Bloomberg Takes His First Hit
We finally got to see the billionaire former mayor of New York take heat from his rivals in real-time. It didn’t go well.
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because we finally got to see Bloomberg take heat from his rivals in real-time, and it didn't go well.
Michael Bloomberg is a data guy. He built one of the world’s greatest fortunes by becoming the chief data source for the financial industry. As mayor of New York City, he made his decisions on numbers and deliverables. And as he wakes up Thursday morning, after fight night in Las Vegas, the figures he’ll be most worried about are the ratings. He better hope that the voters who matter to this presidential race were tuning in to Criminal Minds, a college basketball game, maybe Netflix — anything but the Democratic presidential debate on Wednesday night.
Bloomberg entered the top tier of this nomination battle by unleashing hundreds of millions of dollars of his own money after a late entry into an unsettled field. And he well knew he was walking into an ambush: The other contenders — battle-tested, having survived a winnowing of the field and eight previous debates over the past eight months — had all been sharpening their shivs for weeks. Bloomberg, we were told, was practicing with the finest staff money can buy and had his comebacks prepared for the onslaught coming his way.
Surely, he knew he’d be asked about lawsuits against him alleging discrimination against women and stories of sexual harassment aired in The Washington Post. But his passionless, meandering response talked mostly about how many female executives he’d elevated. “I hope you heard what his defense was — ‘I’ve been nice to some women,’” Sen. Elizabeth Warren retorted. She then filleted him over whether he would let these women out of their nondisclosure agreements, drawing out this cringeworthy line from Bloomberg: “Maybe they didn’t like a joke I told.”
Bloomberg found some footing in the debate’s second hour, landing lines about how Sen. Bernie Sanders’ socialism would get President Donald Trump reelected, how he was the only candidate on stage to have started a business and how, yes, he’s got a lot of money, but “I’m giving it all away, much of it to the Democratic Party.” He drew Sanders into an argument about how many homes the socialist has (three, for the record), all part of the canny Bloomberg strategy to make this race about him and Sanders — depriving the rest of the field of oxygen.
But Bloomberg’s strategy of lying in wait — while the other five candidates on stage often were like first-row schoolchildren competing to raise their hands the highest to get called on — did not pay off. And by design of the moderators and candidates, he was forced to spend the debate largely on his back foot, from the New York Police Department’s stop-and-frisk policy (Bloomberg apologized, but painted his retreat as principled rather than the result of a court order) to his critique of “Obamacare” — which Bloomberg now says it didn’t go far enough, quite a reversal from 2009.
But everyone on stage took a few hits. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, whose New Hampshire surprise powered her campaign into sudden prominence, faltered over her inability to name the president of Mexico in a recent interview. And she and former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, had a long exchange in which Klobuchar couldn’t disguise her loathing of the upstart: “I wish everyone was as perfect as you, Pete.”
Buttigieg, polished as always, delivered the most apt summation of the lane the non-Bloomberg-Sanders crowd hopes to fill: “Most Americans don’t see where they fit if they’ve gotta choose between a socialist who thinks capitalism is the root of all evil and a billionaire who thinks money should be the root of all power … Let’s put somebody forward who is actually a Democrat.”
But that portion of the field remains a muddle with different strengths among different voting groups. Former Vice President Joe Biden, once that consensus choice, didn’t do much to pull himself out, though he was spry and had no major errors.
Her campaign on the ropes, Warren came in throwing elbows, a complete reversal from the play-it-nice unity message that has failed to find a lane. It was a forceful performance, but a risky one. Her shellacking of Bloomberg had echoes of Chris Christie’s takedown of Marco Rubio in 2016 — a potential fatal blow to a major contender, but one that does not save the attacker.
Normally, someone like Sanders would have been in the hot seat as the clear front-runner and someone who could all but lock up the nomination on Super Tuesday. And he did face some new scrutiny on the aggressive tactics of his online “Bernie Bro” supporters, along with the normal “Medicare for All” and socialism critiques.
But everyone’s fire was most focused on the billionaire standing stage left who, when asked about releasing his tax returns, replied that it’s complicated and “I can’t go to TurboTax.”
Bloomberg, who has risen in the polls unimpeded so far, still has a compelling story to tell of why he’s best positioned to make Trump a one-term president. He will have another debate to get his bearings before he’s on the ballot in the primary states starting March 3. But Wednesday’s showing means Bloomberg likely will have to amp up the TV ads even more in the coming days to drown out the replays.