Could a short-term Bloomberg solution doom Democrats in the long term?

Picking the former New York mayor may end up repelling the very voters the party needs

The choice of Mike Bloomberg as the Democratic nominee could end up repelling the very voters the party needs to win, Curtis writes.  (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)
The choice of Mike Bloomberg as the Democratic nominee could end up repelling the very voters the party needs to win, Curtis writes. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)
Posted February 27, 2020 at 6:00am

OPINION — Mike Bloomberg, the former New York mayor, has been busy on the campaign trail, said “Late Show” host Stephen Colbert, “shaking hands and frisking babies.” Taking a more solemn tone in his monologue, “Daily Show” host Trevor Noah, a South African native who knows firsthand the effects of raw, racial animus, said in part: “So my problem with Mike Bloomberg is he’s not saying, ‘I’m sorry for targeting black people. I’m sorry for treating black people like second-class citizens. I’m sorry for gaslighting black people for so long.’ No, he’s just, like, ‘I’m sorry that stop-and-frisk happened to affect black communities.’ And it’s, like, no, it didn’t happen to. You designed it to.”

Bloomberg can look forward to that and more as long as he remains in the race to represent the Democratic Party in November against Donald Trump.

Loading the player...

He certainly took a few hits in the Democratic debates in Nevada and South Carolina — states where he was not on the ballot but where his ad-fueled poll numbers and a bit of manipulation of DNC rules earned him a spot.

His performance Tuesday night in Charleston was an improvement (it had to be), with better answers on, for example, education, though the attempts at humor were best ignored by anyone with an appreciation for comedy. To know if he improved his live image, not the one promoted in his flood of promotion (my great-nephew saw ads on YouTube), we’ll have to wait for Super Tuesday when he is actually on a ballot.

Desperate moves

No politician is perfect. But the fact that so many are looking to the former Republican as a savior of sorts, wanting to blowtorch his record of flaws that hurt so many Democrats, proves how desperate voters and party leaders are to defeat the president and how afraid they are of nominating a candidate not up to the job.

[Bloomberg’s counterattacks may just resonate with Democrats]

But could that desperation lead Democrats to a solution that would repel many of the very people they need? Could the search for an easy and wealthy answer ultimately damage the party’s healthy future, in November and beyond?

Bloomberg already has the support of many black elected officials, including Mayor Steve Benjamin of Columbia, South Carolina, and Mayor Vi Lyles of Charlotte, North Carolina, although Lyles’ daughter has taken issue with those endorsements (including her mother’s).

And therein lies a problem.

The billionaire’s fortune has allowed him to filter his message through well-crafted ads. And the former mayor has held his own in polls of African American voters. But I doubt that younger voters will so easily forgive the Aspen Institute audio of him equating black and criminal, and saying, “throw them against the wall and frisk them” so matter-of-factly, you would have thought he was ordering a drink.

Think Mitt Romney’s “47 percent” remark in 2012 to his own gathering of wealthy supporters, and how that image was impossible for the eventually unsuccessful candidate to shake.

It’s exactly how a lot of black and brown folks think rich white folks talk about us when they’re talking to one another, so that’s not a surprise; Bloomberg, though, was a mayor who could make it so — and make it difficult for anyone who objected.

President Barack Obama won in 2012 with just 39 percent of the white vote; it was a sleeping voting base he awakened that did it. Democrats seem to forget that. Bloomberg is not Obama, no matter how many times he plays the Sundance Kid to Obama’s Butch Cassidy in those television spots that Joe Biden has skewered.

Would young voters of color march to the polls for candidate Bloomberg or find something better to do that day?

I actually did see members of the Bernie Sanders army, not all young, line up to march to an early voting site after a recent Charlotte appearance by the candidate that drew about 2,100. Sanders campaign co-chairwoman Nina Turner, a former Ohio state senator, called the Vermont senator s a “movement leader.” And while she repeated his pledge to unite at the end of a raucous primary, Turner told me in an interview, “If in fact there is a concerted effort by the moderates and the elites in the Democratic Party to overthrow the will of the people, then I would be concerned.”

At the rally, 63-year-old Tim Smith, who said he worked in Medicare insurance sales, interestingly enough, said he believed in Sanders’ agenda and was not really afraid Donald Trump would bludgeon him with a “socialist” label. Echoing his candidate, Smith said the country already has socialism for the rich. He was not sure he could “vote blue, no matter who,” he said, if the candidate was Bloomberg.

Losing the base

If Bloomberg, lacking a plurality of delegates, triumphed on a second ballot at the Democratic National Convention in Milwaukee, how many of those Sanders supporters would vote for a candidate who didn’t enter the race until Super Tuesday, who spread around so much money, he might as well be dressed as the Monopoly Man?

Would they believe the system is rigged, start a third party or lose interest?

Right now, the gender gap between Democratic and Republican voters is growing. But any attack on Trump’s treatment of and language about women could be blunted by Bloomberg’s own history of crude language, which he called “jokes” in the Las Vegas debate, and his company’s use of nondisclosure agreements.

Bloomberg’s past as a Republican and funder of GOP campaigns, as Elizabeth Warren asserted in Charleston, might just make him suspicious to loyal Democrats. And his party switch could read as merely opportunistic to those Republicans whom Bloomberg insists he can convert.

Maybe none of that would matter to some Republicans in states around the country impressed by Bloomberg’s management skills. But his résumé also includes funding gun control, reproductive freedom and climate policies that would mean a “no” for some single-issue voters.

Bloomberg does have a lot of money, though, his calling card for being the only one who could fight Trump and the RNC, dollar for dollar.

But even if he wrestles a win in Milwaukee and squeaks over the finish line in November, would Democratic Party members and voters steamrolled by a billionaire pop up as easily as the hapless dude in countless cartoons, ready to move into a new decade with optimism instead of cynicism?

This is hardly a Bernie Sanders endorsement. He just may be everything Bloomberg imagines him to be, everything the other Democrats on the debate stage warned he would be as they provided ammo to gleeful Republicans: a threat to down-ballot races and to a Democratic win and a gift to Republicans in swing states trying to regain the House and solidify the Senate.

But if Mike Bloomberg is the prize, I wonder if Democrats have calculated the cost?

Mary C. Curtis has worked at The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun, The Charlotte Observer, as national correspondent for Politics Daily, and is a senior facilitator with The OpEd Project. Follow her on Twitter @mcurtisnc3.