Democrats will square off tonight in the seventh presidential primary season debate, the last one before the Iowa caucuses on February 3.
Six contenders will be on the stage — all white, almost all millionaires and billionaires.
But there is one billionaire who’ll be missing, but who will nonetheless loom over the proceedings like some political Phantom of the Opera, operating behind the scenes and aspiring to orchestrate the entire drama.
That is, of course, Mike Bloomberg, whose steady rise in the polls should have earned him a debate spot, but who is spewing so much of his own money into the race that he has no need for outside donations and therefore did not meet the Democratic National Committee’s donor threshold.
Despite his late entry, the former New York City mayor is now polling at nearly 6 percent nationally. For reference, that puts him ahead of rivals investor Tom Steyer and Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), both of whom will participate in the debate, and not far behind wunderkind former Mayor Pete Buttigieg.
Bloomberg should be on that stage. First because having a new participant might attract a bigger audience. After all, we have heard what Bernie and the rest have to say ad nauseam. The last debate barely topped six million viewers, the lowest in this cycle.
At present, voters are warming to Mayor Mike based almost entirely on his huge ad campaign, on which he has reportedly spent $200 million of his own money. Nothing wrong with that; he built a wildly successful corporation and can spend his vast fortune as he likes.
But it’s not especially fair to his fellow candidates that Mike is not exposed to the same slings and arrows that they will almost surely launch at one another during this evening’s confrontation. So far, Bloomberg has done little retail politicking; he hasn’t kissed many babies and hasn’t had to digest that Iowa favorite — pork chops on a stick.
He hasn’t even showed up at fundraisers. As he proudly states in a recent op-ed published on CNN’s website, “I’ve never accepted a nickel from anyone.” That is true, but it also eliminates yet one more opportunity for voters to hear from a candidate who is pushing forward in the polls. So far, he is running a “stealth” campaign, and there is good reason for that.
Mike Bloomberg is not especially good on the stump. Though sharp as a tack, he is not an imposing presence, has a slightly whiny voice and engages in the sort of wry humor that is appreciated mainly on the island of Manhattan. A matinee idol he is not.
Bloomberg advertises himself as someone who can “get things done.”That’s legit; as mayor, he got a lot done, most of which strengthened New York City’s economy and improved the lives of its residents. Sadly, in order to attract black voters, who make up roughly 25 percent of the Democratic primary electorate, Mike has disavowed some of his successes.
Most notably, he has renounced his use of “stop and frisk” police tactics, which until recently he still embraced. Some black voters think that style of policing is discriminatory, though the evidence is that taking thousands of illegal guns off the streets helped keep all neighborhoods safer, and especially minority communities. Mike claims in his op-ed that not taking money from donors makes him “independent of the special interests.” But that doesn’t mean he won’t bend to accommodate powerful voter groups.
Still, he is a manager and doer, sometimes to a fault. The term “Nanny Mayor” arose from Mike’s unsuccessful push to eliminate large sodas, which did not go over well.
But as a presidential candidate, Bloomberg has bigger fish to fry. In his op-ed, he argues that Democrats are foolish to spend so much time and energy courting Iowa and New Hampshire voters, asserting that both states are too homogeneous to represent the diversity of Democratic voters. Moreover, Bloomberg notes that Democrats’ focus on those two “first” states gives President Trump an open shot at the voters of Wisconsin, Michigan and other important swing states.
He promises that “as president, I will ensure the DNC works with party leaders…to re-order the primary calendar in ways that better reflect our diverse electorate and channel more resources into the states we actually need to win in November.” Just like that — the newcomer and first-time candidate wants to change the decades-old rules of the game. That’s called cheeky.
To be sure, the DNC has made some errors. Demanding that candidates achieve set numbers of donors to make the debate stage has eliminated Bloomberg, notwithstanding his advance, and has favored the campaigns of Sanders and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.).
Rewarding donor totals is tantamount to rewarding celebrity. Anyone who tweets or maintains a Facebook presence knows that it is the most incendiary comments that travel best and get the most attention.
It is no accident that Sanders’ call for a revolution or Warren’s plans to topple the American economic model attract huge mobs online, and millions of donors. Moderate candidates like former Rep. John Delaney (D-Md.) or Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) (remember them?) never had a chance.
Nor do self-financing contestants like Bloomberg. That exclusion robs voters of an opportunity to evaluate the candidate.
Bloomberg’s strategy and hope depends on several candidates making it through the early rounds, resulting in a brokered convention. Because Mike spent hundreds of millions of dollars shoring up hundreds of Democratic candidates across the country in 2016 and 2018, he will have the support of a large number of super delegates, who may select the nominee if there is no winner after the first round of voting.
In his op-ed he writes, “…the party has come a long way from the days of candidates being selected in smoke-filled back rooms by party bosses…” I’m not so sure; those bosses may not smoke any more, but they still may end up picking the winner — and it could be Mike Bloomberg, based almost entirely on his ad campaign.
Published on The Hill