All campaign long, Democratic candidates have fought hard to get on the debate stage.

Maybe Mike Bloomberg should have fought to stay off it.

Because instead of taking center (and centrist) stage, Bloomberg was upstaged by Elizabeth Warren’s withering attacks on another “arrogant billionaire” in the race.

Despite decades in the public eye, including in the fishbowl of Gotham politics, New York’s former mayor seemed unsteady and unready to respond to what had to have been a well-telegraphed attack.

Which just goes to show that while Bloomberg’s billions can buy countless campaign commercials, in influential debates like the one Wednesday in Las Vegas, it’s not ads, but ad-libbing that matters most.

Indeed, in a matchup that set all-time ratings records for a Democratic debate, Bloomberg didn’t deftly deflect the attacks. So the mayor may have missed his chance to coalesce the centrist vote that’s been bigger than the Elizabeth Warren-Bernie Sanders sum in Iowa and New Hampshire.

Instead, with most of the focus on Bloomberg, the night was a win for the relatively unscathed Sanders (let alone President Donald Trump, who was often left alone amid all the intraparty infighting).

Sure, the other mayor on stage, Pete Buttigieg, pressed Sanders on online aggression from the so-called Bernie bros. Others questioned what they seem to see as Bernie bromides on health care, college costs, student debt, the Green New Deal and other expenditures that cost Warren support once she priced them out.

But for the most part, the fire (and ire, in Buttigieg’s and Amy Klobuchar’s case) was aimed at candidates chasing Sanders, who was left to say (shout, really) what he means and mean what he says — even if Bloomberg characterized Sanders’ plans as “communism” (rhetoric the president would likely use, too, if Sanders becomes his general-election opponent).

So Sanders and Trump — two polar, polarizing, opposites — emerged as consensus winners. And the same consensus said that Bloomberg suffered a significant setback (unless even more campaign ads can erase debate memories).

But it wasn’t a candidate, but the country, that had the biggest loss on Wednesday. Because the debate was too often about the race itself, instead of the race to save the country from concurrent crises.

One of these grand challenges, climate change, was even deemed “existential” by Joe Biden, the nearly forgotten former front-runner, who had his best moments in his best debate while talking about the issue.

But instead of these kinds of existential questions there were weird queries, like when Bloomberg was asked if he should “exist” (in reference to a riff from Sanders about billionaires).

While the climate change exchange at least has some substance, other essential — if not existential — issues weren’t even explored.

For instance, none of the potential presidents was asked about nuclear proliferation, a threat so urgent that the “Doomsday Clock” was placed at 100 seconds to midnight — the closest ever.

Wrote the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, which officially sets the clock: “Humanity continues to face two simultaneous existential dangers — nuclear war and climate change — that are compounded by a threat multiplier, cyber-enabled information warfare, that undercuts society’s ability to respond. The international security situation is dire, not just because these threats exist, but because world leaders have allowed the international political infrastructure for managing them to erode.”

Seems that this is something that might concern the next president more than the arcane arguments that passed for debate on Wednesday. Like the Buttigieg-Klobuchar row about the Minnesota senator’s not remembering the name of Mexico’s president.

Maybe the name that should have arisen was Ingrid Escamilla, who was the subject of that day’s New York Times story headlined “Grisly Murders Focus Mexico on Femicide.” Escamilla, one of thousands of victims of Mexico’s nihilistic violence, was stabbed, skinned and disemboweled in what was just the latest horror from the flailing, if not failing, state on America’s southern border.

Or there could have been more debate about the borderless scourge of the coronavirus. The cascading cases raise questions about whether the world is ready for a global pandemic. And that could have led to a discussion about what’s a bigger threat: A rising China or a receding one that’s staggered by an economic contagion that, like a virus, knows no national boundaries?

Buttigieg, an Afghan war veteran, and Biden, a foreign-policy veteran of the Obama-era Afghan “surge” — as well as every candidate — could have been asked about an impending proposal that may trigger a troop withdrawal, but perhaps no lasting peace to the war-torn nation of Afghanistan.

And all should have gone on record about other controversial conflicts, including the abrogated Iran nuclear deal, as well as how they might lead a global response to the postwar record number of refugees, internally displaced people and economic migrants that will only swell with climate change disruptions. Some of the displaced have decamped to Europe, where the reception has been at times hopeful and at times hostile. Or even homicidal, as tragically demonstrated the day of the debate in Germany, where a racist extremist killed nine people in Hanau, home to many Turkish and Kurdish immigrants. The attack comes amid a rise in far-right movements convulsing the continent (if not the world).

Other security threats, from nation-states and nonstate actors like ISIS, could have also been brought up. As well as Russia, which again is attacking our election on behalf of Trump (and, reportedly, Sanders), according to intelligence officials who briefed House lawmakers last week. That meeting reportedly enraged the president, and may have cost the director of national intelligence his job. On the debate day, Trump tapped Richard Grenell, a loyalist with no national intelligence experience, to lead 17 spy agencies. This sharp departure on intelligence seems more relevant than Klobuchar asking Buttigieg if he thought she was “dumb.”

Other critical issues, including campaign promises whose costs would explode the debt beyond its already unsustainable levels, were also generally unmentioned. And it’s unlikely that they will be when the eventual nominee faces Trump in debates that promise to be even more about style over substance.

So starting in next week’s Democratic debate in South Carolina, the moderators should give more than a modicum of attention to such worldly issues, and even invert the timing dynamic: Instead of tight time restrictions, candidates should have to expound on these existential issues for an extended time.

Such a format might be even more revealing than the response to the quick hits in Wednesday’s heated, but not always enlightening, debate.

 

John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. The Rash Report can be heard at 8:10 a.m. Fridays on WCCO Radio, 830-AM. On Twitter: @rashreport.