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Can Bloomberg Save Democrats from a Hostile (Socialist) Takeover?

The Dems' red day of reckoning is here. Mayor Mike wants to save the party.
February 24, 2020
Can Bloomberg Save Democrats from a Hostile (Socialist) Takeover?
DETROIT, MI - FEBRUARY 04: Democratic presidential candidate former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg holds a campaign rally on February 4, 2020 in Detroit, Michigan. Bloomberg is planning to skip the early primaries and focus his efforts on Super Tuesday and beyond. (Photo by Bill Pugliano/Getty Images)

In Nevada, as in Iowa and New Hampshire, the only winner besides Bernie Sanders was chaos.

The racially homogenous contests in Iowa and New Hampshire suggested that Sanders was a suspect front runner: a factional candidate with a fervent but finite following—barely capable besting the leader of a fractured field of moderates, Pete Buttigieg, possessed of minimal appeal to minorities. Fretful Democrats saw no one to believe in.

But, like God, Michael Bloomberg could inspire hope without showing up in person. Such is the power of infinite resources. So instead of being seen as an imperious billionaire who blew off the early contests, he became the messiah-in-waiting for anti-Sanders Democrats desperate to defeat Donald Trump.

Among those most worried about Sanders, Nevada—30 percent Latino and 10 percent black, with a substantial populace of union members—accelerated anxiety to near-panic.

Its somewhat perverse reallocation of first ballot preferences allowed Sanders to further consolidate the party’s left, eviscerating Elizabeth Warren and dramatically enhancing Sander’s ultimate margin. But Nevada’s diverse demographics reversed the prior dynamics among the moderate also-rans—humbling Buttigieg and drubbing that hothouse flower of two weeks past, Amy Klobuchar—while giving Joe Biden the distant second place he needed simply to survive. As a result Sanders’ swollen plurality made him the unchallenged front-runner, leaving Biden and Buttigieg to squabble in the dust over their illusory status as Bernie’s principal challenger.

But Nevada also failed to cement a potential element in Sander’s electoral ceiling: a widespread national unease over his insistence on Medicare-for-All. In Nevada a principal opponent of this one-size fits-all proposal was Nevada’s most politically powerful union, the Culinary Workers, whose leaders want to preserve the robust healthcare benefits it has fought to obtain.

This issue alone, union leadership made clear, precluded an endorsement to Sanders—a stance generated venom and threats from his most rabid supporters.Their response was dumb as well as thuggish: the union is a putative turnout machine, and its endorsement might have helped Biden against Sanders.

But Biden arrived in Nevada too wounded for the union to bet on. So Democrats were left with a Sanders victory more decisive than it might have been, and a scrum of moderates further shrunken in stature.

So what of Bloomberg?

Before last week’s debate in Las Vegas, only a fraction of Americans had seen Bloomberg live. His debut was singularly unprepossessing. His new playmates savaged him as an insular and insensitive plutocrat bent on purchasing his adopted party; to a startling degree he stepped on obvious landmines involving race and gender. This stunning lack of preparation belied the capable, can-do figure portrayed in his ubiquitous commercials.

But no one among his moderate rivals truly prospered. Warren excelled by landing blows on all save Sanders. Biden was steady but uninspiring, a living afterthought. Buttigieg’s preternatural poise was dissipated in his spat with Klobuchar who, in turn, showed flashes of the Bad Boss who scarifies her staff. All this fractiousness prefigured the moderate debacle in Nevada and – most important – underscores Bloomberg’s opportunity lost.

He must do much better—and fast. As in Tuesday night’s debate.

But for this anxious moment, at least, the hopes for his candidacy may transcend an absence of stage presence or the vicissitudes of a single debate. This is a function of the billions his opponents so bitterly decry; restive Democrats shrinking from Sanders and praying for a winner have yet to see anyone who can muster the shock and awe unique to Michael Bloomberg. No truer words were ever spoken than the tagline for his ubiquitous commercials: “Mike will get it done.”

His resources are inexhaustible: He can spend more on the primaries than has ever been lavished on a general election—and by multiples. He need not choose between a robust nationwide field operation, an advertising juggernaut, or a social media omnipresence. Put another way: Mike can do it all.

After New Hampshire, he expanded his staff to over 2,000, doubled his gargantuan ad buy to more than $300 million, and blanketed the airwaves in 27 states. His goal is simple and audacious: Become Sanders’ principal challenger on a single day: March 3, Super Tuesday.

That date—not any one debate—is Bloomberg’s Armageddon.

By nightfall on March 3, 14 states will have chosen one-third of all delegates to the convention, a total of 1,357. The major prizes are California (415) and Texas (228). But there are primaries in every region: the East (Vermont and Massachusetts); the South (Virginia, Alabama, Tennessee, Arkansas, and Oklahoma); the Midwest (Minnesota); and the West (Colorado and Utah. Never mind that this is Bloomberg’s debut on any presidential ballot. For Bloomberg, Super Tuesday is make or break: Somehow he must stall Sanders while surpassing his moderate rivals.

So far Sanders leads in Texas and, by a lot, in California. But Bloomberg is climbing in recent polls, and saturation advertising gives him an edge among early voters in both states. Overall, March 3 is when we will learn whether Bloomberg’s unparalleled investment harvests votes.

But Bloomberg alone can also afford to build out for the long haul: an unrivaled campaign infrastructure to propel him through the grinding marathon of the primaries to the convention in Milwaukee and, should he manage to emerge as the nominee, to November 2020. And the near term of the longer-haul concludes with a cluster of primaries on March 10 and 17—after which nearly 62 percent of all delegates will be claimed.

As of now he’s risen to either second or third, behind Sanders, in national polls. A recent Morning Consult survey showed him running second only to Sanders as the candidate Democrats deem most likely to beat Trump. In Florida (which votes on March 17) he currently leads the field—ahead among Hispanics, whites, men and women, and trailing only Biden among African-Americans. And he is prepared like no one save Sanders for the bitter trench warfare which could lead to a contested convention.

In the meanwhile, Bloomberg’s campaign has plugged funding sources for those rivals who depend on big donors: Biden, Buttigieg, and Klobuchar. By quietly urging donors to contribute to the DNC or progressive groups, rather than candidates, his strategists enhance the power of Bloomberg’s billions. The tactic also has a certain rarified appeal. As Bloomberg supporter told the New York Times: “I can’t tell you the pleasure of having someone call me and ask, ‘Who are the important people in the community?’ and not have to think, ‘Who can give money?'”

Bloomberg has his own, and knows what to do with it. In 2018 he invested $110 million in 24 House races in very tough districts. Democrats won 21 of them. The implications for November cannot be dismissed.

A centerpiece of this nakedly pragmatic appeal is that Bloomberg alone has the resources to overwhelm Trump’s ruthless and lavishly-funded social media campaign. By mid-February, NBC reports, his campaign was spending $1 million a day on Facebook alone—five times more than Trump. Remarkably, Bloomberg has the wherewithal to crowd Trump out of cyberspace.

On Twitter, Bloomberg is so ubiquitous that he makes Trump even more crazy than usual. When Trump mocked him, Bloomberg tweeted back: “[W]e know many of the same people in NY. Behind your back they laugh at you & and call you a carnival-barking clown. They know you inherited a fortune & and squandered it with stupid deals and incompetence.”

One should deplore the enveloping devolution of our civic dialogue. But only Bloomberg can torment Trump where it hurts him the most. That’s because Bloomberg is what Trump only pretends to be—a self-made billionaire who enjoys widespread respect. And, better yet, Trump knows it. After three years of watching Trump bully helpless victims for sport, one cannot help but savor his own public humiliation.

But there’s a more serious point to this. Alone among Democrats, Bloomberg has the platform and biography to expose Trump as a Potemkin mogul. Many voters don’t know that Trump’s pose as a business tycoon is a long–running fraud—and a recent study of persuadable voters cited by Vox indicates that the truth matters.

Not least to Trump himself. If running against Trump rewards an unusual degree of psychological warfare—and Trump’s pathology suggests that it does—Bloomberg could crack his tottering edifice of self.

That’s why worried Democrats have envisioned Bloomberg’s public persona as the best answer to Trump: an irrefutably accomplished man who built a business empire, ran America’s toughest city, and gave away billions while Trump immersed his phony charities in the art of self-dealing. One tea leaf of note: A recent Gallup poll of small business owners, a backstop for Trump, gives Bloomberg the edge—making him unique in his party.

For many anti-Bernie Democrats, Iowa, New Hampshire, and Nevada exposed the existing field of moderates as fractured and feeble, making Sanders a fatally-flawed frontrunner by default who would repel voters needed to carry crucial battleground states. But invoking Bloomberg as their last, best hope creates a risk of its own: that stopping Sanders with a self-funding billionaire who personifies his pungent indictments of plutocratic power—no doubt provoking an attenuated and corrosive contest driven by money—will trigger a mass exodus of maddened Bernie supporters.

The very prospect underscores a principal plaint among Bloomberg’s rivals: that far from a savior, he’s an over-privileged spoiler whose entrance will seal Sanders’ success by splitting the moderate vote. But that vote is already split. Neither Buttigieg nor Klobuchar have broad-based candidacies: one recent poll put their support among African-Americans at, respectively, four percent and zero percent. And Biden, whose notional coalition is broader, is evanescing.

Bloomberg had nothing to do with their failures. The very pregnant issue is whether he can convert his huge financial advantage into a popular candidacy which transcends demographic lines. Here the Washington Post quotes a voter who may speak for many. “I love his ads,” she said of Bloomberg. “My vote is for sale.”

Which, his competitors insist so vociferously, is exactly the problem—the 12th-richest man in the world has set out to purchase our presidency. Typical is Elizabeth Warren: “Are we going to be an America where you’ve got to be a billionaire or suck up to billionaires to become the party’s nominee?”

A fair question. But the second clause in that sentence captures a big part of why our political campaigns are so corrupting.

Even Sanders and Warren accept support from Super-PACs, the powerful groups which can spend unlimited amounts of “dark money” from unknown sources. And the “suck up” part describes much of what Biden, Buttigieg, and Klobuchar have been compelled to do.

Serious scholarly research has exposed the direct link between wealthy donors and public policy outcomes. Citizens United, and the advent of Super-PACs, put this purchasing power on steroids. That won’t change unless we can reform our system of campaign finance. Which, until further notice, will require a future Democratic president—even, say, Michael Bloomberg—to create a new Supreme Court majority.

In the meanwhile, is Bloomberg’s wealth reason to enough to reject him? After all, if it’s a truism to say that Bloomberg owes no one, it is, nonetheless, true. Unlike candidates who depend on scurvy bundlers and shadowy Super-PACs, we certainly know who’s funding his campaign. Indeed the fact that he refuses donations from anyone else makes him a veritable model of transparency. And given that Trump will lie, cheat, steal, and encourage foreign interference to win in November—as he did in 2016—one can argue that only Bloomberg has the resources to combat his dirtiest tricks.

Here one makes rough judgments. Some of our most fondly-remembered presidents were wealthy: TR, FDR, JFK. By contrast, Richard Nixon’s modest background was matched by his exceedingly modest ethical sense.

No president’s ethical sense is more modest than Trump’s. A staunch opponent of Bloomberg’s, Robert Reich, puts it thusly: “If the only way we can get rid of the sociopathic tyrant named Trump is with an oligarch named Bloomberg, we will have to choose the oligarch. Yet I hope it doesn’t come to that.”

He’s free to hope. But, just in case, we should start by examining Bloomberg’s stance on the issue Sanders and the competitors he’s leaving in the dust all cite as terminally disqualifying: his place at the apex of the top 0.1 percent.

Take Bloomberg’s 2019 address to the graduates of that bastion of capitalism, the Harvard Business School. Notably, he starts by sounding a bit like Elizabeth Warren:

Today Americans … see the rewards of the economy increasingly concentrated at the top. They see wealthy parents scamming the college admissions process. They see families unable to afford healthcare and housing in the world’s richest country. They see decades of discrimination based on race and ethnicity trapping another generation into poverty…

What’s needed, he continues, is to revive our spirit of reform:

For example, a century ago, Teddy Roosevelt took on the largest corporations that were destroying competition. Twenty-five years later, Franklin D Roosevelt’s New Deal provided relief from a Great Depression…

For their leadership, TR and FDR were reviled by many in business world—and considered traitors to their class. But their actions preserved the integrity of markets—by restoring people’s faith in them.

It is imperative, Bloomberg then argues, to apply these lessons to the present:

Now, I am as much of a capitalist as you will ever find, but anyone who believes that unfettered capitalism works hasn’t read history.

Today, we hear echoes of the challenges the Roosevelts faced. Industry consolidation has reached record levels, and is suppressing competition and choice. And more and more Americans—especially in your generation—are questioning whether capitalism is capable of creating a just society. Their faith in America… is being shaken.

If we do not act to restore it, the turmoil in our politics today will be only a prelude of what’s to come, and that could shake the very foundations of our society.

Does this analysis make him Elizabeth Warren? Hardly. But it is as much or more—and said with more authority—than his moderate rivals have ever ventured.

Nor is this a rhetorical abstraction. As the New York Times reported last week, Bloomberg announced an “ambitious” plan to tax financial transactions and tighten restrictions on risky banking practices. The Times elaborated: “Perhaps the most surprising proposal, given the billionaire’s close personal ties to Wall Street movers and shakers, is a plan for the Justice Department to create a dedicated team to fight corporate crime by ‘encouraging prosecutors to pursue individuals, not only corporations, for infractions.'”

Similarly, David Leonhardt reported that “his approach to higher education is arguably the most progressive of any candidate”—free tuition at public colleges for students in the bottom 50 percent; living expenses covered for the bottom 25 percent; tuition-free community college for all. For working Americans, Bloomberg would increase the minimum wage to $15, provide affordable childcare and paid family leave, and guarantee the right of all workers to collectively organize and bargain.

His tax reform proposals equal or exceed those of other moderate contenders: all told, their substantial tax increases on corporations and the wealthy would increase tax revenues by $5 trillion over a decade—50 percent more than Biden. Bloomberg makes healthcare a seminal issue—proposing a public option while focusing on Trump’s efforts to repeal the protections of Obamacare, rather than the theological differences among Democrats.

On other key issues, his consanguinity with mainstream Democrats compounds. He has long been a national leader on gun control, and his program for reducing violence is strikingly aggressive. On immigration he would protect Dreamers, provide a pathway to citizenship, revoke the travel ban, and substantially raise refugee resettlement. His massive infrastructure investments include comprehensive upgrades to our transportation system and assuring safe drinking water. On the environment, as on many other fronts, among the Democratic contenders only Sanders and Warren outflank him to the left.

As his first debate so mercilessly exemplified, Bloomberg’s gravest problems reside not in the present, but in his own contentious past. Given the tsunami of opposition research and media commentary, not to mention the ostentatious outrage of his rivals, by now only the comatose could have missed them: policies and pronouncements which cut to core of our most incendiary issues—race and gender.

Of these, the most damaging involve the police practice of “stop and frisk”—arbitrarily searching random people in minority neighborhoods for weapons or drugs—which was pervasive during Bloomberg’s three terms as mayor. In 2013 a federal court held its systematic use to be an unconstitutional “policy of indirect racial profiling.” Not so indirect: of the 4.4 million stops between 2004 and 2012, the Washington Post reports, African-Americans comprised 52 percent and Latinos 31 percent. Roughly 90 percent of those stopped were innocent of any offenses.

In theory, “stop and frisk” was intended to reduce violence. In practice, it was insidious. But in a 2015 speech at the Aspen Institute, Bloomberg was notably unrepentant:

Ninety-five percent [of] … murderers and murder victims fit one MO. You can just take the description, Xerox it, and pass it out to all the cops. They are male, minorities, 16 to 25.… And the way you get the guns out of the kids’ hands is to throw them up against the walls and frisk them.

“Throw them up against the wall.” Michelle Norris recently repeated in the Washington Post. “This is where the world cleaves into different camps. For some people, those are just words. For others, they speak to a very real fear or a very real memory of being thrown against a building, splayed across the hood of a police car or forced to kneel on the pavement, hands clasped behind their head.”

On the cusp of his presidential campaign, Bloomberg apologized to the congregation of an African-American church for his policy and his words. “I was wrong,” he concluded, “and I’m sorry.” Last week he apologized yet again to another black audience, pledging that “I am committed to using the power of the presidency to fight the wrongs of institutional racism.”

Among African-American commentators, the reaction was decidedly mixed. Some advised Bloomberg to fully engage with the experiences of the black community, and to firmly advance policies to combat discriminatory law enforcement. Others were having none of it: one essentially depicted the many black elected officials who support Bloomberg as sellouts. Perhaps the most straightforward but nuanced commentary, from John McWhorter in the Atlantic, is worth quoting at length:

Claims that the statements are”’racist” are exaggerated, illustrating how heedlessly overextended certain Americans’ usage of that word has become… Bloomberg’s justifications for concentrating on black and Latino neighborhoods are sound. Those areas suffered from a disproportionate amount of crime for reasons beyond most residents’ control. As a matter of crime-fighting, primly assigning just as many cops to the Upper East Side and Kips Bay would have been insane.

The problem was that the policy morphed into an onslaught on millions of innocent people for no real reason . . . and nothing more ringingly seals the coffin on the web of justifications than that homicides are down 43 percent in New York City since the policy was all but abandoned.

Meanwhile a whole generation of young black men grew up thinking of the cops as their enemy. . . . Those who wonder why black people can’t just “get past” race tend to miss how central the cops are to a sense that the nation is united against black people… Bloomberg’s stop-and-frisk policy baldly nurtured exactly this kind of hostility.

Nonetheless, McWhorter opposes reflexively rejecting Bloomberg’s candidacy:

Yet black America needs Bloomberg neither to have had a perfect past on race nor to “get it” 100 percent today—and neither does the rest of America. What black Americans want by overwhelming margins is for a moral and intelligent candidate to replace Donald Trump, and fetishizing wokeness above all other concerns may be antithetical that paramount goal.

Bloomberg . . . arguably has a better chance of ousting Trump then does Bernie Sanders, a growly 78-year-old man of socialist label who recently had a heart attack. . . . What rationality would there be in allowing grievances over stop-and-frisk to ease Trump’s quest for second term. Who is afraid, for example, that Bloomberg would try and reimpose unduly punitive policies like that on black people now? . . .

Bloomberg has apologized again—and the truth is, there is no way for him to do so in a fashion that would reveal to us the actual contours of his heart. Especially if this man can dislodge Trump, a president whom most Americans of color abhor, the apology should be enough.

The question of what lens to apply also pertains to a 12-year-old video in which Bloomberg seemingly blames the 2008 financial crisis, at least in part, on liberalized federal lending policies which facilitated homeownership in previously “redlined” minority neighborhoods. It’s a complicated subject: At the least, Bloomberg’s casual observation omitted the principal malefactors—the venal investment bankers who packaged subprime mortgages to make unseemly profits, plunging our economy into a chasm unseen since the Great Depression

So how should one view this in the present? Here’s Warren: “A video just came out yesterday in which Michael Bloomberg is saying, in effect, that the 2008 financial crisis was caused because the banks weren’t permitted to discriminate against black and brown people… And anyone who thinks that should not be the leader of our party.”

Still, more neutral observers might want to look further at Bloomberg’s overall record on race. For example, as mayor Bloomberg initiated a far-reaching $130 million program—including $30 million of his own—to help black and Latino youth by creating accessible job recruitment centers, reducing recidivism, assessing academic progress, and creating paid internships to help them afford job-training programs. His affordable housing program was the nation’s largest, building or preserving 175,000 units.

As president, Bloomberg proposes to revitalize the Voting Rights Act; end gerrymandering; create 100,000 new black-owned businesses in ten years; and invest $70 billion in disadvantaged neighborhoods. With specific reference to substandard living spaces—the subject of Warren’s censure—Bloomberg aims to spur a million new black homeowners; provide minorities with down payment assistance and improved access to credit; enforce fair lending laws; and increase the supply of affordable housing.

Numerous black elected officials—notably mayors who worked with Bloomberg—endorse his candidacy. But, in the end, his fate rests with minority voters: He cannot surpass Sanders, or his moderate rivals, without garnering substantial non- white support. At this moment he is succeeding: a recent Quinnipiac poll placed him second only to Biden, 27 percent to 22 percent, among African-American voters.

In his initial debate, Bloomberg failed to repel his rivals’ accusations of racial insensitivity. This makes it imperative for him—assuming that he has the capacity—to address these charges in human terms accessible to all who need hear him. But if he can retain and expand his support among Democrats of color, he will have succeeded where Buttigieg and Klobuchar have thus far failed.

Another withering blast from Bloomberg’s past are copious accusations of noxious sexist remarks which, in their frequency, created a culture of misogyny at Bloomberg’s company—spawning multiple lawsuits. One need not believe every allegation to know that the problem was real and recurring; indeed, says the Bloomberg campaign, “Mike openly admits that his words have not always aligned his values.”

In a party vigilant about women’s issues, this is a serious problem. In debate, Warren weaponized one lowlight to devastating effect: Some legal settlements are covered by nondisclosure agreements which Bloomberg onstage refused to abrogate—a decision he has now reversed. What seems inescapably true is that the toxic masculinity which permeated Wall Street in the ’70’s helped skew Bloomberg’s sensibilities well into middle-age.

Mercifully, the accusations against Bloomberg do not include overt sexual misconduct. And Bloomberg’s history also includes his generous support of Planned Parenthood; his elevation of women to top positions at City Hall; his two-decade relationship with Diana Taylor, a woman of considerable accomplishment and independence; and his credible promise that, as president, he will champion women’s rights.

Here, again, the electorate will decide. Among the relevant questions are where to rank Bloomberg’s past conduct in the pantheon of other pertinent behaviors: Biden’s unsolicited invasion of female spaces; Sanders’ summarily-written rape fantasy from long ago; Klobuchar’s copiously-reported gender-neutral abuse of numerous staffers—and, of course, Trump’s unmatched record of sexual predation. In this reckoning only Warren and Buttigieg emerge unscathed.

In the meanwhile, the moderates’ train wreck accelerates. Come Saturday, the South Carolina primary will likely make this worse. One more-than-possible scenario is that Biden wins, but barely; Sanders obscures Biden’s unimpressive “victory” by doing better than expected; Tom Steyer takes votes to no purpose; Warren hits the wall; and Buttigieg and Klobuchar lose all credibility as antidotes to Sanders.

In any scenario akin to this, going into Super Tuesday the moderates will be electorally and financially enfeebled; Sanders will have moved closer to the nomination for lack of a single strong opponent; and, as a result, the Democrats will continue to proceed on autopilot toward a likely defeat in November.

So, the despite his disheartening drubbing in debate, do the Democrats still need Michael Bloomberg to dispel the darkness of Trump?

We will learn soon enough if billions begets ballots, and whether Bloomberg is more concept that contender. But the collective potential of the moderate vote in key battleground states suggests that the Democrats can win only with a candidate who can rally the base, but also appeals to the mainstream liberals, independents, alienated Republicans, and suburban women who delivered the House to Nancy Pelosi in 2018. That’s not Bernie Sanders.

No doubt Michael Bloomberg is an imperfect candidate who, to a fault, has too often personified a privileged man of his generation—brusque, insensitive, disinclined to introspection, and more analytic then emotive. But starting with Tuesday’s debate he can yet introduce voters in person to his better self: smart, tough, generous, and generally progressive, a man who has run a complex city and tackled difficult public policy challenges—and ,most of all, is possessed of the resources and resolve to beat the pathologically destructive president and his relentless disinformation machine.

For Democrats and anti-Trumpers alike, this primary season poses hard choices. But if you had to bet the country, who would you choose?

Richard North Patterson

Richard North Patterson is a lawyer, political commentator and best-selling novelist. He is a former chairman of Common Cause and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.