The Skeptic’s Case Against Bloomberg

Just a few questions before we anoint Mayor Mike as the moderate savior.
February 19, 2020
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Really? (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

A friend texted—actually “signaled,” because that’s what all the cool operatives are doing these days—me yesterday. The exchange went as such:

Friend: Are you working for Bloomberg?

Me: No

Friend: Why not you should get paaaaaid. Unless you don’t want to.

Me: Yeah I mean he doesn’t tickle my pickle

Friend: Haha ok.

I can understand why the friend would assume such a thing. If you look at the tale of the tape: I’m a prime candidate for Bloomberg fandom:

  • Former/Lapsed/Lost/Wandering Republican: Check
  • History of supporting RINOs like John McCain and Dick Lugar: Check
  • Looking around for someone to support in the Democratic primary who is a capitalist: Check
  • Likes to call Donald Trump orange and fat: Check

Signs are good!

Then, last night I was on a panel at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco with my fellow centrist, high-income, high-education urbanites and it was a damn Bloomberg pep rally up in that joint. Blue-haired Dianne Feinstein stans were literally waving their NPR tote bags in the air and chanting “Bloomby Bloomby Bloomby.” Okay, not actually “literally.” Stop being pedantic and just drink in the mise en scène.

And finally there’s the money. Bloomberg is spending tons of it. Literally. I mean, really literally. If you added up the weight of dollar bills for the money he’s spent so far just on TV and digital ads, we’re at 256.6 tons of dollars. And counting.

Put all of that together and even I couldn’t quite understand: Why is a guy like me not getting at least a kilo of that dough?

I have a hunch that the answer might become clear after Wednesday night’s debate in Vegas Baby. My sense of dread at the likelihood of the center’s last hope bristling and faltering as he gets pummeled by angry Larry David and Minnesota Mean Amy is high. So I wanted to make the skeptic’s case about Mike now, before it’s too late and the center-left Democrats throw all their eggs in his basket.

Even if that might put a cap on my future earning potential.

But before we get into the issues, I want to say clearly and without caveat: I find Mike Bloomberg to be a significantly better option than Donald Trump or Bernie Sanders. If I’m not shunned after this I would be happy to be a supporter or a contributor to his campaign against the president this Fall, should he get there. And should he win I can promise President Mike I will be a productive columnist for the new and improved Bloomberg state media and hopefully those columns will earn me medium-size soda privileges.

With that out of the way, I would note that simply being “better than Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders” still leaves an awful lot of room for improvement.

And with Bloomberg my concerns are threefold: ideological, cultural, and electoral.


Ideology

While it might seem like Bloomby and I fall on the same RINO squish point of the ideological spectrum, the devil is in the details. Mike’s big-government technocratic centrism removes the elements that drew me to conservatism in the first place.

My old boss Jeb Bush used to say that he wanted the government to do enough to allow individuals to use their God-given abilities to live a life of purpose and meaning. This idea was the essence of compassionate conservatism: That government accountability and measurement were necessary, but the dignity of each individual had primacy. Bloomberg’s brand of squishy centrism seems to have that in reverse—emphasizing the government efficiency part at the expense of individual dignity.

Tim Carney describes this disconnect as anti-human. That might be too much, but not by much. From Bloomberg’s praise of the Chinese regime’s efficiency, to stop-and-frisk, to the top-down bans on sodas and trans fats, this is a worldview that takes technocracy to such an extreme that the lived experiences of actual people gets reduced to 0s and 1s.

When you take this view of the individual from a policy perspective it’s easy to slide into dehumanizing language—which is something Bloomberg does again and again and again. The statements that have “surfaced” of Bloomberg disparaging young black and brown males aged 16 to 25 with a broad brush, referring to transgender individuals as “it,” and suggesting female employees abort their baby are just a few examples of where that mindset leads.

There is no doubt that on this count, Bloomberg is not nearly as pathological as the current occupant of the White House.

A Bloomberg administration would certainly be light years better on the treatment of immigrants and refugees, on freedom for religious minorities, on environmental issues, on trangender rights, and more.

But given the pain of what the country has gone through for the last three years, it would be better for the country to completely turn the page on Trump’s pathologies. And Bloomberg’s record suggests he would not represent a clean break.

I imagine he will have a chance to address many of these statements and policy positions when he takes center stage at the debate tonight. It will be interesting to see if he has the deftness to show his humanity in a way that reflects growth. Color me skeptical he’ll be able to do it under the bright lights with the highest possible stakes.


Political Culture

I was in a meeting a few weeks ago with an Obama alumnus who said something about Bloomberg that resonated with me. Too often we look at politics along a left-right spectrum rather than an up-down spectrum. Trump was able to push the boundaries of the up-down spectrum and make people who weren’t totally aligned with him on the left-right spectrum come onboard because he successfully represented their up-down grievances.

A campaign between Bernie and Mike followed by one between Trump and Mike might cause the thermometer measuring our up-down spectrum to explode.

The up-down tension that has resulted from the loss of the American monoculture, income inequality, and a flattening of access to information is one of the driving forces behind the dramatic change in our politics over the past decade. Some of that change may end up being for the good as corrupt and sclerotic structures that were only protecting the powerful are overthrown.

But we have also seen insidious forces emerge: white nationalism, anti-immigrant fervor, the widening cultural divisions.

I’m concerned that Mike Bloomberg’s candidacy is less a symptom of the polarization disease than an accelerant to it. And I’m especially concerned that amphetamine is kicking in so quickly that he’s going to accelerate it in the next two weeks, handing the nomination to Bernie Sanders.

That accelerant starts tonight at the debate, where instead of the clear front-runner being given a full-spectrum vetting by his opponents, it will be the new man on the stage who is the center of attention. And this new man is a billionaire who is literally a caricature of the type of guy Bernie was made in the lab to fight.

If Mike falls flat tonight, his entrance is going to be rocket fuel for Bernie and his army as they ride an us-versus-them wave into Nevada.


Electoral 

As it stands we are 13 days away from Super Tuesday and if the election were held today (by the way, early voting has already started in most of these states) Bernard Sanders would be well on his way to the Democratic nomination.

Bloomberg was supposed to be the stop-gap for this very circumstance. Or at least that was his theory of the case. If all the other anti-Bernies, looked weak coming out of the early states, Mike would be standing there to save the day. My concern is that instead of standing in the way, he is paving Bernie’s way.

The Democratic electorate has been paralyzed by the combination of Joe Biden’s late collapse and the specter of Bloomberg waiting in the wings. Historically, by the end of Iowa and New Hampshire the establishment would be uniting behind the establishment-friendly candidate who finished best in those two states. In this case, that would be Pete Buttigieg. That hasn’t happened and part of the reason is that everyone knew that Bloomberg was lurking to emerge on Super Tuesday.

Here’s the problem with that. If we wait to see how Mayor Mike does on Super Tuesday, and the answer is he does “just okay,” then by the time there is any momentum to get behind someone else, Bernie’s delegate lead will be insurmountable.

Which basically means that Bloomberg is holding the race hostage and preventing anyone besides him or Bernie from having a real chance at being the nominee. Or as Peter Hamby put it, “the grim reality of money makes Bloomberg and Bernie the only candidates who matter.”

It seems pretty crazy to be betting the state of the free world on a candidate who is just now getting vetted, who hasn’t competed in a single state-wide contest at any level, and who might turn out to be a pretty weak political performer on the Siegfried and Roy stage.

If he manages to get through all of that, the general wouldn’t be a cake-walk either. Bloomberg is polling well now, yes, but hasn’t had a single ad run against him and his past provides an endless amount of fodder for opponents. True, he is well-suited to win over the votes of the Human Scum who went for McMullin last time. But he could very well push even more of the Bernie Bros and other working class Democrats into Trump’s arms. If you are looking for someone to put back together Obama’s coalition, even a shaky Biden seems like a much safer bet.


If, in the end, Bloomberg can eclipse Bernie on Super Tuesday, this gambit will be one of the all-time genius political moves and he will be in pole position to take on the president in a match-up that any anti-Trumper will gladly get behind.

But if it fails, it will literally achieve the exact result the gambit was designed to stop: A Bernie nomination and a Trump-Bernie general election death-match, in which everyone loses.

That’s some high-stakes gambiting, even for a billionaire.

Tim Miller

Tim Miller is The Bulwark's writer-at-large and a communications consultant. He previously served as senior advisor to the anti-Trump Our Principles PAC, communications director for Jeb Bush, and spokesman for the Republican National Committee.