On the Nevada debate stage, Mike Bloomberg emerged from the warm cocoon of paid commercials and spoke for himself. He didn’t say a lot, but what he did say didn’t help. He stood silent and stony-faced as the other candidates, led by Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, painted him as the sordid emblem of plutocratic capitalism and income inequality. His responses were brief, unadorned, and dry as the Las Vegas air. If you want revolutionary fantasies, he said, vote for Bernie. If you want a skilled, no-nonsense manager, vote for me. I have an extraordinary record of success in business and urban politics and my views are not too extreme to win in November. That’s it.
Bloomberg’s flat performance looked more like he was running a board meeting than a political campaign. And it revealed one of his three major vulnerabilities: he’s a dull Establishment figure, dreadful on the stump, hoping to lead a party that needs a large, enthusiastic turnout to defeat Donald Trump. The other candidates were eager to display their angry passion, which they aimed at Trump and each other.
The debate revealed a second of Bloomberg’s vulnerabilities: the lingering troubles associated with his anti-crime policies as New York mayor (particularly stop-and-frisk policing now labeled racist) and his corporate management (particularly complaints about sexual harassment at his eponymous company). Bloomberg apologized for racially-biased policing but firmly rejected any calls to release former employees from non-disclosure agreements so they could speak freely about their experiences. His rivals will continue to exploit both problems.
Bloomberg’s third vulnerability didn’t come up at the debate but was painfully apparent to anyone who watched a video, made in 2016 and released last week, of Mayor Mike saying he could teach anyone to farm. Just put a hole in the ground, put a seed in it, and cover it up. The crowd at England’s Oxford University loved it. American farmers, not so much.
The problem with those snide comments isn’t the farm vote. It’s trivial in the Democratic primaries and will go to Republicans in November, anyway. The problem is that the comments highlight Bloomberg’s Upper East Side insularity and his causal contempt for anyone who is not as smart or successful as he is. The first group (not as smart) includes most people. The latter group includes everybody. A deluge of advertisements can hide those traits for a while, but the candidate’s personality will eventually emerge on the campaign trail and debate stage.
So, too, will his strengths: his competence, his deep knowledge of the economy and public affairs, his success as mayor of New York, and his center-left positions, which have broader appeal than those on the party’s extreme left. The question is whether those outweigh his liabilities—in the Democratic Party and in the General Election.
Bloomberg is hardly alone in facing this long, awkward, taped record. We live in a world where every public appearance and many private ones are recorded. It was a waiter who secretly recorded Mitt Romney’s damning comments about the “47% of the people who will vote for the president no matter what … who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims. … These are people who pay no income tax. … and so my job is not to worry about those people.”
Tapes like that, in the candidate’s own words, have a much more visceral impact than descriptions in print. They’re impossible to deny, even if they are taken out of context. They’re easy to circulate on YouTube, internet ads, social media, and cable channels. Political adversaries are eager to do it. That’s exactly what happened to Michael Bloomberg with his comments about farmers and about young black men thrown up against the wall for stop-and-frisk. Expect Bloomberg’s opponents to circulate lots more of them.
Donald Trump faced the same problem in 2016 when NBC released an off-camera recording made at “Access Hollywood.” The language was crude; the network’s timing was exquisite; and the outrage almost sunk Trump. Last year, a tape exposed Elizabeth Warren’s fable about why she lost her first teaching job. She was telling crowds she lost it because she was “visibly pregnant.” Opposition researchers found a decade-old videotape where she explained that she could have returned to the job but decided to pursue a different career. Joe Biden’s old tapes are not just an all-star reel of bloopers and awkward statements, they show him kissing, rubbing, smelling, and fondling the beleaguered women he often meets along the campaign trail. Lest his record grow stale, he keeps making new blunders every day.
The Democrats’ latest frontrunner, Bernie Sanders, doesn’t apologize for his past positions, but he should. What did he mean when he praised hard left-wing movements and communist countries, not once or twice but for decades? Remind us, please, what’s so great about breadlines? Why did he want to spend his honeymoon—his honeymoon!—in the Gulag 6 Motel?
Bloomberg can easily exploit these problems, and he has a massive advertising budget to do it. But he can’t let himself off the hook simply by punching others. He has a long public record, which opposition researchers will seize upon and broadcast in Bloomberg’s own voice.
Many of these opponents are true-blue Democrats, trying to move the party further left, deeper into the fist-raised politics of group grievances. Their main criticism is that Bloomberg is not “one of us.” He would be a horrid choice, they think, for a party that stresses group identity and shared injustices, reviles billionaires and large corporations, and denounces “big money in politics.” Those are powerful criticisms, and they are hard-wired into today’s Democratic Party. We heard them repeatedly on the debate stage. They could split the party if Bloomberg wrests the nomination from Sanders or simply blocks him at the Milwaukee convention this summer.
If Mayor Mike makes it to the general election, he will face different problems. The good news for Democrats is that centrists running for House and Senate will find his positions and advertisements far more helpful than having an avowed socialist at the top of the ticket. He will be far more attractive than Bernie in the suburbs, which were crucial to the Democrats’ victory in 2018. The bad news is that Bloomberg himself is a tough sell, particularly his technocratic, nanny-state programs, his tough proposals for gun control and environmental regulation, his leaden style, and his utter lack of common touch. These limitations will dog him in swing states like Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, and North Carolina. So will his casual sense of superiority, the aloofness that came through so clearly in his famers-as-simpletons remarks.
If Bloomberg had simply said that today’s jobs are far more complex than those in yesterday’s farms, factories, and offices, he would have made a worthwhile point. If he had said that we need better schools to prepare students for these complicated jobs, he would have made another valuable point. He could have added that these new jobs pay well, reduce income inequality, and contribute to our collective welfare, which is based on technological progress. Instead, he insulted everyone who doesn’t splice genes, write artificial intelligence programs, or arbitrage Euros in foreign-currency markets. That’s dumber than a sack of topsoil.
No one wants to be treated like Rodney Dangerfield, who “can’t get no respect, no respect at all.” We want leaders who appreciate, not depreciate, our work, our values, our struggles—our lives. All of us have a deep longing for sympathetic recognition. That includes American voters.
Charles Lipson is the Peter B. Ritzma Professor of Political Science Emeritus at the University of Chicago, where he founded the Program on International Politics, Economics, and Security. He can be reached at email@example.com.