Not only has Mike Bloomberg spent a lot of money on buying TV airtime, the ads his team has made for him are generally really good. If you knew him primarily through those ads, plus a vague sense that he seemed to be a popular mayor of a big city and made a lot of money running some kind of business, then it’s easy to see why you’d be impressed by his campaign.
What we saw on the debate stage in Nevada Wednesday night is a reality New Yorkers have long been aware of: the man is a wooden charisma vacuum with no natural talent for campaigning.
On one level, that shouldn’t matter so much. The presidency is not primarily an acting gig, after all, it’s a matter of substance. On the other hand, in a campaign where “electability” has loomed so large as a consideration, it’s important to be clear that possession of vast wealth is the entirety of the electability case for Bloomberg.
In terms of his political skills, he’s well below replacement level and compensating for it with money. Money genuinely is valuable in politics, and the fact that Bloomberg has plenty of it to spend shouldn’t be totally discounted. But to the extent that he is sincere about getting President Trump out of office, it’s clear that what he should do is keep paying his talented ad team to keep making attack ads against Trump and keep paying to put them on the air — then let a better politician be the nominee.
But on another level, Bloomberg’s inability to speak from the heart in a convincing or plausible way cuts to a much deeper problem with his candidacy — much of his policy agenda appears to have been cooked up by consultants over the past few months and has no connection to ideas he’s espoused over the rest of his career. There’s nothing wrong with changing your mind over time, but you ought to be able to come up with some explanation of what’s going on. And Bloomberg can’t.
Bloomberg is running from his record
Early in the debate, the question of stop-and-frisk policies in Bloomberg-era New York came up, and Bloomberg repeated what he’s been saying since he launched his campaign — it was a mistake and he’s sorry.
One might doubt his sincerity about this given that even while apologizing, he misstates how stop and frisk came to an end, acting like it’s something he did away with rather than something he was ordered to stop by a judge (he appealed the decision, and then his successor, Bill de Blasio, dropped the appeals). But sincerely sorry or not, the larger problem is that his image as a successful crime fighter was central to his image as a successful mayor of New York City. Stop and frisk was controversial while Bloomberg was mayor, but crime was also falling — New Yorkers liked the falling crime, and Bloomberg took credit for it.
The realization that crime kept falling after stop and frisk was halted invalidates that record, and leaves Bloomberg with a résumé of accomplishment that’s otherwise rather slim.
He was involved in a lot of contentious education policy fights, but relatively little changed in terms of New Yorkers’ educational outcomes. He did some admirable things on bicycle lanes but failed to get congestion pricing done — now, years later, the relevant laws have finally passed and will come into effect soon.
During this time, Bloomberg also staked out a lot of positions on national economic policy issues that would be unacceptable in a Democratic Party primary:
- He called the Affordable Care Act “a disgrace.”
- He called the Dodd-Frank financial regulation overhaul “stupid.”
- He opposed raising the minimum wage.
- He vocally opposed the nuclear deal with Iran.
- And as recently as 2017, he said “Obama did basically nothing” on climate change.
Indeed, even while endorsing Obama’s reelection in 2012, he complained in an op-ed that “rather than uniting the country around a message of shared sacrifice,” Obama “engaged in partisan attacks and has embraced a divisive populist agenda focused more on redistributing income than creating it.” He also dinged Obama for failing at “developing and sustaining a coalition of centrists,” which he said “doomed hope for any real progress on illegal guns, immigration, tax reform, job creation and deficit reduction.”
There’s no explanation for the new Bloomberg
Today we see on television a new Bloomberg who wants to defend and expand the ACA, loves Obama, and puts himself forward as the would-be savior of mainstream Democrats from the menace of Bernie-ism.
Throughout his current campaign, Bloomberg has offered no explanation for this wholesale makeover of his thinking on economic policy issues and the legacy of the Obama administration. Of course, the reasons for it aren’t mysterious.
Bloomberg said at the Bermuda Executive Forum in March 2019 that he couldn’t run for president because “it’s just not going to happen on a national level for somebody like me starting where I am unless I was willing to change all my views and go on what CNN called an apology tour.”
Then eventually, he decided he did want to run after all, so he went and changed all his views. But he didn’t want to do the apology tour, so instead of going on television and discussing in detail who or what is driving his current thinking, he’s mostly avoided questions from the press and let his ads speak for themselves. The debate was his first big encounter on a level playing field, and it was a disaster — a disaster that somehow managed to barely scratch the surface of some of the content of his record. We didn’t hear about his unapologetic support for the invasion of Iraq or the intrusive surveillance of Muslim New Yorkers during his time in office.
Most likely Bloomberg would largely stick to his new policy positions if he became president, but there’s just no compelling reason for mainstream Democrats to chance it. There’s nothing really to his campaign except money.
If Bloomberg wants to spend big on beating Trump, he should spend big
All that said, Bloomberg is by all indications sincerely outraged by Trump and his presidency.
He’s long been a generous donor to climate change and gun control causes, and since Trump’s election he’s been a singularly partisan benefactor of Trump’s opponents. The fact that Bloomberg’s actual political beliefs are not that progressive overall makes this more rather than less admirable. There are lots of rich businessmen in America who have some qualms about Trump but are happy to support him because they think low taxes and business-friendly regulation are more important than the rule of law. Bloomberg is the opposite — a person who’s been willing to put cash on the line to help stop a president he sees as dangerous even though he’s not in love with his opponents’ ideas on many issues.
But if this is the admirable side of Bloomberg, then he ought to go back to doing what he was doing a year ago — spending money in admirable ways and winning admiration for it.
There’s just no reason he should be a presidential nominee. He’s a stiff, incompetent political performer with a record in office that’s so-so at best and who is aware that what seem to be his authentic policy views are too politically toxic to run on. The simplest, best solution to that is the one he hit on last March: don’t run.