Many Americans, especially those not in the grip of Trumpist delirium, are desperate for a way out. They want a savior. Having witnessed the way that Trump thrust himself to centerstage in 2016, seizing his party and the White House, and proceeding to make a travesty of public life, it is tempting to desire a similarly mercurial agent of Deliverance, a veritable deus ex machina.
Enter Mike Bloomberg, billionaire tycoon, former Republican mayor of New York City, master of social media, sincere adherent of some liberal causes (gun control, environmentalism) and sincere partisan of the new Gilded Age capitalism, and — did I forget to mention it? — mega-billionaire.
Can Bloomberg outspend Trump? Surely.
Can he outsmart Trump in a head-to-head debate? Surely.
Can he out-bully Trump? Yes.
Excellent. The November election as Celebrity Death Match. If it comes to this, heaven forefend, I choose Bloomberg in a heartbeat. There is even a chance he might win the election, though not as great a chance as pundits are saying.
Can Bloomberg beat Trump in a head-to-head, Mano-a-Mano contest?
Can Oprah beat Trump? Or LeBron? Or Taylor Swift, perhaps running with Beyonce? Or Billie Eilish, running with Drake or Patrick Mahones? Perhaps.
But here’s the problem: however much American public life has come to resemble a combination of American Idol and the Jerry Springer Show, the political system remains an electoral democracy, however frail and debased. And in order to become President, you must win an election (as mediated of course by the arcane and insane rules of the Electoral College). And, for a variety of reasons, in order to win a Presidential election, you need to have a political party. Indeed, you need to run as the candidate of one of the two major parties of our long-standing two-party system. And this involves much more than a debate followed by a poll. It involves prevailing in that party’s very contentious nominating process, claiming credible leadership of that party, and then mobilizing that party’s officeholders, activists, and followers to win the election.
Michael Bloomberg knows this. This is why he has declared himself a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination. The Republican party belongs to Trump. And an independent candidacy can’t win. So Bloomberg, who has done not a single real campaign event, is now the aspiring leader of the Democrats. Just like that. Like all people, he surely has mixed motives. One is the desire to humiliate Trump by proving who is the true financial titan. A second is surely to do whatever he thinks he can do to forestall a progressive Democratic nominee, whether this be the recently-failing Elizabeth Warren, or the surging Bernie Sanders. And a third is no doubt his sincere desire to defeat Trump in the name of the things he most cares about, which include gun control and environmental regulation but also fiscal restraint, the privileged position of business, and a political elite that does not become too “radical.”
Bloomberg promises celebrity, tons of money combined with media savvy and power, and a kind of “moderation” that might appeal to “swing voters.” The promises are real. They might be tempting to some. But they are poison, and if he succeeds in his effort, it will be a disaster for the Democratic party and will present great risks to the political effort to defeat Trump and Trumpism.
There are two main reasons why, and they are obviously related.
The first is simple: Bloomberg is not a Democrat, and his political record is anathema to even the most vaguely defined Democratic agenda. It’s true, he was a Republican mayor of New York, a social liberal far from the positions of a Jefferson Beauregard Sessions or Lindsey Graham (it is true that Giuliani was also such a mayor, and that in many ways Giuliani and Bloomberg come from the same swamp, as does Trump himself). But he was a Republican mayor nonetheless, and the positions he supported as the chief executive of the most important city in the country were conservative positions. We are now being treated to an outpouring of revelations, or mere reminders, regarding his views on “stop and frisk,” aka/police brutality (good), redlining (not so bad), “fight for $15” minimum wage laws (bad, until two days ago), redistributive tax policy (very bad, until maybe yesterday), and capitalism in general (fantastic). In the era of #MeToo he has a terrible record of sexism. And at a moment when House Democrats have staked their future on policies promoting greater fairness and democracy, Bloomberg only recently declared that “Xi is not a dictator.”
These are terrible positions for anyone claiming leadership of the Democratic party to have. Indeed, they make a mockery of the powerful and serious debates that have been going on within the party in recent years, debates to which tens of thousands of activists have devoted much time and energy.
And this leads to the second reason why his candidacy is a disaster for the Democrats: because it can have no other consequence than the exacerbation of differences within the party, most especially the alienation of substantial numbers of women voters (precisely the ones activating the 2018 Blue Wave) and African-American voters, and more importantly the humiliation — beyond alienation — of the mainly young voters and activists who have taken up the banner of Bernie Sanders since 2016, and have thrust Sanders to the very forefront of the primary contest and the party. This group does not deserve a “veto power” in any simple sense — no group does. But it clearly comprises a highly mobilized constituency that articulates real issues and represents an important part of the future of the Democratic party as a party — if it is to have a future.
Bloomberg is not Buttigieg, or Klobuchar, or even Biden — all “centrist” Democrats in a party that has moved significantly to the left since 2016, all current or former Democratic office-holders who hover around a platform of universal access to health care, a $15 minimum wage, labor rights, expanded social services, and ambitious environmental regulations. Bloomberg is a Republican of the kind that existed before Trump — which is why he so strongly supported George W. Bush in 2004, why he supported Republican Scott Brown in his Senate race against Elizabeth Warren, and why he has supported many Republican candidates in recent years — even if he officially “left” the party in 2007. While Bloomberg supported Obama in 2012, and gave a powerful anti-Trump speech at the 2016 Democratic convention, he has done nothing to build the Democratic party or contribute in any way to its long-term election infrastructure. His philanthropy, however laudable, has no bearing on this matter, nor does his promise to staff a big data-mining and social media campaign through November, in support of whoever becomes the Democratic nominee. Bloomberg’s political efforts represent a one-shot effort to influence the 2020 election, and nothing more. Centered on his priorities and on his persona, they have no institutional depth, even if he is able to fund some centrist down ballot candidates. (Those who are enthusiastic about Bloomberg’s promises to revolutionize Democratic social media might wish to re-read Micah Sifry’s 2017 New Republic piece, “Obama’s Lost Army,” about how Obama’s much more seriously political effort in 2008 ultimately faded away because it had no depth). Furthermore, Bloomberg’s presence in the race is an utter affront to everyone in the party who has worked to build it, and especially to those activist groups — Indivisible, MoveOn, Justice Democrats, etc. — who have played such an important role in the anti-Trump political mobilization. Finally, at a time when inequality is a central political theme, Bloomberg epitomizes a politics centered on money and nothing but money.
Here Bloomberg stands in stark contrast with Bernie Sanders.
Last week I published a piece on why I thought it was a huge mistake for Sanders supporters to celebrate the disarray of the Democratic party. I argued that it is essential now not to abandon “the Democratic center” but to defend it while shifting it to the left, and I pointed out that the Sanders campaign poses great risks, because of the extent to which it is powered by activists and rhetorical frames that are hostile to “the center” and “the Democratic establishment”; because it does not inspire confidence in large numbers of down-ballot Democrats; and because it stakes out a position that is in danger of being red-baited into defeat. I stand by these observations. But all candidacies have strengths and weaknesses, and all pose risks, which is why it is foolish for anyone to claim at this moment that they know who can prevail. And Bloomberg is a much riskier nominee than Sanders for this simple reason: while Sanders is an “outsider,” an Independent who is being energized by forces, like Democratic Socialists of America, which are not committed in principle to the Democratic party, Sanders has for all intents and purposes committed himself to the Democratic party. He caucuses with the party and votes with it. In 2016 and in 2020 he ran in the party’s primary for the party’s nomination. In 2016 he supported Clinton in the general election (whatever might be said of his differences with Clinton, the notion that he didn’t campaign for her is a canard), in 2018 he campaigned furiously for progressive Democrats across the country (I saw this first-hand), and now he has been very outspoken about his commitment to working hard for the Democratic nominee, whoever it is. There is no reason to doubt this.
Most importantly, Sanders has played an important role in inspiring and supporting a cohort of young, savvy, activist Congressional Democrats such as AOC, Rashida Tlaib, and Ilhan Omar, and has the support of other important progressive House Democrats, such as Ro Khanna and Pramila Jayapal, who represent a very important element of the Democratic party moving forward. Some of these figures might be “insurgent” Democrats (since when is this necessarily a bad thing?). But they are Democrats, committed to growing their wing of the party, and thus growing the party. They are a political force. They might be a minority now. Many Sanders enthusiasts might exaggerate their political importance or their ability to mobilize voters beyond their base. But they are contributing to the growth and change of the Democratic party. And the Sanders campaign is for them both an inspiration and a vehicle of mobilization and party development.
A Bloomberg nomination would contemptuously destroy this.
Instead of continuing a healthy policy debate within the party between “centrists” and “leftists,” it would short-circuit this debate, close out its leading protagonists, and throw a damper on efforts to build the party and mobilize new voters.
Could Bloomberg succeed? The answer must be yes. It is possible that his Redeemer posture will appeal to increasingly large numbers of Democratic primary voters, including perhaps some African-American voters, as strange and dispiriting as this might seem. It is possible that he can do well enough on Super Tuesday and beyond to force a convention battle, and that he can persuade other Democratic elites to support him at the convention in Milwaukee.
If this happens — and it could — I will reluctantly support him, because I believe that Trump must be defeated. But many African-American activists will not support him. And much of the Sanders base will not support him, even if Sanders himself goes so far as to actively work for the billionaire who stands for everything he opposes.
Can Bloomberg win without these constituencies? Maybe. He surely has the money, and probably the savvy, to run the best media campaign in history.
Can he win without large segments of the Democratic party? This is an exceptionally and exceptionally dangerous political moment, perhaps unprecedented, and perhaps he can win — though I would not bet on it.
But whether or not Bloomberg can win this way, it is hard to see how the Democratic party can win.
The only way for Mike Bloomberg to become president is for him to destroy the Democratic party and whatever future promise might be attached to this party.
If he wins, it will signal the end of even the appearance of real partisan competition, and the beginning of an era of a politics of sheer personality driven by billionaires and their teams of tech savvy social media influencers. It is hard to see how this is good for governance or democracy or anything else beyond morbid entertainment.
The defeat of Trump, and of Trumpism, requires a real political mobilization capable of sustaining a real agenda of governing. Bloomberg promises nothing but money and noblesse oblige. His nomination would be a disaster.
Jeff Issac is James H. Rudy Professor of Political Science at Indiana University, Bloomington.