After what seems like countless Democratic debates, February 19th’s had a giant curveball in Mike Bloomberg, the former New York City mayor whose enormous fortune has given him a late, but undeniable, leg up in the race. So it was unsurprising that the prospect of Bloomberg making a play for the nomination at the 11th hour lit an obvious fire underneath the top five remaining candidates, even as Bloomberg struggled to distinguish and defend himself under the bright lights of the Las Vegas stage. The opening minutes of the debate were as intense as any on the trail thus far, beginning with Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, Joe Biden, Amy Klobuchar, and Pete Buttigieg taking on Bloomberg’s record and campaign with blunt, obvious disdain — a startling vibe that continued throughout the debate as the debate moderators scrambled to keep up, let alone keep the conversation on track.
With hundreds of delegates up for grabs on Super Tuesday, taking place less than two weeks from now, the five candidates who got onstage for MSNBC’s debate after months of campaigning got markedly more aggressive towards each other’s records and proposed policies. And yes, Bloomberg got the unequivocal brunt of it, especially as Sanders called out his wealth as “immoral” and Warren hammered his record on NDAs and alleged sexual harassment in a genuinely jaw-dropping exchange tailor-made for dramatic replays. The entire night, in fact, was marked by the kind of cagematch moments that MSNBC will no doubt be dining out on until the next debate gives them more fodder, and so on, and so on.
It’s inevitable that political candidates would become more heated as the pressure ramps up for them to make the case for themselves as the best nominee to beat Donald Trump (a phrase repeated ad nauseum throughout the debate, thanks to Bloomberg’s dependence on it). What wasn’t inevitable was the way the night’s debate hosts — a mix of reporters and anchors from MSNBC, Telemundo, and the Nevada Independent — quickly lost control of the proceedings in the process.
The rhetorical punches of the debate’s first hour may make for attention-grabbing headlines, but it was also a failure on the part of those tasked with steering the conversation in a coherent direction. Give or take those couple of spotlight Warren moments, letting the candidates talk over each other in their haste to tear each other apart led to precious few enlightening moments. Instead, the first hour saw the MSNBC hosts in particular letting the candidates talk over and through one another, each trying to one up the other without much intervention at all.
Throughout this long, long Democratic primary process, the debate moderation has, with very few exceptions, proved to be especially uninspired. Usually the culprit for that is the slate of questions, which have tended to be unnecessarily combative in a bid to get the candidates to rise to tempting bait. The ever-escalating tenor of cable news constantly demands juicy moments for digesting, and tonight’s unruly debate delivered them rather than the kind of information voters actually need. Tonight’s moderating — or more accurately, lack thereof — sacrificed clarity for fireworks. That might be “good television,” which is maybe all MSNBC wanted in the end, but it also made for a uniquely frustrating debate at a particularly crucial moment during the campaign.