Elections

A Knock Down, Drag Out Fight 

From left: Former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Sen. Bernie Sanders, former Vice President Joe Biden, former South Bend, Ind., mayor Pete Buttigieg, and Sen. Amy Klobuchar on stage prior to the start of the Democratic primary debate in Las Vegas, Nev., February 19, 2020. (David Becker/Reuters)

This is an excerpt from episode 191 of The Editors.

Rich: Jim Geraghty, as of 8:59 p.m. last night, I was ruing having to do this podcast and admit your extraordinary prescience about what would be the trajectory of the Bloomberg campaign, sweeping all before it on Super Tuesday. I know that’s not quite what you said, but you said he’d be a factor, and he is going to be a factor. But this was not a good night for Mike Bloomberg. It revealed him as the Wizard of Oz candidate, who looks fantastic in all the paid social media and the paid TV advertising, and then you get him on the debate stage and he’s a total bumbling non-presence who apparently didn’t prepare, or certainly didn’t prepare for the most important question about the NDAs.

I had a good friend yesterday I was talking to prior to the debate, and he was like, “Bloomberg, this is a billionaire. No one has disagreed with him in his presence for ten years. Are you sure he’s going to be okay in this debate?” I was like, “No, he’s a capable guy. I’m sure he’ll prepare ,and he will be okay.” But he wasn’t.

Jim: No. The first hour of the debate went about as badly as it possibly could for Mike Bloomberg. As you noted, and I wrote in my summary, things got better for him in the second half, but by that point a lot of the damage was done. I was just about to make your point about how when you’re a billionaire, the vast majority of the people you encounter each day either work for you, want to work for you, want a favor from you, want a grant, want a loan, want some sort . . . You are just a giant pile of money to them. And guess what, as a presidential candidate, Michael Bloomberg is just a giant pile of money.

There are a lot of things wrong with his answer on NDAs. The contention that it was just a joke or two that was badly received, come on. I looked it up. He’s been sued by nearly 40 employees . . . I’m sorry, nearly 40 lawsuits and close to 70-some employees. You don’t get that over a bad joke. The stories out of Bloomberg was that this was very much an “old boys club,” a lot of crude comments. I think anybody who’s got even an inkling of pro-life-ism shudders at the anecdote of him telling a pregnant employee, upon hearing that she’s pregnant, “Kill it.” No. To hell with you, Mike Bloomberg.

Mike Bloomberg is a jerk, and there’s a whole bunch of other words, and none of that could be hidden last night. He has the persona of a cold fish. Maybe he’s a very good administrator. Maybe he’s a great manager. Who knows? But he does not like people. There is no warmth from this man.

Now, everything I’ve just said is a major liability in both the primary and the general election. It’s the sort of thing that would be a killer if he didn’t have a couple hundred million dollars in advertising that he can use. By the time his folks have edited the footage from this debate, it’ll look it went fantastic. As long as he doesn’t have to actually interact with people for the rest of this campaign, Bloomberg should be fine.

Rich: Michael, he was better in the second half. I want to stand up and cheer with this scornful attitude towards Bernie Sanders and socialism, calling it Communism. The three houses hit was absolutely great. It’s kind of astonishing that Bernie has been a major figure in our national politics for four years, and no one has really pointed this out in any prominent way previously. That really got under Bernie’s skin. But I’m not sure how those kind of attacks on Bernie land with Democratic voters, enjoyable though they are for me and for us.

Michael: I don’t know that they do land. That will be a moment of the night, and it will be something that I think conservatives look at as almost a preview of what Donald Trump might do to Bernie Sanders in the general election. On the other hand, not to jump too far ahead to Bernie, I thought Bernie gave his best defense of socialism last night, or his best counterpunch, in this campaign or the previous one, where he said, “When Donald Trump gets tons of tax write-offs to start a business, that’s socialism for the rich, or when these companies get bailed out, that’s socialism for the rich. I want socialism for everyone else.”

I thought that is the sort of thing that’s really going to resonate with Democratic voters, and particularly ones in Nevada. I thought that was a good place to have that line because you have a lot of people who basically work in Nevada as working hourly employees at casinos, in food service, even as dealers, etc., and they’re serving an extremely rich clientele. I think that class-war rhetoric can be really effective with them.

Overall, I want to crow that yesterday on The Corner, I said that I thought it was a very bad idea for Bloomberg to show up to this debate because everyone was going to be in mid-season form, and he wouldn’t be, and further, that I don’t think he has any chance of winning Nevada, no matter what he did last night. Making his debut ahead of a Bernie win will make him a guy that’s just another guy Bernie beat, rather than a guy that still has this power that’s mysterious and waiting in the wings in Super Tuesday states.

Rich: Charlie?

Charlie: Well, there’s no answer to the NDA attack except Trump’s, and Bloomberg can’t do that. He can’t do it in the Democratic Party, which is to the Democratic Party’s credit. He can’t do it on a debate stage with other primary candidates. He can’t do it while Amy Klobuchar and Elizabeth Warren are standing there. He can’t say, “No, I don’t care.”

He has to operate within the environment he’s chosen. He can’t get away from it. He can’t answer it. You have to do the Bill Clinton, James Carville line and say, “All of those women are trash,” or the Trump line and say, “I don’t care. It was locker room talk. Stop being so precious.” That is not an option for Mike Bloomberg. This is going to hurt him, and it’s going to haunt him as a result.

I liked it when he attacked Bernie, too, but I think that sometimes you end up lining up with people without actually agreeing with them. Bloomberg seems to hate socialism because it isn’t the conclusion that he’s come to, not because it’s fundamentally illiberal, not because it’s incompatible with a big, free, raucous continental nation in which people have considerably different conceptions of the good life. Now, I don’t think that Mike Bloomberg is opposed to Bernie Sanders saying that there are too many different types of deodorant, too many different types of shoes, so much as Mike Bloomberg probably wouldn’t like Bernie Sanders’s design for the one shoe we would be allowed to have. That ultimately makes him a poor opponent, although it is nice to see someone taking it to Bernie.

Now, I may be overcompensating here because I didn’t see Bloomberg’s rise, and I scoffed at Jim Geraghty when he proposed it. But I do wonder if there is any real connection between what happens in these debates and our politics in general. The New York Post’s headline this morning is “Michael Bloomberg’s Campaign Implodes Onstage in Nevada.” Did it? I guess we’ll see. It’s entirely possible that it didn’t.

It’s entirely possible that the NDA question is immaterial to people except politics watchers. It’s entirely possible that the fact that he comes across badly doesn’t matter. It’s entirely possible, as Jim says, that this will be dwarfed by more ads that edit him into seeming likable and useful. It’s entirely possible that we obsess over these things, but primary voters do not.

I’m slightly amazed, and again, I may be overcompensating because of my own derision early on, but I’m slightly amazed at how quickly the consensus is that Mike Bloomberg is done, he was destroyed, he was owned, he imploded, which is a different thing from saying that, as a professional politics watcher, there was a real disconnect between his ads and his personality, or you weren’t impressed, or here is a liability, or how well did somebody else do. It’s possible that the rumors of his death are exaggerated.

Rich: Yeah, it is quite possible. I was listening to a FiveThirtyEight podcast, and the point they were making is that Bloomberg nationally had gone from like nine to 15 or 16, which is an important threshold, because then you’re above the delegate threshold. Obviously, state-by-state contests, not a national poll, determine these things. Just if he loses ground back to nine, is that an implosion? Is that Michael Bloomberg being utterly destroyed? No, but it would be an enormous blow to his campaign.

Jim, a scenario that seems fairly likely now is both a zombie Biden, who could still eke out a win in South Carolina if you believe the polling, and a zombie Bloomberg, who’s not as great as literally advertised, could just eat into one another and make it impossible for either of them to win these Southern more-moderate states going away, and this all serves the purposes of Bernie Sanders.

Jim: Yeah. I guess it was Monday morning, I looked at the most recent poll in Nevada, or Nevada, I guess . . . People out there seem to complain a lot if you don’t pronounce it the right way . . . that Biden was actually in second place, which would be pretty good for him. It’d be by far his best finish so far. And Biden was still strongly ahead, not by as much as he used to be, but has still a strong lead in South Carolina. I was like, you know, if you look at that, second place in Nevada, first place in South Carolina, South Carolina has the most delegates at stake, almost everybody else was at or under that 15 percent threshold, so it’s conceivable that Biden and Sanders are splitting the delegates from the next two states, that would put Biden in a pretty good spot, maybe even the delegate lead heading into Super Tuesday.

By the way, people have this idea of “Okay, well, the primaries are once a week.” No, Super Tuesday is three days after South Carolina. If you’re not in play, if you don’t have a chance of winning South Carolina, you ought to just skip it. Just go straight to Texas or California or one of these other big states that’s at stake and try to collect as many delegates as you can get, because it’s just not enough time. I just don’t see how, say, Amy Klobuchar has this national structure just form around her in the next two weeks or so. So I looked at that; I was like, “You know what . . .”

Rich: It’s not happening in the future anymore. It’s happening right now. It’s happening within the next week and a half.

Jim: In that case, I was like, “Okay, Biden could have . . .” Now, polling since then in Nevada hasn’t looked as good, and polling in South Carolina looked like Bernie Sanders, of all people, is starting to climb up. If Bernie Sanders wins South Carolina, the world has spun off its axis, and he’s probably unstoppable.

Look, because Bloomberg, literally money is no object to him, he will be in this thing until the end, unless he has some sort of really humiliating finish on Super Tuesday or something. Sanders is in this until the end. He is the leader. It’s going to be Sanders and Bloomberg to the end, and maybe one other candidate. Maybe it’s Biden, maybe it’s somebody else, or maybe it’s just these two guys. I think what’s fascinating is these two guys not only represent the exact opposite sides of the Democratic Party spectrum; I think what was made very clear last night, they don’t like each other at all. Each one represents to the other everything they can’t stand in politics. If you’re not a Democrat, this is glorious. This is gladiators.

Charlie: Neither of them is a Democrat.

Rich: Yeah. If it’s a Bernie–Bloomberg race vying for the right to challenge Trump, you basically have three people who are not really, truly members of their party, right? Bloomberg isn’t really a Democrat. Bernie isn’t. Trump signed up under duress in 2016.

Let’s go to an exit question on Bloomberg to you first, MBD. Letter grade for Michael Bloomberg’s performance at the Nevada debate, A to F?

Michael: C-. He got the good crack off on Bernie. That’s about it. When he said the NDAs were consensual, that was so creepy, and the audience actually groaned. C-, but maybe a D.

Rich: Charlie Cooke?

Charlie: He’s awful, awful, awful. E. Whether it will matter, we’ll see.

Rich: Jim Geraghty?

Jim: First hour is an F, and I really wish it could go lower, second hour is a C- maybe, so it comes out to somewhere in a D- range.

Rich: Yeah, I’d give him a D, too. It’s not as though . . . In the second half, he was better. It wasn’t as though he was great. This is a politician whose strength is not performance. I take Charlie’s point, though, that the same way there’s a lot of stuff to unload on Trump, in 2016, we learned what Republican voters really cared about. We’re going to learn what Democratic voters really care about. I suspect the stop-and-frisk stuff won’t hurt Bloomberg as much, even among African-American voters, as you would think listening to the cable and Twitter debate. But I think the misogyny, I think that is a real problem for him in this race.

MBD, you hit on Bernie a little bit earlier. You were taken with his socialism for the rich riff, but what did you make of his performance generally?

Michael: It was just okay. It was not a performance full of fireworks. Like I said, I thought that was his best answer of the campaign. It was his best answer of the debate, but not much else happened for him, which favors him. A frontrunner who is sitting among people who are knifing each other in front of him, and not attacking him, I think the night worked for Bernie. You come out of this . . . If you tuned in for the first 30 minutes and you saw Bernie and then you will see the headline soon that he won Nevada and it looks like, okay, he’s won three contests in a row now, you think, “Okay, this guy is going to be the nominee.” Maybe I’ll get on board if I’m a Democrat and I don’t like Donald Trump. Nobody put a serious glove on him. I’m sticking with my Bernie sweep prediction for now.

Rich: Charlie, I think there was a glove, the three houses thing, “This is a great country where the most famous socialist is a millionaire and has three houses.”

Michael: That was a good line.

Rich: I think that landed, but again, as we were discussing earlier, I’m not sure how much it landed for Democratic voters. It was probably new information, at least, for most Bernie supporters.

Charlie: Well, Bernie’s answer was poor. It was the one good moment Bloomberg had because he narrated Bernie’s answer in real time, and the timing was perfect. It was almost musical. Bernie’s answer was “Well, I have three houses because Washington, Vermont, and then I, like hundreds of thousands of Vermonters, I have one of those lake camps,” a very unusual and unfortunate word for a socialist to use.

I don’t think that matters, though, because if you look at what Bernie said and you look at how Bernie said it, there’s no connection. It’s just like Trump, where you would look at the transcript of what Trump said during a debate and you’d tear your hair out. It was absolute nonsense, it was evasive, it was ignorant, but the way that he just dismissed everyone else on the stage during those Republican primary debates worked. Bernie’s got that down. He’s got this way of just saying, “No, this is all nonsense. This is all silliness. This is all Washington. This is all entertainment. I don’t want to talk about that. I want to talk about the thing I always talk about.” Every answer with Bernie is the same. Every answer has always been the same.

Unfortunately, I think it works. I think it works partly because the details of the policy proposals that are being debated, or at least that are ostensibly being debated, matters a lot less than we think it does. What people want is an attitude. They want a promise of a willingness to fight. Look at how that worked for Trump.

I think that was a glove. I think it does make Bernie ridiculous objectively. But if you watch it with the sound off, Bernie wins the exchange. If you don’t listen to what he’s saying, Bernie wins the exchange. If you look at his body language, Bernie wins the exchange, because in a similar way to Trump, he’s got this “Don’t bore me with all of your canned attacks. Don’t bore me with all of your Washington silliness” down to a T, and I just see him going from strength to strength if he can keep doing that.

Rich: Jim Geraghty, what did you think, and how likely do you think it would be if Bernie makes it with a plurality of delegates, doesn’t get a majority? This was a key question at the end, where everyone on the stage was like, “Let the superdelegates decide in that case,” and Bernie was like, “Nope, the guy with the most delegates and the most votes should be the nominee.”

Jim: Yeah. If somebody doesn’t have more delegates than Bernie Sanders heading into Milwaukee, he’s almost certainly the nominee. If there’s some sort of maneuver with the superdelegates to try to create some unity ticket out of Bloomberg–Klobuchar or picking two other candidates and try to placate everyone with that, the Bernie Bros will probably burn down the city of Milwaukee. I exaggerate slightly, but there will be furious rage amongst the Sanders supporters, and a legitimate argument if he goes in with the most delegates.

They feel like he got screwed in 2016. The Democratic National Committee clearly was playing favorites. Now they have a situation in which he could actually go into Milwaukee having effectively won. You have the Iowa caucuses screw-up. There is this narrative of “the Democratic establishment figures out ways to cheat every single time” that the Bernie Bros completely believe. As we keep seeing and as the Culinary Union learned, these are not nice people. These are not easygoing, understanding, empathetic people who want to do what’s best for the party and want to do what’s best for the country. They are out for vengeance against the world.

Charlie: But, Jim, they’re right—

Jim: They’re right, yeah.

Charlie: . . . on this narrow question, aren’t they? The debate last night did indeed feature one person saying, “The person who wins the plurality should get the nomination,” and everyone else saying, “No.” We know why that is. That’s because the Democratic Party, despite its professed opposition to, say, the Electoral College, despite its pretense at favoring democracy as defined as whatever 50 percent of the population plus one voter wants, is planning to take it away from Bernie if he enters a contested convention with no majority but a plurality. Aren’t the Bernie Bros, whatever you want to call them, aren’t they right about this?

Jim: If the Washington Post’s slogan is “Democracy Dies in Darkness,” then democracy can also get strangled by complicated voting systems. I think Iowa demonstrated that. Most people go, “Hey, the person who gets the most votes should win,” and the Democrats argue that in every other context, including in ways that violate the Constitution. Bernie supporters have no idea, walk around with a wildly exaggerated sense of his own electability, subscribe to this theory that he’s going to dramatically expand the size of the electorate, a big expansion of new voters that didn’t show up in Iowa and didn’t really show up in New Hampshire either, and the ones that did didn’t vote for Bernie, all kinds of . . . Frontline Democrats in swing districts think that they could lose the House. The rest of the Democratic Party has real reasons to fear a Bernie Sanders nomination—

Charlie: No, I agree with that, but that’s an argument you would make as a conservative.

Jim: Yeah, Bernie folks don’t see that. Bernie folks refuse to believe that.

Charlie: Sure. But, Jim, sorry, aren’t they right, though, to be angry about this? Because I agree with everything you just said. I would abolish primaries and have smoke-filled rooms. I think the way we do it is sort of equivalent to asking people to vote on what Apple puts out for sale. You’re adding an unnecessary step. But the Democratic Party doesn’t believe that. I don’t think the Bernie Bros are unrealistically or unfairly angry at the idea that if their candidate gets more votes than everyone else, the Democratic Party won’t promise to give him the nomination. I think they’re right, especially given what the Democratic Party says it believes.

Jim: You are correct that they have every reason to be angry, but that anger is based upon a complete misreading of the state of the electorate. It’s not simply “Oh, we think Bernie is a giant hypocrite with his three houses and stuff.” Democrats don’t like Bernie Sanders because they think not only could he lose, he could lose on something akin to a McGovern-type scale—

Charlie: Then don’t hold a primary.

Jim: Well, that’s not an irrational fear, and the Bernie Bros are acting like the rest of the party is being wildly, crazily irrational for not wanting to nominate—

Charlie: No, I think they’re acting as if the party is wildly hypocritical to run a nominating convention with democratic aspects and then to refuse to promise upfront that the person who wins it will be the nominee.

Michael: Right. They have the sense that the rules change, that if Pete Buttigieg came in as the delegate leader with just a plurality, but not a nominating majority, that the convention would just nominate him because they feel safer with his . . . I think the difference is that Bernie supporters believe they’re being discriminated against because they have anti-elite politics that threaten powerful people in the Democratic Party, as well, whereas a Pete Buttigieg or even an Elizabeth Warren aren’t really threatening in any way to well-connected, well-funded, well-off Democrats, and so the rules will change.

I have a lot of sympathy for the Bernie supporters. I almost want to even point out that the fact that we’re talking about Bernie Bros, that was brought up last night. The moderators brought up this idea of “Bernie Sanders and your toxic online supporters,” and Pete Buttigieg hit him. I just think no one who doesn’t live on Twitter knows about this phenomenon.

Rich: Yes. It’s completely ridiculous. I can’t believe it’s supposedly a serious issue in a nominating contest.

Michael: It’s utterly insane, but it’s the sort of thing that the New York Times will run three stories on and that they’ll bring up because the political class is addicted to Twitter. By the way, almost everyone’s supporters are nasty jerks on Twitter. I thought that was really ridiculous, and I thought Bernie made . . . One thing I want to ding Bernie on, he made a mistake even acknowledging that this is an issue. He should’ve just defended his guys and said, “We have passionate supporters and passionate people, lose the run of themselves sometimes, but we’re passionate because we believe in something bigger than the other candidates on this stage.”

Rich: Jim Geraghty, exit question to you. Letter grade for Bernie Sanders’s performance in the Nevada debate, A to F?

Jim: B. He walked in the frontrunner, he left the frontrunner. That’s fine. I just want to bring up something. Michael, have you ever been attacked by vicious, nasty Amy Klobuchar supporters? Is there such a thing as—

Rich: Have you ever encountered an Amy Klobuchar supporter?

Michael: That’s exactly the thing, is I haven’t encountered—

Jim: Do you want to know how James O’Keefe finds the Bernie Sanders supporters who are openly supportive of violent terrorism and want to overthrow people and kill people in the name of their ideology? He shows up with a camera and talks to people. Bernie Sanders brings up . . . I would say one of these days, one of these Bernie Sanders supporters is going to show up with a gun and try to kill a lot of Republican congressmen, except that already happened.

Charlie: Yeah, I’m with Jim on this.

Michael: Okay, that’s true, although—

Charlie: Bernie Sanders is a Communist—

Michael: . . . that guy was not a Bernie Bro in the sense of being a Twitter guy, was he? He was just a Bernie—

Jim: It was just a Bernie fad.

Charlie: But Jim is right, Michael. Come on, Jim is right here. There is a material difference—

Michael: I have heard of stories of Amy Klobuchar supporters, extremely close ones, getting hit by binders.

Rich: Charlie Cooke, letter grade for Bernie Sanders?

Charlie: Yeah, it’s a B, exactly what Jim said. He came in the frontrunner, he left the frontrunner. He seems to have a quality about him that you see in other people who win nominations and possibly presidencies, although I think it’s probably unlikely here, in that he’s made of some material that prompts attacks to bounce off.

Rich: MBD?

Michael: B+.

Rich: I’m a B. He’s usually not great in these debates. I thought he was really good in, I think it was the New Hampshire debate. But he’s always forceful. He’s always clear. He’s always consistent. Charlie is getting to this quality. He’s never wrong-footed, which goes to this ideological self-confidence that he has. He’s got a step on the rest of the field, and it’s not clear how that’s not going to be true two weeks from now after a bunch of delegates have been allocated after Super Tuesday.

Members of the National Review editorial and operational teams are included under the umbrella “NR Staff.”

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