Right now billionaire businessman and former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg is the phantom of the Democratic primary. Bloomberg is hiding behind more than $350 million of innovative advertising, at least 55 endorsements from current or past Democratic elected officials, and, yes, his many billions.
Let me get this out of the way. My favorite Bloomberg line so far? Someone asked him if the nation wanted “two billionaires” fighting it out on Twitter. “Who’s the second one?” he deadpanned. I do believe he can get under Donald Trump’s skin, and in fact he already has.
But I do not like the idea of two wealthy New Yorkers shoving aside other contenders to duke it out at a plutocracy mud-wrestle. And I know that’s why some of the Democratic faithful are incensed that the Democratic National Committee changed its rules to allow Bloomberg to participate in future debates without meeting its prior thresholds for individual donors—rules it wouldn’t change for Senator Cory Booker or former HUD secretary Julián Castro.
Sometimes-Democrat Michael Moore went all in against the rules change in Iowa 10 days ago:
You had to show you had a certain number of Americans that would give you a buck, that’s all the rule said, to show you have support. And that’s how they determine who would be on the debate stage. Today they removed that rule because [of] Mike Bloomberg, the billionaire, the Republican Mayor of New York City.
I get the anger. Billionaires shouldn’t buy their way onto a debate stage, though Tom Steyer has manipulated the existing rules to do so. But Democratic voters need to see Bloomberg jousting with the other Democratic candidates, and answering for his mixed record in business and politics, yesterday.
Bloomberg’s ads make a strong case. He and his creative team have a keen eye for Donald Trump’s vulnerabilities. “Bring Presidential Back,” an ad contrasting the soaring rhetoric (however phony) of presidents going back to John F. Kennedy with Trump’s many grotesqueries, landed a better punch than any of the current Democratic candidates’ efforts combined, I’m sad to say. In New York, where I live, we mainly see ads that make it seem like he’s been endorsed by President Obama, with footage from events at which the popular former Democratic president sang Bloomberg’s praises on a variety of issues.
The truth is, Bloomberg has put an admirable amount of his enormous fortune behind issues like gun safety and the climate crisis, and there is a long list of Democratic officeholders, including Obama, who are grateful (though Obama hasn’t endorsed anyone yet). On Wednesday Bloomberg was able to tout endorsements from 2018 star Lucy McBath of suburban Atlanta (a former Moms Demand Action leader who got support from Bloomberg, as well as the organizations he funds) and New York Representative Gregory Meeks, both of whom are African American. An ad backing Bloomberg from anti-poverty leader Geoffrey Canada, founder of the Harlem Children’s Zone, has hit the airwaves in many states.
These endorsements have rolled in despite the fact that on Monday, disturbing 2015 video surfaced of Bloomberg defending his stop-and-frisk policies with racist language:
Ninety-five percent of murders—murderers and murder victims—fit one M.O. You can just take the description, Xerox it, and pass it out to all the cops. They are male, minorities, 16–25…. Put those cops where the crime is, which means in minority neighborhoods.
Take it from me: There is more like that.
But I’m not here to slam Bloomberg, and I certainly won’t slam McBath, who lost her son Jordan Davis to a gun-loving racist who asked him to turn down his music; McBath became a Moms Demand activist in the face of that crushing loss. The fact is, Bloomberg has supported a decent number of good Democrats, as well as important causes. Arguing about why this or that Democrat supported him misses the big picture.
Here’s the big picture: We don’t know yet whether Bloomberg can win a single primary. I am agnostic here. I didn’t live in New York when he was mayor; I know progressives who loathe him, but a few who at least respect him. People are utterly panicked by the notion that the Democrats are in proverbial “disarray.” Coincidentally, I went to an event for McBath in New York this weekend (I did not interview her) where I met several progressives who had supported Senators Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and Kamala Harris and who confided that they were taking a serious look at Bloomberg.
So yes, let’s look at Bloomberg.
Let’s look at his many, many defenses of “stop and frisk,” though he has now apologized, multiple times—since he began running for president. Let’s look at the record of his business, where women have complained of a hostile work environment. He’s on record saying, “If women wanted to be appreciated for their brains, they’d go to the library instead of to Bloomingdale’s,” according to The New York Times. He once pitched his hallmark business terminals as machines that “do everything,” apparently including “blowjobs,” adding, “I guess that puts a lot of you girls out of business.” He won’t release women who’ve sued his company from secrecy agreements they made in exchange for settlements, saying, “They’re legal agreements, and for all I know the other side wouldn’t want to get out of it.” (Of course, if he wanted to liberate the women, he could talk to them. Or have one of his more than 1,000 campaign staffers do so.)
Bloomberg has defended his friend the former CBS and PBS star Charlie Rose from documented accusations of sexual harassment. “You know, is it true?” he asked. “You look at people that say it is, but we have a system where you have—presumption of innocence is the basis of it.”
I attended an Emily’s List event where the group, which I support, came under fire for having Bloomberg as a speaker, given his then-recent #MeToo skepticism. A chastened Bloomberg took the stage. “Thanks to so many women who have courageously spoken out, the #MeToo movement has shone a spotlight on sexual assault, abuse, and harassment that, disgracefully, society has tolerated for a very long time,” he said.
Just before he announced his run for president, a spokesman apologized. “Mike has come to see that some of what he has said is disrespectful and wrong. He believes his words have not always aligned with his values and the way he has led his life.” I should also say Bloomberg is staunchly pro-choice and has also put his money there.
But Bloomberg hasn’t only had disturbing views on gender and pushed harmful policies on race. Even before he jumped into the Democratic race, he attacked Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren for their progressive tax policies, taking special aim at Warren’s wealth tax, which he said “just doesn’t work,” insinuating that she pursued the policy just “to be mean.”
The base of the party has shifted to support Sanders’s and Warren’s ideas on tax hikes, free college, and even (in some polls) Medicare for All. I’d like to see Bloomberg explain why he’s right, and so many Democratic voters, whose support he needs, are wrong.
And there’s more: Bloomberg supported George W. Bush against John Kerry in 2004. In 2008, he blamed the mortgage crisis on the end of “redlining,” the discriminatory practice of banks declaring poor and mostly minority neighborhoods ineligible for lending. As recently as 2014 Bloomberg supported Michigan’s GOP Governor Rick Snyder, who is hugely responsible for the toxic water crisis in Flint.
I respect quite a few of the elected officials who back Bloomberg now. The vulnerable 2018 House incumbents who back Bloomberg are terrified that the Democratic primary could result in either party infighting or an unelectable candidate. And there are party leaders who think everyone, from Sanders and Warren on the left, to moderate flavors of the month Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar, are all unelectable. I’m sorry I left out former vice president Joe Biden there; his collapse paved the way for Bloomberg, and it gives me no pleasure to say that I believe his campaign is dead.
So it’s time for Bloomberg to come out of hiding and face his fellow Democratic candidates and the media. He cannot win without presenting a compelling case for his candidacy beyond great ads. Democrats need to know the man, and they need to see him in action, defending or abandoning his past policies, explaining where and why he’s changed his mind, and showing why he’s the man for this moment.
I confess, I’d love to have his billions against Donald Trump. But I’d prefer a massive voter movement to defeat the incumbent. If Bloomberg can do both, more power to him. If he can’t, the sooner we know, the better.