Former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg made his first appearance in a Democratic debate Thursday (AEST) and quickly found himself persona non grata on stage when forced to defend his past incidences of sexual misconduct.
The debate comes ahead of the Nevada caucus this weekend and because Bloomberg didn’t appear in earlier debates, it was the first chance the other candidates had to attack their extremely wealthy rival – and they didn’t waste a moment in doing so.
Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren came out swinging as proceedings opened up, asking why the American people should elect “a billionaire who calls women fat broads and horse-faced lesbians”.
“Democrats take a huge risk if we just substitute one arrogant billionaire for another,” she said.
But it was when Bloomberg was asked about past reports of his sexual misconduct including allegedly telling one former colleague “I would do you in a second” that he faced the most heat as Democrats took turns teeing off on him about his alleged conduct.
Several women have claimed they were discriminated against when working under the candidate and that Bloomberg himself created a culture of sexual harassment.
In defending himself, Bloomberg stumbled leading to a moment described by one political reporter as “toe-curling in the extreme”.
Bloomberg said he supported the MeToo movement and the sexual predation it had uncovered but also referred to those who made allegations against him by saying “maybe they didn’t like a joke I told”.
He also said “I’ve been nice to some women”. A defence that didn’t go over well.
Both Warren and former vice president Joe Biden grilled Bloomberg on his use of non-disclosure agreements (famously used by the likes of Harvey Weinstein and Donald Trump to purchase people’s silence) and called for him to legally release women to speak about their allegations.
“They are being muzzled by you and you could release them from that immediately,” Warren said.
When he rejected such calls, audible boos could be heard from the audience.
Following the debate, CNN analyst Van Jones summed up the night saying: “Bloomberg went into the Dem debate as the Titanic. And tonight? That Titanic met an iceberg named Elizabeth Warren,” he said, describing the outing as a “nightmare” for the billionaire candidate.
Moment of the debate so far. Toe-curling in the extreme.— Ben Riley-Smith (@benrileysmith) February 20, 2020
Wealth inequality, healthcare and climate change remain big issues
The former New York Mayor also faced difficult moments when he was grilled about controversial stop and frisk laws he enacted during his time in office. The laws meant police didn’t need a justification for searching a person on the street and were accused of being used to racially profile members of the public. Bloomberg apologised for how the laws were used and admitted they got “out of control”.
Wealth inequality is another major issue in the Democratic race, putting Bloomberg in an uncomfortable position on Thursday when asked by a moderator if he deserved his $US64 billion ($A96 billion) fortune.
He replied that he thought he did, saying he worked very hard for it and and was giving much of it away. However much of the reaction on social media was critical of the response.
Bloomberg is done. He just said he "worked very hard" for his fortune. He's worth $64 BILLION! Nobody "earns" that much money. Is his contention that he works that much harder than a single mom with 3 jobs who can barely pay the bills? #DemDebate— Secular Talk (@KyleKulinski) February 20, 2020
Climate change and healthcare also featured as major issues in the debate. While candidates agree on the urgency and need for climate action, there is much greater disparity among democrats when it comes to healthcare.
Vermont senator Bernie Sanders has long endorsed a system of universal healthcare, making it a major part of his agenda, while his rivals continued to attack him during the debate about the cost of such an ambitious policy and how it would be funded.
Candidates also spent considerable time debating the electability of their rivals in an eventual presidential race against Donald Trump.
Sanders still leads the pack
Despite sitting out the earlier states, Bloomberg has risen to second place in Democratic poll behind self-described democratic socialist Bernie Sanders, according to a Reuters/Ipsos national poll released Wednesday, AEST.
As Biden and Warren have sunk in the polls, Sanders has emerged as the front-runner in the nomination fight, whether his party’s establishment likes it or not.
A growing group of donors, elected officials and political operatives fear that Sanders’ uncompromising progressive politics could be a disaster in the general election against Trump, yet they’ve struggled to coalesce behind a single moderate alternative.
If Warren and Biden can’t recover from a bad start, it will be down to Bloomberg, former Indiana mayor Pete Buttigieg who has surged in polls, and Minnesota senator Amy Klobuchar who has also had a surprisingly strong start.
Candidates head to Nevada this weekend before South Carolina where they will vie for votes among the party faithful in each state to be awarded national party delegates – the pathway to the eventual nomination.
There is another big day on March 3 known as Super Tuesday when many states vote and another crucial day on March 17 when a lot of the remaining big states hold their own caucuses.
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