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OPINION

Bloomberg’s long shot

As Elizabeth Warren put it in last Wednesday’s debate, Bloomberg simply has too much in common with the 73-year-old former Democratic billionaire who now occupies the White House.

Democratic presidential candidate former New York City mayor Mike Bloomberg is shown on a screen during a debate watch party at the candidate's field office last week.
Democratic presidential candidate former New York City mayor Mike Bloomberg is shown on a screen during a debate watch party at the candidate's field office last week.Jeenah Moon/Getty

Contrary to popular belief, money isn’t everything in American politics. In 2016, Hillary Clinton’s campaign spent roughly twice as much as Donald Trump’s. She won the popular vote but lost in the Electoral College.

So the mere fact of former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg’s vast wealth —he’s worth about $64 billion ― by no means guarantees that he will be the 2020 Democratic presidential nominee, much less that he will defeat Trump.

Indeed, being a billionaire may actually be a disadvantage in this year’s Democratic contest. After all, the front-runner in the opinion polls is now the Democratic socialist Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont. The mood among activists seems even more radical this year than in 1972, when George McGovern was the nominee — though he was much more of an anti-war candidate than an anti-capitalist one. Coastal elites, curb your enthusiasm.

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Full disclosure: I have known Bloomberg for many years. I have always admired the way he built the business that made his fortune — and made his name synonymous with its key product (a Bloomberg is to financial data what a Hoover is to household dust). He was a far better mayor of New York than his successor, Bill de Blasio. And the man is good company. His mind is sharp, his wit is caustic.

Bloomberg is nothing if not politically flexible. He has run for office as a Republican, an independent, and now a Democrat. He came very close to entering the presidential contest in 2016 but decided against it for fear of splitting the anti-Trump vote. Trump won anyway. I have long suspected that he bitterly regrets not running four years ago. Last summer, when I asked him, he was adamant that he would not run in 2020 because the only way he could win would be as the Democratic nominee, and that was beyond his reach. Well, something subsequently changed his mind — I suspect the daily spectacle of Trump in the White House. “Loathing” doesn’t quite cover how Bloomberg feels about the 45th president.

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To stand a chance in the Democratic race, Bloomberg has had to move to the left. Although he opposes the Green New Deal as “pie in the sky,” his own climate plan would eliminate all coal-fired power plants by 2030, tighten auto emissions standards so that all new cars are “pollution-free” by 2035, and fund climate-related infrastructure investments. Similarly, although he opposes Medicare for All — because it would “bankrupt us for a very long time” — he has long favored a public option for health insurance.

In 2012, Bloomberg called de Blasio’s plan to raise income taxes on New York City residents making more than $500,000 “about as dumb a policy as I can think of.” But the would-be Democratic nominee now wants to raise the federal corporate tax rate from 21 percent to 28 percent, introduce a 0.1 percent tax on all financial transactions, eliminate the 20 percent deduction for so-called pass-through entities, prevent companies from shifting reported profits to foreign tax havens, restore the highest marginal income tax rate to 39.6 percent, and tax capital gains as ordinary income for individuals earning above $1 million per year. That is a pretty progressive fiscal program. It is only “moderate” by comparison with the plans of Sanders and Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, the other left-wing presidential contender.

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Still, Bloomberg has a mountain to climb. Since the modern Democratic primary system started in 1972, late entrants have never won the nomination. The same goes for candidates who, like Bloomberg, skipped the early contests in Iowa and New Hampshire. Yet Bloomberg’s lavish spending is at least compensating for this disadvantage. Two months after formally announcing his candidacy, he has spent more personal funds on his campaign than any other politician in US history: $409 million and counting, compared with Trump’s $70 million in 2016. At the beginning of last week, polls and prediction markets suddenly catapulted him into second place after Sanders.

Paradoxically, Bloomberg’s strategy depends on the other moderate candidates staying in the race so that by the time of “Super Tuesday” — March 3, when a third of Democratic delegates will be allotted — no one of them has established dominance as the anti-Sanders candidate and all of them have run out of money.

It might just work. All the remaining moderates — Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg, and Amy Klobuchar — have reasons to hang in there. None looks like pulling ahead of the field. And none can compete with Bloomberg when it comes to cash.

So long as Sanders does not collect a majority of delegates by the time of the convention (in Milwaukee in mid-July), Bloomberg can hope that the Democratic party elite will hand it to him, not only to stop Sanders, but also to channel all that lovely money to down-ballot Senate and House races.

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There are two reasons, however, why I don’t expect this to happen. First, “Never Sanders” strongly reminds me of “Never Trump.” In a Wall Street Journal poll released last week, Bloomberg trailed Sanders by 20 percent. Sanders also looks capable of beating Trump in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, the key battleground states. Under the old rules of four years ago, superdelegates could thwart Sanders and nominate Clinton. The new rules make that harder. And I just can’t imagine this Democratic party denying Sanders again for the sake of a 78-year-old former Republican billionaire who lives on Manhattan’s 79th Street.

As Warren put it in last Wednesday’s debate, Bloomberg simply has too much in common with the 73-year-old former Democratic billionaire who used to live on 56th Street but now occupies the White House — including a number of nondisclosure agreements signed by women.

The second reason is simple: that caustic wit of Bloomberg’s — so effective on Wall Street — does not work at all well in the political arena. Mike, seriously: No one outside New York ever says, “What am I, chopped liver?”

In the end, politics — even in the United States — is about more than money. It’s about mass communication. It’s about charisma. And, to judge by Bloomberg’s miserable performance as a punching bag in last week’s debate (watched, unfortunately for him, by a record 19.7 million viewers), those things cannot be bought.

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The brilliant editor of the magazine National Affairs, Yuval Levin, has a new book out, entitled “A Time to Build: From Family and Community to Congress and the Campus, How Recommitting to Our Institutions Can Revive the American Dream.” Ignore the clunky subtitle and read it.

“When we don’t think of our institutions as formative, but as performative,” Levin writes, “when the presidency and Congress are just stages for political performance art, when a university becomes a venue for vain virtue signaling, when journalism is indistinguishable from activism — they become harder to trust. They aren’t really asking for our confidence, just for our attention.”

Sad but true. More than ever, in the Age of Trump, politics is performance art and attention trumps trust. On that basis, the man Trump ridicules as “Mini Mike” simply cannot do this, no matter how much he spends.

Niall Ferguson is the Milbank Family Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.