photo by Gage Skidmore
Michael Bloomberg took a shellacking at last week’s Democratic primary debate, to borrow a term from the former president whose mantle the New York mogul wants to borrow – or buy.
Despite winning three terms as New York City’s mayor, Bloomberg has never been a politician. New York politicians claw their way up in the clubhouses and steak houses where the state’s power is brokered, or by positioning themselves as “reformers,” even though nothing ever really gets reformed. That is how mayors like Ed Koch and David Dinkins made their way to City Hall.
Occasionally, fame in another sphere provides a shortcut. Rudy Giuliani made a name for himself as a U.S. attorney who took on mobsters and shady financiers at the courthouse in Foley Square. After first losing to Dinkins, Giuliani used that fame to win the mayor’s office in the 1990s, immediately before Bloomberg.
Mayor Mike is cut from very different cloth. He is a businessman, a boss, a CEO. El Jefe. (Bloomberg’s passing acquaintance with the Spanish language, and his willingness to use it despite sounding like somebody’s annoying dad, earns him that title.) About 40 years ago he devised a data terminal that every major player in the financial industry came to consider indispensable, even at exorbitant monthly subscription rates. Bloomberg L.P. was thus able to provide him a personal fortune estimated at around $60 billion even while employing nearly 20,000 people.
Of course Bloomberg fared poorly in his first presidential debate. He has no opportunity to practice, because nobody debates the boss. When the boss issues pronouncements and commands, everyone compliments his acumen and rushes to comply, or at least to appear to comply. His minions keep their disagreements quiet. The mantra “don’t bite the hand that feeds you” guides their approach. I have it on unimpeachable authority that the cafeteria at Bloomberg’s offices is exceptional.
Since belatedly deciding to run for president, Bloomberg has used his money to carpet-bomb the nation’s airways and social media feeds. He skipped the primaries and caucuses of the first four states, including the Nevada caucus this past weekend. Instead, he is concentrating on amassing delegates in the more populous constituencies that will begin voting on Super Tuesday, just eight days from now. He only made it to the debate stage in Las Vegas at the last minute, when his ad campaign boosted his standing in enough polls to meet criteria that were recently changed to accommodate Bloomberg’s self-funded campaign. Every other candidate at every previous debate this season has had to accumulate a predetermined number of donors. Bloomberg got his ticket even though his only donor is himself.
Besides underwriting more than $400 million in advertising thus far, Bloomberg’s fortune has undoubtedly bought him some of the best political advice on the market. But he is either ignoring good advice or getting a lot less than he is paying for.
I knew he was in trouble even before the debate began. Bloomberg, through a hired army of social media monitors, has been sniping with President Trump on Twitter. He clearly failed to absorb the lesson that Sen. Marco Rubio learned after trying the same name-calling strategy during the Republican primaries in 2016: If you wrestle a pig in the mud and make it a popularity contest, the pig will win. Every. Single. Time. Twitter is the president’s favorite hog wallow. Jumping into it with him is a dumb move.
What happens when a man accustomed to being everybody’s meal ticket climbs onto a stage with five experienced politicians who see him as a threat to their own ambitions? It took very little time before Sen. Elizabeth Warren verbally filleted him. “I’d like to talk about who we’re running against – a billionaire who calls women ‘fat broads’ and ‘horse-faced lesbians.’ And no, I’m not talking about Donald Trump. I’m talking about Mayor Bloomberg.”
It never got much better for the lone billionaire on that stage. When they were not skewering one another, Bloomberg’s rivals directed fire at him for his mayoral administration’s stop-and-frisk orgy, which almost exclusively targeted minorities, and for allegations of sexual harassment at his company and the accompanying settlements he has reached under nondisclosure agreements. Bloomberg and his advisors must have known these attacks were coming. Nonetheless, he appeared almost defenseless. With each unmet attack, he looked less like the savior who, his advertisements claim, can drag the incumbent out of the mud pit and hog-tie him at the ballot box in November.
Bloomberg may not be wrong in believing that none of the other Democrats stand a good chance against Trump. But the conclusion that his billions could buy a victory in the Electoral College does not follow. Hillary Clinton did not lose because she was underfunded. She lost because she wasn’t prepared to understand and counter the Trump political zeitgeist.
Just watch the crowd that is watching someone mud wrestling a pig. In any contest, a lot of people will side with the pig.