Michael Bloomberg, New York’s diminutive, billionaire ex-mayor, is running for president—a project with which he has publicly and privately flirted for years. With Joe Biden’s underfunded and uninspiring campaign flagging in early primary states and the prospect of even Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., winning the nomination too much to bear, the ever-skittish establishment wing of the Democratic Party has reportedly recruited Bloomberg to enter the race.
It’s become something of a cliché, but the idea that a stupidly rich New Yorker who once tried to ban Big Gulps is going to wow ’em at the Iowa state fair is how we got Trump in the first place—this enduring delusion that the great interior of America longs for a corner-office calorie scold who once reportedly told an executive at his own company, “Kill it!” upon learning that she was pregnant. Truly a fellow with his finger on the pulse of the heartland.
To be fair, Bloomberg is not actually running in Iowa or in any of the first three primaries. His campaign so far has consisted of a giant $30 million ad buy with no discernible focus, although it’s safe to say that the campaign’s objective is to have a strong showing on so-called Super Tuesday in March, when voters from more than a dozen states—from giants like California, Texas and Virginia to minor prizes like Arkansas and Oklahoma—will cast their ballots. His late entry means he has yet to appear in many statewide polls, but he is viewed unfavorably by a plurality of the Democratic electorate. The one issue on which he has any popular credibility is gun control, which proved a loser for the younger, handsomer, cussier, now-ex-candidate Beto O’Rourke. In the bitingly dispassionate words of the Los Angeles Times, Bloomberg seems “uniquely ill-equipped to break into the mix.” So what is he doing here?
In the early 2000s, writer Michael Wolff reported on a privately compiled, limited-edition booklet called “The Portable Bloomberg: The Wit and Wisdom of Michael Bloomberg.” Compiled as a gag gift from his staff, the 32-page text featured real-life Bloomberg quotations collected by former executive Elisabeth DeMarse and others who knew the mogul in the 1980s, before his run for mayor. Among its more prescient gems: “A good salesperson asks for the order. It’s like the guy who goes into a bar, and walks up to every gorgeous girl there, and says ‘Do you want to fuck?’ He gets turned down a lot—but he gets fucked a lot, too!”
This kind of caddish vulgarism is just another way in which the billionaire is ill-suited to the current political moment. Biden may have his cringe-inducing weaknesses when it comes to interactions with women—the hair-sniffing, the shoulder rubs, the patronizing erasure of them from the history of political protest—but his avuncular charm is undeniable, even at his most dissipated and incoherent, and I suspect a significant number of primary voters are willing to forgive, or at least accept, these slip-ups under the broad guise of “the product of another era.”
Bloomberg has a more troublesome history, and for years he has been dogged by persistent rumors of sexual harassment and hostile work environments. In a late-1990s lawsuit settled under undisclosed terms in 2000, four former employees sued him for workplace discrimination, and he is allegedly notorious for making comments of the “look-at-the-ass-on-her” variety. He is by no means a predator on par with President Trump, against whom there are numerous, credible allegations of actual rape and assault, but it is also unimaginable that a man with this reputation will survive the scrutiny of nationwide primary campaigns in 2020.
Bloomberg has only belatedly and opportunistically apologized for the New York Police Department’s racist “Stop and Frisk” policy, claiming that he’d never been asked about it until he began his latest run for president. (He has.) He went out of his way to issue a hairsplitting defense of Xi Jinping and the Chinese Communist Party from charges of autocracy, musing that all rulers require some manner of popular sufferance in order to remain in power. (The point is at once true in a narrow sense and spectacularly tone-deaf—not so much because the American electorate has strong feelings about the Chinese government’s specific claims to democratic legitimacy, but because of what it suggests about a plutocratic CEO’s understanding of executive power.) As long as the shareholders get their little dividends and their annual proxy form, he reasons, they should let the bosses run things unmolested and without too many questions.
Being that Bloomberg appears doomed, some have theorized that his run is part of a larger stratagem to spoil things for Sanders or Warren, at least before the latter’s most recent tack toward the moderate center. But then, how would that work? If he steals votes, it will surely not be from either of them, but rather from established centrists like Biden or Pete Buttigieg. Is it blackmail, a gesture toward a future third-party run if the Democrats don’t get their shit together and nominate a sufficiently moderate candidate? That, too, seems like an awfully elaborate path from point A to B.
In all likelihood, there is nothing more to his run than ego and the kind of bland stupidity that convinces itself it is genius as soon as it acquires enough assets. Bloomberg believes his own story: up by the bootstraps from a working-class childhood to the stratosphere of global wealth and financial influence, a figure whose name is virtually synonymous with a whole industry, a shark and an entrepreneur, a three-term mayor who presided over the sparkling reinvention of New York City, never mind that that reinvention involved converting giant swaths of the island of Manhattan into decommercialized landing strips for absentee millionaire condo owners and storeless streetscapes of bank branches and glassed-in lobbies. He has wanted this for a long time, and who will tell him no? Bloomberg believes he can win.
He cannot, of course, and while I know many timorous lefties worry that he could be a spoiler, siphoning Democratic energy and ultimately handing another election to Trump, I can’t really imagine even that. His constituency is a narrow slice of the broadcast and news media that has an ever-diminishing purchase on American life, and $50 billion worth of TV ads won’t buy him a primary. He’s spent his life surrounded by sycophants who tell him his often-bad behavior makes him funny and his money makes him strong. I absolutely cannot wait to watch him get his ass kicked.
Jacob Bacharach is the author of the novels “The Doorposts of Your House and on Your Gates” and “The Bend of the World.” His most recent book is “A Cool Customer: Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking.”…