Do Democrats Really Want an Outsider?

Michael Avenatti attends the Iowa Democratic Wing Ding in Clear Lake, Iowa, August 10, 2018. (KC McGinnis/Reuters)
Avenatti, not Bloomberg, is winning the competition to be the Democrats’ leading 2020 outlier.

After years of equivocation, it looks like Michael Bloomberg is finally serious about running for president. The billionaire former mayor of New York City is making clear that he’s considering a campaign and plans to run as a Democrat rather than an independent.

To demonstrate his intentions, Bloomberg is investing heavily in Democratic candidates in the 2018 midterms, shelling out $80 million to flip control of the House of Representatives. In the past, Bloomberg has used political-action groups he funds and controls to intervene in a host of races where gun control was a key issue. But now his goal is more generally partisan.

Even more important than his campaign donations, Bloomberg has begun a series of public appearances, including a West Coast swing where he denounced the Republican party as wrong on the issues he cares about and morally compromised by the billionaire it nominated and elected in 2016.

Given the nigh-unlimited resources at his command and the respect he has always commanded in the mainstream media — where his stands on guns, global warming, immigration, and campaign finance are viewed as exemplary — Bloomberg’s entry in the 2020 Democratic sweepstakes should be considered a major event. Though he served as mayor of New York City for twelve years, it’s possible for Bloomberg to position himself as a problem-solving outsider who is untainted by the depressing spectacle of Washington gridlock. Most of the other possible contenders are either retreads from past presidential-election cycles, such as Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden, or senators who were auditioning for the anti-Trump “resistance” during the Brett Kavanaugh confirmation hearings. Bloomberg may see an opening for someone with a résumé that mixes business success with experience governing and no connection to the partisan circus on Capitol Hill.

But while Bloomberg and his handlers may have bought into this scenario, there are two problems with it. One concern is that if the Democrats really want an outsider, another possible candidate may be more in touch with liberal sensibilities than the media-mogul-turned-mayor is. The other concern is whether an increasingly left-leaning Democratic party will be ready to accept a candidate with a pro-business attitude, even if it’s offset by liberal stands on social issues.

The second outlier trying to get into the 2020 mix is Michael Avenatti, whose sole claim to fame is his role as the lawyer for Stormy Daniels, the porn star who says President Donald Trump bought her silence about an extramarital affair. That distinction has made Avenatti something of a permanent fixture on CNN and MSNBC.

When Avenatti showed up in Iowa last month, just like the chorus line of Democratic senators with White House ambitions, pundits might have been forgiven for thinking all the publicity he’s gotten had gone to his head. But Avenatti is, as he told CNN last week, “very serious” about running and “getting more serious every week” about leveraging his client’s claims into the impeachment of Trump.

While political professionals dismiss Avenatti’s presidential pretensions, there’s more to this than his newfound celebrity. The lawyer’s pitch goes further than just his advocacy for Trump’s impeachment — which he outlined in no less a forum than the op-ed page of the New York Times. What Avenatti is offering Democrats is an argument similar to the one that Trump’s fans embraced during 2016: It’s time to fight dirty if we want to win the next election. With a Democratic base that believes its Washington representatives haven’t been tough enough on Trump — a sentiment that echoes the complaints of many Republicans about the congressional delegation that failed to stop all of President Obama’s initiatives — that’s a message that many on the left are longing to hear.

Seen from this perspective, the notion of Bloomberg sweeping into the Democratic race on a cloud of money and respectability seems more far-fetched than the idea of a porn star’s lawsuit serving as a platform for a presidential campaign. That’s why Politico Magazine has already anointed Avenatti an early winner in the unofficial race to set the standards by which the Democratic race will be fought. If that is true, even if he never wins a single vote, Avenatti is showing that Bloomberg is on a fool’s errand.

And as the Times pointed out in a feature published this week, Bloomberg’s hopes may also founder on his inability to keep up with the Democrats’ march to the left.

No one can match Bloomberg’s record on gun control, and the ex-mayor’s stands on abortion, the environment, and the nanny-state regulation of sugary drinks are also in step with the Democratic line. But when it comes to other key issues, he will find himself very much on the right of a party that is looking to the left.

New Yorkers may recall his continuance of Rudy Giuliani’s successful fight against crime fondly. But the “stop and frisk” policies that he still defends as having lowered the city’s murder rate are completely out of touch with a party that has wholly embraced the Black Lives Matter narrative of rampant police racism. Just as problematic is Bloomberg’s opposition to breaking up large banks, an idea that Senator Elizabeth Warren thinks can help jumpstart her presidential hopes.

Bloomberg may think that Americans want lower crime rates and prosperity rather than a healthy dose of democratic socialism, and he may be right. But in a Democratic party where Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has become a rock star, sympathy for a billionaire who is sympathetic to big business is likely to be insufficient to fuel a primary campaign.

As for Avenatti, there may be some Democrats who want their own version of Trump, free of the taint of the Washington swamp, to smite the Republicans with ruthlessness. But they are forgetting that the Democrats are the party of government, and big government at that, so the idea of nominating someone who is not part of the governing classes is not plausible.

Yet by helping to set the terms of debate, Avenatti may be doing more than rendering Bloomberg irrelevant. He may also be helping to push the rest of the prospective field toward the political gutter, and toward a hardline pro-impeachment orthodoxy for Democrats.



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