On a dark and drizzly autumn evening almost exactly eight years ago, Michael Bloomberg revealed his true colors to the world. It was Oct. 1, 2011 and the then-New York City mayor — having used some of his $53 billion fortune to simply go around the law meant to bar his third term — was down in Washington performing the role of enlightened oligarch-king. He was getting an award from the Human Rights Campaign for supporting LGBTQ people.
“In New York, government of the people and by the people is now for all the people,” Bloomberg told his black-tie, celebrity-studded audience that included the president, Barack Obama, and Sarah Jessica Parker. “No place in the world is more committed to freedom of expression — religious, artistic, political, social, personal — than New York City.”
As those exact words were leaving the mouth of the tuxedoed mayor, a couple hundred of “the people” whose freedom of political expression Bloomberg had just hailed were wet and shivering on the main roadway of the Brooklyn Bridge, tied up in plastic handcuffs that cut into their wrists as they awaited a bus and a trip to a dank city jail cell. New York’s police force — heavily militarized under Bloomberg, now able to shoot a plane from the sky — had just arrested 768 Occupy Wall Street marchers, allowing them onto the iconic bridge but then surrounding them in a kettle tactic. The Occupy protesters were speaking out against the kind of inequality that Bloomberg and his mid-sized cop army had vowed to protect and serve: economic inequality.
Fast-forward to 2019, and the 14th richest man in the world wants to bring that vision to the entire United States of America. But Mike Bloomberg’s surprising-but-not-shocking 11th-hour-and-58th-minute entry into the already overcrowded 2020 Democratic presidential primary field is more than just one billionaire’s vanity fair. No, Bloomberg is running as an avatar of an entire class of vainglorious, nakedly greedy and yet emotionally fragile billionaires convinced that America wants to return to the 2011 world that served their black-tie oligarchy so well, that patted itself on the back for saying nice things to immigrants or gay folks while crushing the 99 Percent.
Their problem is: We don’t.
For the last year, Bloomberg — who’s long harbored White House ambitions — was content to stay on the sidelines because of his crowd’s naive belief that Uncle Joe Biden had this on their behalf. Yet Biden is now barely clinging to his huge early lead, with growing numbers of Democrats rallying toward two senators from the much farther left: Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders. Their vision of economic justice that would tax the wealthy from nearly 40 years of extreme inequality to pay for things like universal health care, wiping out the millstone of college debt or expanding pre-K is very much the idea that Bloomberg’s cops tried to handcuff on the Brooklyn Bridge.
But you can’t kettle an idea.
The media-mogul-turned-mayor does bring some strengths. His billions will buy an impressively slick campaign. In 2016, when he briefly flirted with running as an independent, he cut an ad (which he released to the public) so well done that even I was nearly ready to endorse him at the end of the 60 seconds. In 2019-20, he’ll make much hay of his work that does resonate with the Democratic base — fighting gun violence and climate change — as well as his proven ability to win elections, including in the Archie Bunker wards of Queens and Staten Island.
But Bloomberg’s billionaire brigade — failing to understand either the resistance to Biden and to learn anything from the abysmal (and now corrupt) failure of one benevolent-liberal-billionaire in Tom Steyer — remains stubbornly convinced the problem is not their unpopular message, but the messengers. Like the ugly American tourist convinced a foreigner will understand him if only he speaks English louder, Bloomberg somehow thinks his luminescence will cause voters concerned about Biden’s health at age 76 to turn to him at age 77, and that a party base wary of Biden’s past politicking on behalf of big-bank billionaires will somehow fall in love with an actual billionaire. All this on top of a political strategy — entering late and ignoring the early-state primaries where voter impressions are formed — that hasn’t worked since 1968.
And yet these holes — so big that a militarized Wall Street-protecting cop could drive an armored personnel carrier right through them — aren’t even the biggest flaws in Bloomberg’s bid. How could these titans of industry and capitalism who profess to be geniuses — because they claim to know the pulse of the consumer who drives the American economy — understand so little about the most important consumer of all, the U.S. voter?
Have Bloomberg and his well-compensated team of blue-chip political advisers even looked at the off-year elections of 2017, 2018, 2019 — when angry women voters, including the formerly politically soporific suburbs, knocked on doors, ran for something and showed up on Election Day to form a blue tsunami? If so, how could they think an aging white man whose own media company has been accused in multiple lawsuits of sexual harassment and toxic misogyny — including accusations (denied by Bloomberg, who settled out of court) that the boss himself belittled women over their looks or pregnancies and acted like a sexist pig — is The Guy for Democrats?
Did his highly paid pundits not notice that the rock of today’s Democratic Party — and the reason that Biden currently clings to his lead despite such a weak campaign — is African American voters, especially in key Southern states like Alabama, where Bloomberg filed petitions on Friday? If they did, how do they expect to sell black voters on a former mayor whose cops perpetrated a reign of terror called stop-and-frisk that predominantly targeted nonwhite people who were not committing any crime? Do they think folks would simply forget?
Was Team Bloomberg really paying close attention to Tuesday’s off-year election results? If so, did they not notice that the ousting of a Republican governor in red Kentucky was largely the work of public school teachers, the kind of voter who recoils at Bloomberg spending a chunk of his vast wealth to support charter schools that are wrecking public education? Or did they take heed of the election of radical reformer Chesa Boudin as San Francisco’s new district attorney, the latest sign that voters in Democratic strongholds have had it with the mass incarceration regime that Bloomberg long championed? Oh, and did they think Democrats here in Pennsylvania — a key battleground state — will forget the cool $1 million that Bloomberg dropped to foist Trump-supporting Sen. Pat Toomey on the state for six more years?
It’s utter cluelessness, but we’re seeing this more and more from the kleptocrats of America’s top 1 Percent. Since Ronald Reagan’s ascendancy in 1980, these men of vast wealth have created an entire culture around a myth, that their billion-dollar paychecks were a tribute to the sheer genius of an indispensable man, the modern CEO, and not the result of a game that was rigged by political corruption to tilt the playing field of postmodern capitalism their way, at an angle that would daunt climbers of Mount Everest.
Their long con is finally getting exposed, and that in turn is exposing their moral emptiness. Consider Microsoft founder Bill Gates, who launched a tech monopoly with the same ruthless ambition that John D. Rockefeller showed in creating a 19th century oil empire. But now Gates wants people to love him for giving some of that wealth away for causes that range from the admirable (global health) to the misguided (charter schools) in the hope that targeted, billionaires-know-best philanthropy will divert the masses’ rage away from structural inequality. That so many voters now support presidential candidates who would tax just a sliver of Gates’ unfathomable wealth for the common good has revealed him as a sputtering liar.
Gates recently insisted that he’s willing to pay some higher taxes “[b]ut, you know, when you say I should pay $100 billion, O.K., then I’m starting to do a little math about what I have left over.” Except Elizabeth Warren’s tax proposals would only cost Bill Gates an estimated $6 billion, which would leave him with $100 billion to play around with. Gates is just the latest of a half-dozen or so billionaires to go public with their panicked predictions that the left-wing populism of a Warren or a Sanders will destroy America as we know it. But only other billionaires and their paid consultants seem to believe them. They can’t accept the fact that — to borrow the Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez line that became the title of Ryan Grim’s recent, excellent book — they’ve got money but we’ve got people.
Mike Bloomberg didn’t have to enter the 2020 race to see how all of this is going to play out between now and next summer’s Democratic convention in Milwaukee. He could have watched last week’s results from Seattle, where Amazon — run by Gates’ billionaire soul mate Jeff Bezos — spent a whopping $1.5 million to promote City Council candidates who would quell all the crazy talk about affordable housing and sheltering the homeless, funded by taxes on tech giants. Almost all of the anti-Amazon candidates won, including the movement’s leader, socialist Kshama Sawant. Ditto in Philadelphia, where the Working Families Party’s Kendra Brooks — opposed by chamber of commerce types, endorsed by Warren — won a historic City Council seat.
These voters are the ones who will decide 2020′s Democratic primaries — along with those school teachers in Kentucky and West Virginia, the women of the #MeToo movement, and African Americans tired of cops acting like an occupying army. And yet these are the same citizens that a graying misogynist media mogul who once created an army to preserve the unequal social order in New York is certain he can now seduce with a fistful of dollars?