There were plenty of big Warren moments, so in the middle of all the fireworks, it was easy to miss a sparkler:
While discussing taxes and his own wealth, Bloomberg casually referred to Warren as “the senator next to me.” It’s a common debate tactic: elevate your own stature by refusing to acknowledge your opponent’s name. But Warren wasn’t having it.
“Elizabeth,” she interjected, in a voice dripping with disdain.
The message in this one word was, you obviously know my name, you bipedal checking account.
Or perhaps, more practically, the message was to the rest of us: I exist. Twenty-four hours prior, #WheresWarren trended online in response to an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll that opted not to include her in its analysis of head-to-head matchups with President Trump. The polling firm’s eventual explanation — “Amy Klobuchar was selected as the fifth candidate. We have tested Warren earlier” — was baffling. Weren’t the male candidates, some of whom have fewer delegates than Warren, also tested earlier? Were they employing the Smurfette Rule, by which only one female can be present at a time?
In the previous eight debates, the gender of the female candidates had been addressed mostly via glib sound bites: Of course women can win elections! Nancy Pelosi beats Donald Trump every day! Amy Klobuchar tried a bit of that on Wednesday: “I have an idea for how we can stop sexism on the Internet. We can nominate a woman for a candidate.” (Who wants to tell her about 2016?)
But as Wednesday’s debate wore on, it started to feel like the first one where we were truly grappling with gender dynamics. Not the platonic ideal of a mixed-gender field — a tableau promoting the country’s progress — but how the undercurrents of dismissiveness and frustration and manners play out onstage during an elimination game. Here were two women staring at the less-prepared but more “electable” male candidates next to them, trying to keep the steam from coming out of their ears.
For Warren, that candidate was Bloomberg, who swaggered up to a podium he’d essentially rented for hundreds of millions of dollars, having bypassed all of the debates’ qualifying rules until the rules were simply changed to suit him.
“None of them accused me of anything other than maybe they didn’t like a joke I told,” Bloomberg said, brushing off past accusations of sexism by falling back on sexism’s most maddening defense: Some women just can’t take a joke.
He went on to praise his hiring and promotion record of female employees, which did not impress Warren.
“I hope you heard what his defense was,” she addressed the audience. “ ‘I’ve been nice to some women.’ ”
Amy Klobuchar’s foil, meanwhile, was Pete Buttigieg, the former South Bend, Ind., mayor whose scrappy rise derailed Klobuchar’s plan for Midwestern domination.
“I am the one — not you, that has won statewide, in congressional district after congressional district,” Kobuchar fired at Buttigieg after he chastised her for being unable to remember the name of Mexico’s president at an earlier event. “When you tried, in Indiana, to run, what happened to you? You lost by over 20 points.”
When Buttigieg pressed on in his trademark calmer-than-thou style, she snarked back. “I wish everyone was as perfect as you.”
I can’t say that moment was presidential; it was actually fairly cringe-inducing. And there were times during Warren’s relentless Bloomberg attacks when it felt as if we were watching a mouse stuck in a trap: You definitely didn’t want it roaming the house willy-nilly, but that didn’t make the squirming any less excruciating.
But all of those exchanges felt as if they came from a more honest place than Klobuchar’s earlier assertion that electing a woman would, presto, eradicate sexism. Of course electing a woman wouldn’t eradicate sexism; it is too baked into the system. She was there on the stage, incandescently angry over Buttigieg’s express-elevator ascent, and everything it negated about her own hard-working, box-checking uphill trudge.
On Wednesday, Klobuchar was the unleashed id of frustrated women everywhere; it was astonishing to see it play out in public instead of via inner monologue, or over wine at book-club night.
But Warren was the aspirational one. She behaved as though she’d looked at the polls, realized she had nothing to lose, realized she was always going to be criticized for being too bossy or too unelectable, and decided, you know what — chuck it, I’ll just debate how I want to debate. She was the one who leaned into fraught symbolism in the right way. She was the pestering woman? Fine. Then this debate was going to be about the pestering woman relentlessly dismantling the billionaire who thought he could buy everything from female employees’ silence to the presidential election.
She was the one who lobbed the fireworks all night long and, perhaps more meaningfully, the sparklers that encapsulated both her irritation, and her refusal to let her irritation get the better of her.
“I can’t go to TurboTax,” Bloomberg said at one point, explaining that he hadn’t released his taxes because they were complex and would take several weeks to prepare.
Klobuchar responded by chiding Bloomberg for his lack of transparency. Buttigieg took the statement as a sign of Bloomberg’s elitism, mentioning how he and the other candidates had put in serious “backyards and diners” time with voters.
Warren shrugged. “Pay overtime,” she told the billionaire, in a burn that was both fed-up and practical. “Get it done.”