The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Bloomberg’s disastrous debate performance capped his catastrophic week

Former New York mayor Mike Bloomberg arrives for a Democratic presidential primary debate on Wednesday in Las Vegas. (Matt York/AP)

It took only minutes for the pummeling of former New York mayor Mike Bloomberg to commence at Wednesday’s Democratic presidential debate. “I’d like to talk about who we’re running against, a billionaire who calls women ‘fat broads’ and ‘horse-faced lesbians,’” Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) declared. “And, no, I’m not talking about Donald Trump. I’m talking about Mayor Bloomberg.”

Bloomberg stood there like a deer in headlights as his rivals went after him for his demeaning comments about women, his nondisclosure agreements with female employees who accused him of sexual harassment and gender discrimination, his stop-and-frisk policy, his opposition to Obamacare, his past support for Republican candidates and his attempt to buy the Democratic nomination. He had no clever retorts, much less competent responses. It was painful to watch. Not since Jeb Bush stumbled over a question in 2015 on whether the war in Iraq was a mistake has a candidate been so woefully unprepared for such an obvious line of questioning. Bloomberg never smiled. He rolled his eyes. He was not likable or prepared. His best moments came during the long stretches in which the other candidates attacked one another while he effectively disappeared from the debate.

Was it a mortal blow? Never count out anyone who has billions of dollars to burn. But Bloomberg’s disastrous debate performance capped a catastrophic week in which his effort to claim the electability lane was severely damaged.

To beat President Trump, Democrats must do three things: First, they must energize African American voters who turned out for Barack Obama but failed to do so for Hillary Clinton. Second, they must win back blue-collar Democrats who voted twice for Obama but switched to Trump in 2016. And third, they must hold onto the votes of suburban women who defected from the GOP in the 2018 midterm elections.

Bloomberg is alienating all three groups.

Opinion contributor Michele Norris argues to win over younger black voters, Michael Bloomberg has to address the mind-set that created stop-and-frisk. (Video: The Washington Post)

The audio of Bloomberg’s 2015 speech in which he defends targeting minorities for police stops will make it hard to woo black voters. What Bloomberg said was not a defense of stop-and-frisk; it was a defense of racial profiling. Big difference. Under stop-and-frisk, police needed to have a “reasonable suspicion” that the individual they were stopping and frisking had a weapon, but Bloomberg said “male, minorities, 15 to 25” was enough for reasonable suspicion. “You can just take [that] description, Xerox it and pass it out to all the cops,” he said. That is racial profiling, plain and simple. Add to that Bloomberg’s comments that getting rid of “redlining” — a discriminatory housing practice that denied mortgages to residents of poor, minority neighborhoods — was to blame for the 2008 financial crisis, and it’s hard to see how he can generate the Obama-level African American turnout Democrats need to win.

It’s hard to see how he can win back blue-collar voters in the key swing states that put Trump in the White House when Bloomberg has appeared to suggest that farmers and factory workers lack the brain power to succeed in the information economy. “I could teach anybody, even people in this room, so no offense intended, to be a farmer. … You dig a hole, you put a seed in, you put dirt on top, add water, up comes the corn,” Bloomberg declared, adding that factory work was just as simplistic. But in the information economy, Bloomberg said, “you have to have a lot more gray matter.” It has become a common insult to tell working-class Americans they should “learn to code,” but Bloomberg implied they didn’t have enough “gray matter” to learn to code.

Then there are allegations of Bloomberg’s mistreatment of women, which would follow him into the general election and neutralize any advantage Democrats might have had over Trump with suburban Republican women. Bloomberg’s alleged history of making lewd and sexist comments to women, as well as lawsuits accusing him of presiding over a culture of sexual harassment and degradation at his company, Bloomberg LP, will not go away, nor will his refusal to release women who made allegations from the nondisclosure agreements that were put in place as part of legal settlements. As we saw on Wednesday, he was paralyzed when challenged with specific comments attributed to him or demands that he release women to tell their side of the story.

Bloomberg is seeking to pick up the mantle of electability from former vice president Joe Biden. But Biden’s electability claim rested on the argument that he could bring back the coalition that put Obama in the White House. Bloomberg is anathema to virtually every element of the Obama coalition. At the Nevada debate, Bloomberg said the question for Democrats is “Who can beat Donald Trump?” Based on his performance, it’s not at all clear that he is the answer.

Read more:

Michele L. Norris: Can Mike Bloomberg be forgiven?

Jennifer Rubin: Democrats just had the most exciting debate to date

Karen Tumulty: Bloomberg’s best debate moment came five minutes before it started. Then things went downhill.

Jennifer Rubin: Who benefits from Bloomberg’s troubles?

Megan McArdle: Hey Democrats, you’re attacking the wrong candidate

Gary Abernathy: The Democrats have a ‘deplorables’ problem. Bloomberg is making it worse.