A debate among 20 candidates is like third-grade Valentine’s Day. You can’t make an impression when the entire class gets the same ration of three Hershey’s Kisses each. (“Aw, Mom! Do I hafta make one for Steve Bullock?” “Yes, dear, everyone gets a valentine.”) The debate lineup has now narrowed to an ungainly half-dozen or so — still far too many for a substantial exchange. The name of the game is crabs-in-a-bucket: If one candidate scrabbles and claws up from the tangle, the others reach up and pull.
More words never spoken of these affairs: “Well said, Vice President Joe Biden.”
“Mayor Pete Buttigieg electrified the room.”
“Sen. Bernie Sanders, could you please speak up?”
(Rep. Tim Ryan of Ohio spoke for a grateful nation during a debate last July when, after Sanders denounced his competitors as soft on the oil industry, Ryan said: “You don’t have to yell.” It didn’t work, but at least he tried.)
Former New York mayor Mike Bloomberg has agreed to join the misery at Wednesday’s debate in Las Vegas. You might ask why, given that he could watch from a gilded bedchamber while lounging on a mattress stuffed with corporate bonds. I spent a few hours watching some of the mayoral debates from his three successful campaigns in 2001, 2005 and 2009. Judging from past performances, Bloomberg’s reason for debating is that he thinks he’ll win.
Granted, Bloomberg is no Ronald Reagan or Bill Clinton, the former a master of timing and the latter a virtuoso of improvisation. He lacks the polish of Lloyd Bentsen, the 1988 vice-presidential candidate who poured acid mixed with sorghum syrup on his opponent by saying, “Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. . . . Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.” Bloomberg’s not the risk-taker Barack Obama was when, as an upstart senator, he slipped the knife in unexpectedly: “You’re likable enough, Hillary.” The short-term cost of a backlash was quickly repaid, for Obama had proved he was mean enough.
Perhaps Bloomberg has lost a step or two in the more than 10 years since his last encounter. He clocks in a skosh younger than Sanders and a skosh older than Biden — all three born during the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration. Based on the record, though, expect to see a disciplined, efficient debater. Bloomberg doesn’t swing for the fences. To borrow from another sport, he’d rather jab than throw haymakers. He never looks as though he’s shuffling through a mental file marked “zingers,” but he’s deadly with the subtle eyeroll.
Bloomberg’s style projects the brusque self-confidence and worldly competence of a self-made mega-billionaire. He’s not a pleaser — he has that in common with both Sanders and Trump. A typical Bloomberg moment came in 2001 when he was asked the perennial question posed to all would-be New York mayors: What are you going to do for those neglected stepsisters, the Bronx and Queens? Rather than kiss up to Corona, the plutocrat basically said that Manhattan will always be where the action is, get over it. However, he added, he could move some government jobs to the outer boroughs. This practical measure would shorten commutes for city workers while freeing up space for more big corporations in the heart of the city.
It’s not a long step from that sort of candor to the recently circulated recording from 2015 of Bloomberg crudely defending his “stop-and-frisk” policy. We’ll see how it plays in a Democratic primary; let’s just say that Bloomberg’s unfiltered approach gives his opponents plenty of ammunition.
But that’s nothing new. His opponents have always had plenty to hit him with. Bloomberg took incoming from Day One of his political career for trying to buy elections. He always faced questions about his sense of entitlement and his level of what is now called wokeness. He never denied being an opportunist who ran as a Republican in New York only because the Democratic Party didn’t want him. All the ammo has been fired at him before, and by formidable opponents: the camera-chaser Mark Green in 2001, smooth Fernando Ferrer in 2005 and businesslike Bill Thompson in 2009. Each was as good as or better than any debater on the Democratic stage this year.
All three encounters produced more policy detail in an hour than the presidential Democrats have tackled in a year. If Bloomberg can bring some of that with him, then: Welcome.
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