Bernie’s Dream Rival

Mike Bloomberg speaks in Des Moines, Iowa, August 10, 2019. (Gage Skidmore)
Sanders would relish a fight against Mike Bloomberg.

Fast-forward the political calendar about three weeks and picture this scenario: Joe Biden’s had too many bad finishes to salvage his campaign, Amy Klobuchar never caught fire the way she needed to get delegates, and Pete Buttigieg never figured out a way to win over African Americans. The progressive wing of the Democratic Party is drifting away from Elizabeth Warren, unifying behind Bernie Sanders. As Super Tuesday approaches, the Democratic establishment turns its lonely eyes to Mike Bloomberg.

Sanders would be licking his chops in that scenario. Bloomberg undoubtedly brings his own strengths to the nomination fight, but he also embodies everything that Sanders wants to run against, everything that the Vermont senator has spent his career arguing against and vilifying. Mike Bloomberg is the primary opponent of Bernie Sanders’s dreams.

Right off the bat, Bloomberg nullifies a bunch of the Vermont senator’s weak points. The two men were born six months apart (Sanders is older), so the age issue is moot. Both men are Jewish, from the Northeast, and neither one has done gangbusters among African Americans in their past campaigns for office. There’s no point in dwelling on Warren’s claim of Sanders’s sexism when the alternative is the boss who, upon learning that an employee was pregnant, allegedly told her, “kill it.” Sanders filed papers to run as a Democrat for the first time in 2015; Bloomberg was elected mayor of New York City as a Republican and didn’t change his party registration back to Democrat until 2018.

Sanders is already rolling out his arguments against Bloomberg, and you don’t have to be a wide-eyed socialist to find something uncomfortable about the way the Manhattan billionaire decided to skip the first four contests, skip all of the debates until next month, and simply rise to the top tier on an unprecedented tsunami of advertising:

He’s part of the problem. Look, Bloomberg, anybody else in America, has the right to run for president. But I think, in a democracy, you do not have the right to buy the presidency.

It really is absurd that we have a guy who is prepared to spend — already — many hundreds of millions of dollars on TV ads. . . . Meanwhile, he did not do what all of the other Democratic candidates do. He wasn’t holding town meetings in Iowa, or New Hampshire, or Nevada, or South Carolina. Those were not important enough for him. He could simply buy the election with hundreds of millions of dollars of ads. That is wrong. That is the basic, fundamental problem of American society — is that billionaires have extraordinary wealth and power over the economic and political life of this country.

Say whatever you want about Donald Trump, but as a new presidential candidate in 2016, he participated in all the GOP primary debates, and he competed in all of the contests.

In the entire 2016 campaign, Donald Trump spent $531 million. By some estimates, Bloomberg may spend $500 million by the end of February.

Sanders will ask Democrats if they really believe their party’s nomination should be for sale, and he can fairly argue that if Bloomberg had spent only $5 million so far, no one would be discussing him as a serious contender for the nomination.

Bloomberg isn’t just a billionaire; he is, by some measures, the eighth-richest man in America. At one point he owned 14 properties of various levels of lavishness, including three Hamptons estates simultaneously. He considers himself a climate-change activist, but he has a personal fleet of private jets and helicopters. Everything about Bloomberg screams “Manhattan elite.” He co-hosted lavish parties with Harvey Weinstein. He says of his girlfriend, “We’ve only been living together for 19 years.”

Bloomberg doesn’t practice what he preaches; the man who crusaded to ban large sodas and trans fats “dumps salt on almost everything, even saltine crackers. He devours burnt bacon and peanut butter sandwiches. He has a weakness for hot dogs, cheeseburgers, and fried chicken, washing them down with a glass of merlot. And his snack of choice? Cheez-Its.” His ego is simply Trumpian, declaring, “I am telling you if there is a God, when I get to heaven, I’m not stopping to be interviewed. I am heading straight in. I have earned my place in heaven. It’s not even close.”

Like many wealthy people, he is capable of casual obliviousness to the financial realities of ordinary Americans. In his autobiography, Bloomberg wrote about the time he was fired from Salomon Brothers — with only a $10 million severance. “I went to a furrier on Third Avenue and ordered a sable jacket for my wife, Sue. . . . I was worried that Sue might be ashamed of my new, less visible status and concerned I couldn’t support the family. A sable jacket seemed to say, ‘No sweat. We can still eat. We’re still players.’” Thankfully, he didn’t starve with only the $10 million payout.

People don’t tell billionaires “no” often, and while any mayor of New York City has to develop a thick skin, there are some stories that suggest Bloomberg can get short-tempered and prickly. In 2008, the New York Times noted that once the mayor stopped needing favors from people, his temper flared more openly: “Suddenly, as he enters the twilight of his term, he is openly dressing down commissioners, taking obvious shots at officials who disagree with him and invoking the royal ‘we’ while refusing to answer questions whose topics or phrasing he finds distasteful.”

In 2009, Clyde Haberman of the Times recounted Bloomberg “publicly belittling” and “scowling long and hard” at a disabled reporter who had accidentally interrupted a press conference.

Bloomberg doesn’t know much about parts of the country he hasn’t visited, describing Colorado Springs and Pueblo as “a part of Colorado where I don’t think there’s roads” — and he doesn’t care to know. After he described his preferred method to reduce crime among minority youths as “throw them up against the wall and frisk them” at an Aspen Institute event, he made organizers take down the video.

Democrats see themselves as the party of the poor and middle class, the party of minorities, and the party of women. Bloomberg’s record offers land mines for all of these groups. Just wait until the Trump campaign learns about the 1990 pamphlet, The Portable Bloomberg: The Wit and Wisdom of Michael Bloomberg, where the future mayor is quoted as saying, “I know for a fact that any self-respecting woman who walks past a construction site, doesn’t get a whistle, will turn around and walk past again and again until she does get one,” “If women wanted to be appreciated for their brains, they’d go to the library instead of to Bloomingdale’s,” and calling a woman a “horsey-faced lesbian.” My, what a contrast with Donald Trump!

In other words, there’s a lot of evidence that Bloomberg is something of an entitled jerk. Upon discovering the pamphlet way back in 2001, Michael Wolff wrote that voters shouldn’t be surprised to learn that the “bottom-line, my-way-or-the-highway charismatic CEO is as likely to be the most emotionally stunted, attention-craving, socially maladroit, casually cruel, spectacular boor in the room.”

By contrast, a lot of Democrats (and even some Republicans) who don’t necessarily agree with Bernie Sanders think he’s principled, consistent, and sort of amiably cantankerous. He knows socialism is controversial and wears the label anyway because it’s what he actually believes.

Bloomberg has never really needed to out-argue his opponents because he could always outspend them. He spent $99 per vote in his first bid for mayor, $112 per vote in his second bid, and a jaw-dropping $174 per vote in his third bid.

Bernie Sanders would attempt a form of political jujitsu, turning every Bloomberg ad into another shameless attempt to buy support that could not otherwise be earned. He would turn Bloomberg’s towering strength — a money bin to rival Scrooge McDuck’s — into a giant symbol of everything Democrats can’t stand about politics and the current state of the country.

As a candidate, what is Mike Bloomberg without his personal fortune? Nothing.

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