‘I’ll take the Uber and vote for someone else.” It’s the 21st-century analogue to “You can lead a horse to water . . .” and it’s the problem vexing the Michael Bloomberg campaign. Especially in primary season, people vote out of love. Barack Obama didn’t have to guess for whom all the people his vans picked up in minority neighborhoods and brought to the polls would vote, but Mike Bloomberg has no clue whether offering voters an open bar, catered meals, and ultimately maybe even an Uber to the polls, as his aide Howard Wolfson hinted it might in the quotation above, will even make them fall in like. At a typically insane Bloomberg rally on February 4 across from Liberty Hall in Philadelphia, there was a groovy Pink Floyd–style light show, booze for the asking, and free T-shirts. There was a buffet and a rap act. There was everything a politician’s money can buy, except attack ads and maybe voters. Sure, 2,000 people turned up, but how many of them were there to get a snootful and a full meal? I’ve seen the expensively educated stampede into a New York City book party on a promise of not-quite-cold Chardonnay and a passed bag of Funyuns. Bloomberg did everything but spray a money cannon at the Philadelphia crowd. He’s been issuing his staffers iPhones and free MacBook Pros and three meals a day and paying them double what other campaigns offered. But can he sell himself? How many will just take the goodies and pass on the candidate?
Bloomberg’s best pitch is this: Attention, citizens, he will say in his broad, nasal voice, do you think the country is in a state of chaos? Then flash a giant dollar sign in the air like a Bat Signal. That devil-may-care billionaire–turned–Gotham fighter of crime will swoop down from an unseen aerie and . . . quietly sit down in his voguish open-plan office and efficiently tap away at the national keyboard. Vote Mike, he will type in the correct country-straightening-out commands. That was how he operated as mayor of New York City from 2002 to 20133, anyway. Obesity is a problem? Clackity-clack, large sodas, trans fats, and smoking are banned, and a new bike path for every commute. Don’t like gun violence? Snickety-snick, Bloomy will buy another gun-control commercial. Maybe he can even control-alt-escape us from climate change. At least he doesn’t seem like he wants to abandon capitalism to do all this.
Who are his base, though? Upon whom will Bloomberg build his movement? A Politico story citing in its headline “Buyer’s Remorse” for the Napoleon of East 79th Street led with this image: “A corporate attorney and his gynecologist wife rolled up soundlessly in their silver Tesla to canvass for Mike Bloomberg.” In Charlotte, they “joined a group of roughly a dozen people, about half of whom were paid campaign staff.”
“Tesla Owners and Paid Staff for Bloomberg”? It could be worse, I guess. “Coronavirus infectees and Harvey Weinstein for Mike”? “IRS employees and the guy who banged the trash can for the Houston Astros for Mike”?
Super Tuesday was Bloomberg’s first appearance on state ballots, but he may have peaked before he got in the game. As the votes were being counted, he looked set to emerge with a modest number of delegates, having won only American Samoa. The anti–Bernie Sanders vote appeared to be consolidating around Joe Biden, not Bloomberg. Maybe being a Democrat-turned-Republican-turned-Independent-turned-Democrat who brags about all the black men he had thrown up against the wall as mayor isn’t the way to win this season. Or maybe Bloomberg’s problems go deeper than that. Exit polls taken in South Carolina on Saturday showed him with a 66 percent disapproval rating, against 26 percent approval. A 66 percent disapproval? LSU probably polls better than that in the Palmetto State. People seem not to like Bloomberg, not after they’ve seen him live in person instead of in canned ads.
Bloomberg presents as an experienced manager with all the right progressive bona fides on gun control and climate change. In the first six weeks of this year he shot up in polls. A mid-February survey showed him leading the pack (by one point) in Florida. On Valentine’s Day betting markets put him in a strong second place, less than five points behind Bernie Sanders, for the Democratic nomination. Bloomberg was starting to cultivate some social-media swagger, pantsing Donald Trump on Twitter by informing POTUS that all of their plutocrat mutual friends had always laughed at Donald behind his back (are they still laughing, though?) and winning chuckles at rallies with his favorite one-liner: “People ask what it’ll be like to have two billionaires in the race. I say who’s the other one?”
This Bloomberg must have intrigued Dems: Instead of a sorrowful nod and a meek little plea that “this is not who we are,” Bloomberg promised to punch Trump in the giblets. Unlike the frail and distant Biden, who is so confused that last month he said, “My name’s Joe Biden. I’m a Democratic candidate for the United States Senate,” Bloomberg speaks from an unassailable height: atop Mount Money. With a net worth of over $60 billion, he could buy 20 Trumps and have a few billion left over for lunch money. Indeed, Bloomberg’s fortune is accumulating at such a rate ($107 million a day, according to the Washington Post) that he could blow $5 billion on this campaign and be richer at the end of this year than he was at the start of it. Last week there emerged an exception to his policy of supporting the eventual nominee, though: Bernie. Sanders’s campaign said it wasn’t interested in Bloomberg’s money (“hard pass”), and Bloomberg said he saw no point in writing checks no one would cash. In the event that Sanders prevails in the primary, though, would Bloomberg be happy to sit out the general election? Would he really prefer a socialist who says billionaires are the fons et origo of American iniquity over his old golfing buddy Trump? Maybe. Certainly Bloomberg appears likely to be a major financial backer of Joe Biden, should he be the nominee.
February 19 looks like the most important day in this race so far. Bloomberg didn’t just lose the Las Vegas debate, he got his posterior first skewered, then handed to him on a platter, like a piece of chicken satay at one of his rallies. America can handle a leader—don’t we know it!—whose past includes a few lawsuits and some politically incorrect jokes. What we simply cannot have is a cringing little dillweed who makes Charlie Brown look macho. If your brand is Ninth Richest Man on Earth, that brand cannot withstand a public arse-whipping from a tiny faculty nerd who looks like she shops at Kohl’s. Inept, awkward, hunted, haunted, and most of all, small, were the adjectives that came to mind in Bloomberg’s first debate in eleven years, the debacle that was watched by 20 million Americans, more than any of the previous Democratic fora. Bloomberg should have done what Trump does—return Elizabeth Warren’s attacks in kind. He should have put political correctness—which poll after poll shows even Democrats broadly hate—on trial and said, Yes, I was part of a culture in which guys used to make tasteless jokes. So what? “Relax, Elizabeth. Move on. The country’s at stake.”
If you’re apologizing, you’re losing. Trump understands this, and the press understands it too, which is why it is always trying to make him say he’s sorry. Bloomberg fell for it. In Las Vegas he did nothing but apologize, cringe, and blanch. He needed to come off as the new whale in the water. Instead Warren turned shark. Bloomberg got exsanguinated as grotesquely as Robert Shaw when he got bisected at the end of Jaws. Most embarrassing of all, Warren appeared taller than Bloomberg. America can learn to love a heel but cannot abide a sniveler, a loser, a wimp. In North Carolina, voters “were excited about Bloomberg,” chemist turned activist Carolyn Eberly told Politico. “But I think the debate in Nevada just kind of killed all that. At least that’s what I’ve heard locally.”
It seemed nearly superfluous on February 29, when Trump himself kicked Mini Mike around at the Conservative Political Action Conference, crouching down to Bloombergian level and doing a priceless impression of The Incredible Shrinking Mayor at the Vegas debate: “Get me off of the stage!,” Trump imagined Bloomberg crying. At the same appearance, Trump said, “I’d like to spend $700 million and end up with nothing.” Bloomberg’s actual “spend” is already north of $500 million. Bloomberg spent even more, per capita, in his three mayoral contests. In the third one, he spent $102 million, which turned out to be $174 per vote, and still won only 51 percent against a sacrificial lamb (a milquetoast named Bill Thompson) he had outspent by 14 to 1. Mayors are limited to two terms, per two referenda, but Bloomberg managed to get an exception passed for him, meaning the thing that people most fear about Trump—that he’ll discover some extralegal way to stay in office past prescribed limits—is actually true of Bloomberg.
“Anti-charisma” is a phrase that keeps popping up in Bloomberg stories. Here is a guy who has a knack for not having the knack. As mayor he used to zip off on a private plane to Bermuda for the weekend without informing anyone in city government. Did New Yorkers have a right to know roughly where their mayor was?, reporters asked. Nah, said Bloomberg. Bloomberg has the emotional I.Q. of one of his eponymous data machines. “Don’t ever take a lunch break or go to the bathroom, you keep working,” Bloomberg said in 2011, as if all outputs could be controlled with a keystroke. In 1999, he said that if he let women have flexibility in their schedules to allow for family commitments, he’d have to give men time off to play golf. Even his employees, staffers, and supporters can barely muster a kind word for him. “The thing about Mike is he actually isn’t that interesting,” an ex-employee told New York. “The first time I met him, he started complaining about some soup he got that didn’t taste right. I just met the guy, and he was, like, complaining about his sweet-and-sour soup.” He’s old, Jewish, immensely rich, and running a campaign about nothing—Larry David is not just a perfect Bernie Sanders, he could be Bloomberg too.
In TV commercials, Bloomberg was Master of the Universe. Behind the electronic curtain, though, he’s a dull, hapless little man—the Wizard of Blahs. He has some of the Trump attributes that turn people away but none of the ones that make them feel like pumping their fists in the air and putting political hats on their heads. Periodically in American politics a businessman comes along promising to sort out the mess and run things like a blue-chip corporation. It almost never works. Wendell Willkie tried it, and Ross Perot, and Steve Forbes, and remember Herman Cain? Mitt “I like to fire people and also let Detroit go bankrupt” Romney tried it, in his fashion. The businessman shtick worked for Donald Trump because he’s the nation’s blue-collar billionaire, a talk-radio caller (“Don from Queens”), a guy who eats McDonald’s food on his private plane and never sounds like he’s imitating the speech patterns of regular folks. The hotshots with the silver Teslas and the gynecologist wives loathe Trump, just as most of the country loathes them.
And how does “I’m a billionaire businessman” square with today’s Democratic Party, which doesn’t mind money but is kind of embarrassed about it? The Democrats regard capitalism as an irksome relative you have to invite to Thanksgiving (or maybe, exhilaratingly, you don’t, not anymore, not at Bernie’s place anyway). Is an Asperger’s-y Wall Street tycoon the guy they want today? Is that the guy they want ever? Is Bloomberg’s pitch simply that he’s not senile, not a socialist, and not a congenital liar? Is being None of the Above enough to make him the Democratic nominee? “We need somebody who can . . . do the mundane but essential tasks of pushing legislation and executing laws,” writes David Brooks in the New York Times. One of the country’s most astute minds makes his best case for Bloomberg, and it’s “mundane but essential”? That’s quite the bumper sticker. Might as well go with “Dukakis, only shorter.”
— This article appears in the March 23, 2020, issue of National Review.