|Mike Bloomberg was greeted to the debate stage in Las Vegas
with ferocity from all the other candidates, with Elizabeth
Warren particularly animated in her attacks.
Both presidential candidates are leading in national polls, so the February 19 debate also brought the ultimate test of the “big tent” theory of the Democratic Party. Could that bulging tent contain both the perfect foil for Bernie Sanders’ attack on the billionaire class and Michael Bloomberg’s perfect riposte for such an attack on the wealthy?
The combat was not mano a mano. Everyone took advantage of Bloomberg’s first time on the stage to thump him like a refugee from the Walking Dead, so he and Bernie only got into it around the edges. But oh what edges!
It’s almost as if the Democrats had created Frankenstein opposites to destroy themselves, each controlling a third of the voters against Trump. Sanders will run as a Democrat but insists on the Democratic Socialist brand. Bloomberg the mayor ran as Republican, then Independent and finally Democrat while changing the rules in New York City to allow himself a third (Trump-like?) term.
In effect the two have given Trump the best week of his lamentable presidency, a glimmer that the unity of opposition that should destroy him in November will split itself apart. Yet both candidates insist their primary purpose is to destroy Trump.
Can a diehard Sanders voter ever support Bloomberg should he win? Or vice versa? Despite protestations from their camps? Trump, always looking for a weakness if he can’t manufacture one in his enemies, has been handed a real one to needle his opponents.
This is no trivial surface split. If some third candidate doesn’t leap to the forefront in the next few weeks, the big tent could cleave apart.
Sanders’ successful rally screed is blaming oligarch ravenous acquisition (Bloomberg by his definition) for the financial imbalance that has destroyed America. He wants a flat revolution in how we address health care (Medicare for All), higher education (free), taxation (wealth tax) and how the government puts people first.
The 12th richest man in the world has the resources to buy the election and a background that makes him palatable to many who still associate capitalism with the freedom to rise to the heavens. Bloomberg approaching 40, to oversimplify, spent two decades building a fortune and then two decades using the money for public service and social causes he and many Democrats believe in – gun control, climate change, more equitable income. His ads are terrific and his promise to use his wealth for whoever wins appeals to many. (Unanswered – would Sanders take his money to beat Trump?)
What gives Bloomberg the bigger edge on entrance is how deeply US voters value wealth and the willingness to spend it for what you believe. That elevation of money flies in the face of Sanders’ values as he wondered aloud to Bloomberg where his thousands of workers fit into that equation.
Facts, even impeachment, have been unable to discard Trump. False views of the economy have helped him continue a stronger popularity --- never 50% but a heck of a lot stronger than his behavior should allow. It’s tempting to think that only someone with a bigger bankbook can dislodge him. Though in reality it’s the number of votes – and the key question is which Democrat can reach those numbers.
While Bloomberg was selective partners with Obama, he was also a fierce critic of Obamacare and Dodd-Frank. While many still disagree with him on charter schools, redlining, stop and frisk, and his style of speech – and while Elizabeth Warren’s blistering attack on his treatment of women gouged deeply -- there is much to admire in how Bloomberg has parlayed enormous financial influence into unstintingly giving to the world.
But it is clearly his political and philanthropic causes. Sanders conversely seems a gut believer in the common man and how government should exist because of the essential public service it can provide, such as universal health care and fair pay for hard work. Whether he can handle the complicated wheels of US government, the essential compromise needed to pass legislation, is less clear.
But it is easier to understand in Milwaukee with its German Serbian heritage of good government from “sewer socialists” – a century of mayors who pushed government to regulate sewer, water, public transit and other universal services while letting free markets decide the rest of the world. Few found these attitudes couldn’t co-exist, though there were endless debates about the parameters.
Bloomberg does not have the same philosophy – there is almost a patrician air to his decisions about what help the public needs when. It is clear that his conscience will decide. His influences dovetail with most of America right now but they are his influences, while Sanders’ unwillingness to change is a big appeal since it stems from a rigid morality. The rigidity worries many but appeals to others. You can see it clearly when Warren decided to modify her “Medicare for All” to provide an actual time period to legislatively implement it – and that seemed to help Sanders and weaken her though many others found it an intelligent recognition of the realities.
It is the absolutism of Sanders (which is actually not reflected in how often he has voted with Democrats on bills when he couldn’t change them) that has created in social media the Bernie Bros, the absolutists who denigrate any opposition, which has hurt Sanders with the larger Democratic and independent pool of voters. Conversely, Bloomberg the ultimate self-made capitalist can be equally testy and arrogant when challenged and has a descriptive style about his philosophy that carries its own level of injury and snippiness into any debate. He may not be the racist Sanders supporters paint, but he has not led on minority issues.
There is also clearly a generational divide at work, which explains much of Sanders appeal to the young and Bloomberg’s appeal to the more established.
It is not just some mystical past “ism” before “terrorism” that worries those who came of age in the 1950s to 1970s when they hear the term “socialism,” If roughly you are under 40, it is another ism -- flagrant runaway capitalism -- that has been destroying your livelihood, so the kind of socialism that has always worked side by side with American democracy creates appeal, not fear. Some older voters are not willing to take the trouble to understand the daily terror associated with our free market system, no more than the younger are willing to understand the lingering bogeymen of isms that generations before them had to fight off.
The strangest irony would be if the Democrats’ own internal eating of their young allowed Trump to escape the consequences of how much he has destroyed the America that is and how much more he could destroy now that the GOP has set him loose.
Bloomberg entered the race to beat Trump – could he have opened the door to Trump’s survival? My highway or the highway has been Trump’s battle cry, after all, and some are not ready to replace it with Bloomberg’s healthier highway.
Another irony comes from comparing economic plans. Bloomberg clearly entered the race because of Sanders’ wealth tax. It was the most ferocious attack on people like Bloomberg even as other more neutral sources took issue with its efficiency. Sanders was not as worried about details as about the new direction he believes America must change to.
Bloomberg’s own economic proposals use other terms but don’t let the rich get away with traditional escape hatches – adding an estimated $5 trillion in taxes over 10 years. But Bloomberg still believes Sanders wants to destroy capitalism and Sanders didn’t supply contrasting information in this debate.
Polls are only a snapshot in time, and times change, but right now it is not so much that Sanders has gained in numbers (maybe a few) but that others have fallen as Bloomberg rises. The other Democrats actually regard themselves as progressives – ask Amy, Joe, Pete, Elizabeth. They were all on the attack, Warren most effectively, Mayor Pete more snidely toward Amy and Amy more like facing up to a high school bully in Pete.
Joe Biden was more laid back, largely pointing out that he had been there and done that (whatever the issue). I began wondering if he is hoping that the viewers will be moved by his calmness in a storm. His essence is steeped in the Democratic variation of the old Reagan edict – don’t speak ill of a fellow Democrat. Except when he looks at Sanders and Bloomberg as something other than a Democrat, which he finally did with Bloomberg in one of his most effective exchanges.
Collectively all these candidates are treated by the media as the more moderate wing, but they are still larger than the Sanders wing, especially if you add Bloomberg It’s just that none of them are yet willing to give over to another. The way the procedure to win delegates has been arranged, they may be forced to.