Who Would Be Worse, Bernie or Bloomberg?
Let’s roll the tape.
Dear Reader (including all of you who “consented” to sign NDAs for Michael Bloomberg),
So much for my crazy idea that Michael Bloomberg might emerge from the debate a stronger candidate. I still think he’s a force in the race, with a better shot than the conventional wisdom suggests. But he didn’t definitely didn’t emerge stronger. I had thought that if Bloomberg went in by leaning into his caricature as an arrogant bigshot—dismissive of these mere politicians who screw up everything, swatting away attacks as the desperate ploys of Washington hacks—he would come out, in the words of Osama bin Laden as the “strong horse.” That “strategy” worked for Donald Trump, a billionaire former Democrat. Why not for Bloomberg, a billionaire former Republican? (Though I should note that he was a Democrat before he became a Republican to run for mayor of New York. In other words, Bloomberg’s credentials as a Democrat are at least as good as Sanders.’)
He didn’t do that. Rather than say, “Pfft, of course I’m not going to release those NDAs, that’s ridiculous,” or even the Trumpier, “I’d love to release them, but my lawyers won’t allow it,” he seemed shocked that the question even came up. He looked like a milquetoast college president dealing with furious faculty members—which put Elizabeth Warren in her truest element.
At National Review, Michael Brendan Dougherty warned ahead of time that Bloomberg shouldn’t go—and he was right for precisely the reasons he said. But there are other reasons he should have waited. The whole conceit of Bloomberg’s candidacy boils down to, “People of Earth, stop your bickering. I’m Michael Bloomberg and I’m here to help.” If Spock visited Earth, he wouldn’t compete at the high school science fair. He’d just be like, “Here’s a replicator, bitches.” (Or words to that effect.)
Bloomberg should pursue this strategy: Keep people waiting. Run the kind of front-porch campaign Biden should have run. Be the reluctant general in exile who will save the republic from itself only when it suits his schedule. In sales, you sell the sizzle, not the steak, particularly when there’s not much meat on the bone.
How Bloomberg could win.
I’ve written a bunch about how Americans follow politics as a form of entertainment – it’s a big theme of my book (now out in paperback!). I lament it. But it’s the reality of the time we’re in. Bloomberg would be wise to deal with that fact. Running as just another Democrat is the surest way to make him seem like just another Democrat.
That said, I have this theory about how Bloomberg or maybe one of the other Democrats could win. One of Trump’s advantages was the utter wackiness of his candidacy in the first place. People could imagine what a Hillary Clinton presidency would be like, but a Trump presidency? As the guy said when told that there’s an orangutan playing the piano down the street, “I gotta check that out.”
There’s a great scene in Wag the Dog in which Robert De Niro explains that they can’t bring home the (fake) American prisoner of war until after the election. Bring “Old Shoe” (Woody Harrelson) home before the election and there’s no need for them to buy the ticket to see how the movie ends. “Psychologically,” De Niro explains, “they will understand that that's the bargain. Make them pay for him ... that's right, the price is their vote.”
Bloomberg should start talking about how Trump would react to losing. Will he refuse to leave? Will he cry? Will the Secret Service or the Marines have to escort him from the building?
I don’t necessarily think any of those things would happen. But that’s not the point. The trick is to offer an alternative climax to the movie―or, rather, an alternative storyline to the semi-scripted reality show we live in today―that would be just as crazy as four more years of Trump that gets people to say, “I gotta see that!”
In his way, Sanders does that all the time with his (doomed) promises to radically seize the means of production from the Oval Office. People attracted to that kind of storyline aren’t going to go for Elizabeth Warren’s or Pete Buttigieg’s pale imitations of the same promise. You need to give people something cool or wacky or wild to commit to appointment television for the day after the election. Bloomberg’s current implied promise of unleashing the spreadsheets won’t cover it. Promising a return to normalcy is smart for some voters, but others need some Japanese game show level insanity.
Moreover, it’s a good bet that Trump would take the bait. If Bloomberg started asking in ads and speeches, “Will Trump acknowledge defeat?” It wouldn’t take long for reporters to ask him about it. At first, Trump might have the right answer: “Of course.” But I don’t think it would take long for him to start offering weird caveats and hypotheticals. His reflexive need to keep his options open would get the better of him. And once he said something like, “We’d have to see if the election was handled fairly” or “it depends on whether the Democrats rigged the election” then some voters would be like, “Oh man, I gotta see how that plays out.”
The progressive spectrum.
Conservatives are accustomed to talking about different kinds of conservatives: Fiscal conservatives, foreign policy conservatives, social conservatives, neoconservatives, compassionate conservatives, constitutional conservatives, moderate conservatives, and so on.
There’s a lot less of that kind of talk on the left, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t different intellectual or ideological tribes over there, too. The other day, I wrote a column about how Bernie and Bloomberg represent two different strands of progressivism. Bernie comes from the populist-socialist tradition, Bloomberg from the snobbish-technocratic tradition. Bernie is convinced that there is one authentic democratic voice—that of the “working class.” What it says is right is right. What it wants, it should get. One of his more admirable riffs is his claim “It’s not about me, it’s about us.” (Whether he means it or not.)
Bloomberg, on the other hand, doesn’t much care what the people want because he knows what’s good for them. And if he doesn’t know, he can discover it through data management and effectively synergizingbackward overflow intergortion. As Bloomberg said Wednesday night, the presidency is a management position:
[block]Look, this is a management job, and Donald Trump's not a manager. This is a job where you have to build teams. He doesn't have a team so he goes and makes decisions without knowing what's going on or the implications of what he does. We cannot run the railroad this way.[end block]
If you were drawing a Venn diagram of their positions, there would be a lot of overlap, particularly on social issues. But if you were doing a Venn diagram about their psychological orientation toward politics, only a slight sliver would be darkened. Bernie, like everyone infected with Marxist categories of thinking, believes he knows what the people want. And if they say they want something that he thinks they shouldn’t want—something that clashes with their true “class interests”—they must be suffering from “false consciousness.”
Bloomberg doesn’t think in Marxist categories but he shares the same contempt for voters who disagree with him. The proles aren’t suffering from false consciousness, they’re just hayseeds, rubes, and morons. He’s sort of like Tommy Lee Jones in Men in Black when Will Smith says “Why the big secret? People are smart.” And Jones replies, “A person is smart. People are dumb, panicky dangerous animals and you know it.”
Bloomberg would be perfectly comfortable running the EU. Sanders would be perfectly comfortable speaking to a mob protesting the EU’s austerity budgets.
(There’s a third strand to progressivism, though. It shares some things in common with Sanders but very little with Bloomberg. It’s the salvific tradition, and the only candidate in this cycle who fit squarely in it was Marianne Williamson. She saw America’s problems as chiefly spiritual problems, disorders of the national soul. Sanders has a little of this because socialism has always behaved more like a religion than the “science” its most ardent adherents pretended it was. But the socialist tradition Sanders comes from works too much from the assumption that religion is an opiate of the masses, a source of reactionary resistance to change, or an illegitimate competing source of authority to the state.)
Bloomberg or Bernie?
It’s an interesting question: If you had to have Sanders or Bloomberg as president, who would you prefer? As a conservative I’m tempted to say Bloomberg simply because he doesn’t hate capitalism and, not unrelatedly, has a firmer grasp of reality. I hate the idea that political leadership is best understood as a management challenge. But the best thing about people who are addicted to data is that you can persuade them with data.
Sanders is immune to data. Oh he likes to cite it (them?)—when he thinks the numbers are on his side. But let’s not pretend that someone who fawns over Castro or Chavez is really moved by economic statistics.
What makes the question hard, at least for me, is that I think if Sanders were elected he would be far more likely to fail, utterly. Sure, as Obama and Trump have shown, he could do a lot of things on his own. And I have every confidence than nearly all of them would be very bad. But if Sanders is the nominee, the Democrats will still not retake the Senate and could even lose the House. The president can’t socialize the economy or nationalize health care unilaterally. His failure might do more to harm American socialism than any argument conservatives could muster. As Edmund Burke says, “Example is the school of mankind and he will learn at no other.”
Meanwhile, Bloomberg could actually succeed. His contempt for the Constitution—arguably greater than Sanders—takes a form infinitely more seductive to Americans than the more frontal assaults from the left. Modern times are complicated. The Constitution is simplistic and old fashioned. He’s sort of like Satan in Time Bandits railing about God’s silliness. "Look how he spends his time! Forty-three species of parrots! Nipples for men! Slugs! He created slugs―they can't hear, they can't speak, they can't operate machinery… I would have started with lasers! Eight o'clock, day one!"
The point lurking behind these ramblings is that people tend to bring static analysis to politics. It’s my idea of what’s right against their idea! But politics, like life, is messy and sometimes teams win by losing and lose by winning. In 2016, the catastrophism of the right went off the rails. If Hillary wins it will be “The end of America!” It surely wouldn’t have been great for all sorts of things I care about, but it wouldn’t be the end of America either. Many of the people who love Trump most thought America was over when Obama was elected. They didn’t anticipate that Obama’s failures laid the groundwork for Trump’s political success. And many of those same people refuse to see that many of Trump’s wins are laying the groundwork for losses yet to come.
That’s how it works. No causes are ever truly lost, as T.S. Eliot noted, because no causes are ever truly won.
Various & Sundry
Canine update: So Pippa is going in for a consultation with an orthopedic surgeon this coming week. The limp won’t heal on its own, at least not lastingly. It’s a huge bummer, really no matter how it turns out. Meanwhile Zoë’s paw seems to be about 95 percent better, which is good. Other than that, not much is going on with the beasts. They still hate crows (warning playing this at maximum volume around your dogs could agitate them). They still expect treats. They still wake every morning with joy in their hearts about the adventures ahead. Zoë still demands tribute and is still jealous of Pippa getting equal treatment.
The future of the G-File: As I explained in Wednesday’s uh, Wednesday “news”letter, the Fair Jessica believes that the G-File is purely a Friday thing. A large number of you agree with her. We’re taking it under advisement. But whatever we end up calling it, paid members of The Dispatch extended universe can expect more “news”letters from me. At least for the foreseeable future the Friday G-File will remain free to all of the people.
And now, the weird stuff
Photograph of Michael Bloomberg and Bernie Sanders by Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images.