didn't understand U.S. policy with Mexico. To be fair, up until now Buttigieg — Harvard grad and former McKinsey consultant — has probably associated "getting the pop quiz right" with "merit" and "advancement." The organization kid may have thought it was his killer argument. Instead, he made Klobuchar look more sympathetic.
We will have to see if the debate has done anything to change the fundamentals of the race. Sanders didn't do much to take the edge off his frontrunner status; former Vice President Joe Biden disappeared for long enough stretches that it is difficult to imagine he clawed his way back into the race.
It was good, though, to see the candidates scrap with each other. Unity can — and probably will — come in the fall, after the nominee has been selected. And it probably won't hurt that candidate to be battle-hardened by the time they meet Donald Trump in the general election. There is a long way to go before November; the fights and criticism will probably only get more harsh from here.
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