Elizabeth Warren, on Fire in Nevada

“FINISH HIM!” read tweet after tweet after Elizabeth Warren’s opening verbal volley against Mike Bloomberg, echoing the video-game edict from the fighting game Mortal Kombat that precedes a graphic evisceration of one’s opponent. While the Massachusetts Senator didn’t reach to her right and rip out Bloomberg’s spine, her piercing account of his past sexist remarks set a tone for her mission for the night.

Warren wasn’t merely on the stage to remind voters in Nevada and nationwide of a candidate who press and party alike had prematurely dismissed after only two contests. She revealed precisely why her style of politics may be best suited to handle the ultimate competition of 2020: taking on and defeating Donald Trump.

In that respect, Bloomberg isn’t so much a primary opponent for Warren as he is practice. Indeed, he differs with Trump on a number of policy points, including guns and the environment. However, the two tycoons have much in common, including past predilections for racist public policy and sexual harassment lawsuits. For Warren, who made rhetorical lemonade out of “nevertheless, she persisted” when Mitch McConnell directed his acidic barb at her three years ago, her very first opportunity to face Bloomberg directly had to leave a mark.

“I’d like to talk about who we’re running against: a billionaire who calls women ‘fat broads’ and ‘horse-faced lesbians,’” Warren said, referring in the latter remark to a 1990 booklet of “actual quotes” from Bloomberg compiled by a former colleague as a birthday gift. She clarified that she wasn’t speaking about Trump, but about the man to her right, the once-again Democrat who with those remarks alone presented a liability in a general election against Trump. She drove the point home by saying, “Democrats are not going to win if we have a nominee who has a history of hiding his tax returns, of harassing women, and of supporting racist policies like redlining and ‘stop-and-frisk.’ Look, I’ll support whoever the Democratic nominee is, but understand this: Democrats take a huge risk if we just substitute one arrogant billionaire for another.”

This set the stage for what Warren did later, confronting Bloomberg over the sexual-harassment non-disclosure agreements from which he’d refused to release Bloomberg employees. After he that “none of them accuse me of doing anything other than maybe they didn’t like a joke I told,” seemingly not understanding the severity of his predicament, Warren boldly challenged Bloomberg on the stage to do the right thing and release his employees from their legally enforced silence. Bloomberg pointedly refused, later saying, “They signed those agreements and we’ll live with it.” (Warren’s earlier rejoinder, recounting his utterance that he’ll “be nice to some women,” had produced a Bloomberg eye roll that even the most casual viewer couldn’t miss.) In this time still well within the window of burgeoning #MeToo activism, the most charitable reading of Bloomberg’s responses to Warren’s challenges? “Politically moronic” may be as charitable as I can be.

Notably, Warren’s enthusiasm in making her NDA demand was infectious; Joe Biden and then most of Warren’s fellow competitors immediately echoed her in challenging Bloomberg. However, the moment was hers, and not merely because she originated it. Even as frontrunner Bernie Sanders may be the best known for decrying the very existence of billionaires like Bloomberg, Warren’s entire argument for the presidency runs counter to Bloomberg’s presence in the race. Warren also used the debate to successfully reinforce her central theme as an opponent of corruption. Though it isn’t illegal for a person like Bloomberg to use billions of his own fortune to try to win the presidency, she reminded the viewing public of why wealthy men like him have been such a problem. 

The woman charged with building the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau  and former head of the congressional panel overseeing the bank bailout, Warren sought to hold Wall Street accountable for its abuses and underscored inequality at every turn throughout the night. Though Biden was the first of the night to call out Bloomberg for ascribing the 2008 financial crisis to the end of discriminatory “redlining,” Warren used the moment to reintroduce one her signature remedies for closing the wealth gap: her two-cent tax on the megarich, including men like Bloomberg and Trump.

For those who merely enjoy seeing democracy in action or perhaps recall fondly the ending of The Wizard of Oz, it was a visceral joy to watch Wednesday night as Warren pulled back the emerald curtain that Bloomberg had used hundreds of his billions to conceal his true self from the American electorate. Since his sudden entry into the race in November, the media mogul and former New York City mayor had been presenting instead some character manufactured by his expert social media team and advertising gurus to the markets that he had been able to flood. Bloomberg has been able to purchase voter memories or curiosities, and that strategy may now accelerate. That should be over now. 

As a football coach would say, there is now film on Bloomberg for voters to study, and it exposes him. The man who would have had us believe that he could bully Donald Trump into submission could barely find his words when facing questions about his record that he had to expect. It is evident that absent some breakthrough that comes after a sudden Rocky montage of debate training, Bloomberg will inevitably lack the political talent to stand toe to toe with Warren or the other four who were on the stage with him in Las Vegas, let alone the carnival barker awaiting in the fall. 

Bloomberg’s bank account may yet win this, which would be a sadder commentary on the Democrats than on him as a candidate. He did pick up three new congressional endorsements after that horrid performance, albeit from House members all with direct ties to him. One would hope that Warren’s performance would not merely jolt us alert to her own relevance, but to the falsehood of the broader macho narrative of electability being proffered by Bloomberg and other candidates in the field. 

Even if she isn’t the eventual nominee, Warren’s performance should underscore the importance of putting forth an opponent for Trump who can be quick on her or his feet with both policy and facts, and also one who carries a deep reservoir of compassion. Even though Amy Klobuchar should know the Mexican president’s name and have been better prepared for that Telemundo interview, Warren was right to step in and defend her colleague, refocusing the conversation on more central matters than whether or not the Senator from Minnesota had been forgetful. 

Mistakes happen. Trump isn’t one of them. He is there on purpose, and it will take intention and focus, not desperate reaches for a savior, to get him out. By unmasking Bloomberg as a fatally flawed candidate and producing the finest debate performance from a Democrat yet in this campaign, Warren proved that she remains focused on the goal that matters most.

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