Opinion | Campaign

A missed opportunity for Democrats

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The Democratic debate in Las Vegas was fiery in a way that none of the previous debates had been. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) was relentless, scorching the stage and every candidate on it. She knew she had it all on the line and held nothing back. Former Vice President Joe Biden was strong in a way he hadn't been recently but needed to be. Former Mayor Pete Buttigieg was consistently strong, while Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) was a bit shaky. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) was vintage Sanders, yelling and fighting just like his supporters like him to be.

It was a great and substantive show as the candidates drew strong contrasts between themselves and their opponents. And they should not be afraid to do that. As long as the party comes back together in the end, the eventual nominee will be able to defeat President Trump.    

The big surprise of the evening was Michael Bloomberg - and not in a good way. The anticipation surrounding a debate with the former mayor of New York City was palpable. The Democratic National Committee had been hammered for releasing new rules that allowed Bloomberg to get onto the stage. 

After last night, many were thanking the DNC and its chairman, Tom Perez, for allowing Bloomberg to finally be vetted in a way he had not been until now. 

But Bloomberg was not prepared to be vetted. He looked like a deer in the headlights and like he was surprised by the questions about stop-and-frisk, his past misogynistic comments and the non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) he had signed with women who had complaints against him. He also must convince Democratic voters that just because he is a billionaire does not mean he's out of touch.

Bloomberg wasn't prepared compared to his battle-tested opponents. He must answer the allegations of sexism in a way that differentiates himself from the sexist in the Oval Office. If he doesn't, it could prove fatal.

Warren was successful in pushing Bloomberg into a corner from which he scarcely escaped. His responses to the NDAs were woefully inadequate, and his comments about why he hasn't released his taxes were downright Trumpian. 

The painful thing about it all was they didn't have to be. On the NDAs, Bloomberg should have outright apologized (and meant it) for past offensive comments. Full stop.  Instead, he used a throwaway line about a "a joke that the women may have not liked" that made him look insensitive, insincere and arrogant as hell. Bloomberg sounded as if he possibly would do it again. Very Trumpian.

Bloomberg could have pledged to release his taxes as soon as they are ready. He could have underscored that he is ensuring completeness and accuracy. Then he could have pivoted to Trump, who has never released his taxes. Bloomberg could have said that when he does release his taxes, he looks forward to comparing how much money he and Trump have given to philanthropic causes.

The one area where every candidate could have done a much better job was in making the case that they are best prepared to take on Trump. Beating Trump continues to be the most important objective for Democrats, independents and disaffected Republicans.

Sure, Trump was mentioned lightly throughout the debate, but there was not a consistent argument that Trump was the reason they were all there. Being in Nevada, the first primary state with a diverse population and with the attention of Latino voters, who will be the largest ethnic voting minority in the November election, the candidates lost a great opportunity to contrast themselves on the one issue Trump likes to tout with Hispanics - their record-low unemployment rate.

Biden, Sanders, Warren and especially Buttigieg and Klobuchar should have pointed out a few things wrong with Trump's claim.

First, the Obama administration had more to do with the low unemployment rate (overall and among Latinos) than Trump. The unemployment rate fell faster and more jobs were created in the last three years of Obama's presidency than in the first three years of Trump's.

Second, and perhaps most importantly, while the numbers paint a rosy picture, it is not rosy for everyone. If you are a Latina single mother holding down two jobs and without affordable health care, you are contributing twice over to the low unemployment rate Trump touts. But this is not an economy that is working for you.

Third, health care is a crucial issue for Latinos, who are more likely than other Americans to lack health care coverage. The candidates should have hammered Trump and Republicans for wanting to take health care coverage away from millions of Latinos, and then talked about how their plans would cover more Latinos. 

That no one did that was a lost opportunity. I hope the candidates will make these points moving forward, especially in upcoming primaries states with large Latino populations. The points above apply to all communities of color and frankly to all Americans. 

So let's have at it, Democrats. Don't be afraid to give America a good, robust debate. But make the unequivocal case that every candidate is well equipped to beat the most unfit, dangerous and corrupt president in history. We can do it only if, in the end, we are united and armed with the facts. 

Maria Cardona is a longtime Democratic strategist and co-chair of the Democratic National Committee's rules and bylaws committee for the party's 2020 convention. She is a principal at Dewey Square Group, a Washington-based political consulting agency, and a CNN/CNN Español political commentator. Follow her on Twitter @MariaTCardona.

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