Support The Bulwark and subscribe today.
  Join Now

A Tale of Two Mayors

A song of Pete and Mike.
March 2, 2020
A Tale of Two Mayors
(GettyImages / Shutterstock)

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. Before the Sunday night split screen with Pete Buttigieg I didn’t think it was possible for Mike Bloomberg to look any smaller. But he found a way.

Last night, Mayor Pete made a painstaking and selfless decision to step away from the Democratic primary, despite having won the Iowa Caucus, despite his unfathomably groundbreaking campaign as the first credible openly gay presidential candidate, despite the fact that a number of contenders who had performed far worse than him at the ballot box are stubbornly pressing forward.

And meanwhile, across the country Mayor Mike Bloomberg was spending another $1.5 million on a prime time infomercial in his vainglorious attempt to salvage some Super Tuesday delegates, despite having not yet having earned a single vote, despite face-planting in the debates, and despite running a campaign that was only groundbreaking in the sense of the spending levels from an individual candidate.

The contrast between the probity of these two men’s actions and the political ramifications for each couldn’t be more stark.

I want to end on the best of times, so let’s start with the worst. By which I mean Mike Bloomberg’s campaign.

Two weeks ago I argued that, among other things, Bloomberg would “bristle and falter on the debate stage,” be a “poor political performer,” and was holding the race hostage to the detriment of viable candidates, such as Buttigieg and Joe Biden.


Yet, upon rereading it, my bearish assessment of the Bloomberg campaign actually doesn’t hold up as well as I’d hoped. Because even my sour assessment was exceedingly generous to an unequivocal disaster of a campaign that has become an active threat to the very objectives it claimed to have been premised on.

The plummet began when Bloomberg’s campaign team—which up to that point had been executing a shrewd and unconventional strategy—made the most disastrous error of the cycle. They let people hear Mike Bloomberg speak.

At the debate in Las Vegas, Mayor Mike failed every conceivable metric of candidate performance and proved utterly incapable of defending either (a) his career as a centrist plutocrat or (b) his personal foibles. Democratic voters noticed: South Carolina exit polls indicated only 26 percent of voters had a favorable opinion of him with 66 percent having an unfavorable opinion. Which means these Democrats now have a dimmer view of Mike Bloomberg they do George Walker Bush.

But it’s worse than that.

If Mayor Mike was just pulling a Tom Steyer and spending hundreds of millions of dollars to back his azz up into being a total non-factor, his campaign would only be a farce. Instead, it’s managing the rare double-dip of being a tragedy and a farce.

Remember: The Bloomberg campaign initially was pitched as a sort of plan B security blanket to protect the Democrats from Bernie Sanders, should Joe Biden implode. In reality, it has become a significant asset for Sanders.

Let’s look at the numbers.

Bloomberg has spent $650 million of his own money but not ONE RED CENT has gone to targeting Sanders with a contrast message on the airwaves. For perspective, he could’ve dedicated just 10 percent of his budget to Sanders contrast ads and he would have outspent the entire Sanders campaign on TV.

Meanwhile a poll out of Texas shows that his presence in the race single-handedly gives Sanders the opportunity to play spoiler in the biggest Super Tuesday state where Biden has a legitimate chance to win. Meanwhile, in California Bloomberg could keep Biden from hitting the 15 percent vote share in each congressional district that he needs to reach the delegate threshold—the RealClearPolitics polling average has Biden teetering on the brink of the 15 percent Mendoza line. This is exacerbated by the fact that Politico California reporter Carla Marinucci told me last week that Bloomberg’s team has been dedicating resources to “banking” votes early in California in order to blunt the bounce other candidates might get coming out of the early states.

So Bloomberg is actively trying to baffle Biden’s momentum.

As I wrote last week, this is not a trivial time to be playing with fire. If your desired outcome is avoiding a Sanders nomination, then the time to address this in a way that would give Biden a chance to defeat Sanders is before Super Tuesday, not after. Should Sanders win Texas and hold Biden under 15 percent in California, he will build a massive delegate lead that will be very, very difficult to overcome.

The data show that Bloomberg is the single most responsible party for keeping that hypothetical Sanders-rout outcome in play. And yet, he persists in doing nothing about it. WHERE IS THE DATA-DRIVEN TECHNOCRAT THAT I WAS PROMISED?

Bloomberg has the resources and intelligence to see these data and understand that at present his campaign is a suicide mission being flown in service of Sanders. His options? Use his resources to boost Biden in key areas, or attack Sanders, or step aside altogether.

If Bloomberg spends the next 36 hours taking none of those options then he is destined to be standing in an empty ballroom on Tuesday night, turning his negative charisma into a bloodless concession speech, having spent three quarters of a billion dollars to help socialism achieve a hostile takeover of the Democratic party.

Who needs the Marxist revolutionaries when you have capitalist running dogs like this guy?

Maybe Buttigieg took a different path than Bloomberg because he learned the hard way about the benefits that come from accepting an agonizing truth about oneself.

In his 30s Pete came to what he called a “humiliating realization,” as he was deployed to duty in Afghanistan. Because of his unwillingness to come to terms with his truth, he was at risk of dying in a faraway land having never actually known what it was like to be in love. Without ever sharing a comfortable intimate moment with anyone. Without being fully known by anyone.

He could have blamed others for this loneliness. I’m sure that, at times, he did. But in order to move forward, he needed to come to terms with and take responsibility for how he had prevented himself from being able to find real happiness and fulfillment.

So he began a process to remedy that—later than many of his peers, which made the conversations even more uncomfortable than they might have been. First by telling the truth to himself. And then slowly to others. But that wasn’t enough. Because in 2015 he was already mayor of South Bend. While some in his life knew about his sexuality, it wasn’t known to the public, and for this personal progress to be fully realized he would need to summon the courage to come out to everyone.

He fretted about how people would react. Whether it would hurt his political prospects. Whether there would be blowback in the community. Whether he would be embarrassed.

But in the end, what he found was acceptance. After which he finally did fall in love, with a man for whom Buttigieg was a balm for the painful rejections in his own life.

So for Buttigieg, the decision to recognize the shortcomings of his campaign paled in comparison from the personal setbacks he endured to get here.

And from a crass political perspective he’ll likely be rewarded for taking this hard look in the mirror.

Buttigieg found the sweet spot for departure, leaving the race before the losses and the bitterness begins to build, but after historic successes that would’ve been unimaginable even a decade ago. Successes that will be the building blocks for a future career.

From a practical perspective, his departure will almost certainly accrue to the benefit of Biden, who seems poised to take a plurality of Buttigieg’s support. And a big share of the Buttigieg voters who don’t go to Biden are likely to go to Elizabeth Warren, helping to keep her bizarre Sanders-VP-audition/Sanders-spoiler campaign afloat.

What this means is that Buttigieg’s departure is exactly the type of pre-Super Tuesday shake-up that was necessary—though not sufficient—to derail the Sanders freight train.

It is possible that when all is said and done in 2020, Mayor Pete’s gaystoric Iowa triumph, and his selfless boost to Biden, will be two of the inflection points in a race which sees Biden elected president and a modicum of sanity, optimism, and integrity restored to our politics.

But even if that doesn’t come to pass, Buttigieg will be able to say that he did everything in his power to stay in the fight.

And in either case, he can leave the race knowing that he left an indelible mark on the many young Petes out there who are summoning the courage to take responsibility for and find salvation in accepting love in their lives.

Tim Miller

Tim Miller is The Bulwark’s writer-at-large and the author of the best-selling book Why We Did It: A Travelogue from the Republican Road to Hell. He was previously political director for Republican Voters Against Trump and communications director for Jeb Bush 2016.