They are beginning to call it the Democrats’ circular firing squad. Last night’s two-hour debate in Las Vegas ahead of Saturday’s Nevada caucuses was a punch-up, but at the end at least everyone got off the floor and walked away.
It was 77-year-old Michael Bloomberg, the new billionaire kid on the block, who took the biggest beating. As a late entrant to the contest for the Democratic presidential nomination, the three-time mayor of New York knew he would be target No 1; and he didn’t have to wait too long to learn to parry.
Senator Elizabeth Warren’s haymaker reminded “Little Mike”, as Donald Trump calls the candidate he fears most, that he had once described some women as: “Fat broads and horse-faced lesbians.”
“We don’t want to swap one arrogant billionaire for another one,” she said.
Minnesota senator Amy Klobuchar added a sororal follow-up, noting that a memo from the New Yorker’s camp had suggested that the smaller fry candidates get out of the way. “I have been told many times that as a woman I should step aside,” she said, “I will not.”
Others like Pete Buttigieg, the 38-year-old former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, and senator Bernie Sanders, the front-running socialist from Vermont, piled in behind. Bloomberg, they argued, was a former Republican, an advocate of ”stop-and-search” policing of young black men, and above all, too rich to champion the interests of any class but his own.
But the media baron just unblinkingly lapped it up. Some pundits believe he is now operating Muhammed Ali’s famous “rope-a-dope” strategy, taking the hits to exhaust his opponents before letting his money do the talking.
And what of the non-billionaire candidates? Once finished with Mike, they set about each other. Stranger almost to foreign eyes than the debate itself was the context. Nevada must be arguably the weirdest state in the US. In fact, it only became a state for political reasons. President Abraham Lincoln granted it statehood in 1864 when it had a population well under 100,000 in order to gain its three votes in the electoral college.
The casinos, the wedding (and divorce) parlours, the pawnshops, the legal brothels and – as important – the tax rates at zero for income, corporate and inheritance, were all set up to attract a population to what is pretty much exclusively desert.
Today, the state has attracted waiters and hotel bedroom cleaners. Nevadans are 28 per cent Hispanic, nine per cent black, and eight per cent Asian (largely Filipinos) with just 50 per cent white. In a highly unionised state, the biggest single power in the land is the Culinary Union (CU) whose 58,000 members service the vast entertainment and convention industry.
And this had real relevance to the debate as the CU has doggedly refused to endorse any candidate despite desperate attempts to win them over. The reason? Because they offer a very attractive health insurance package and the two leading left candidates – Sanders and Warren – are suggesting that this might have to be scrapped to make way for “Medicare for All” – a US NHS. Many insured workers don’t want it.
As so often, health dominated the opening exchanges. Everyone – Bloomberg excepted – rolled out their formulas for reform. Yet as an MSNBC commentator pointed out in the spin room: “Not one sentence of that half-hour conversation can be enacted into law if the senate remains in Republican hands. It’s a pure fantasy world.”
For a further hour and a half, they slugged it out, exhibiting each other’s dirty washing. Klobuchar pummelled Buttigieg for inexperience. “I wish everyone was as perfect as you, Pete,” she smiled at the Rhodes Scholar, army veteran and speaker of seven languages.
Former vice-president Joe Biden, fighting for his political life after poor showings at earlier primaries, came out swinging with his working-class credentials and length of service. Schoolmistressy Warren had a plan for most things and was clearly tacking back towards the moderate camp.
It was during the candidates’ final one-minute statements that Bloomberg spelled out his true pitch. “This is a management issue,” he said with the deadpan delivery of one of his computers. “Donald Trump is not a manager. You need teams, he doesn’t have any. You can’t run a railroad that way. You need experience.”
And money, of course. As a commentator pointed out as the television coverage concluded: “More people will see Bloomberg’s TV ads tomorrow than watched that debate.”