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Michael Bloomberg Puts Democrats in Moral Peril

The Republican mayor hasn’t quite bought enough of the party to win its nomination, but it’s too close for comfort.

Mandel Ngan/Getty Images

Michael Bloomberg will not be the Democratic nominee for the presidency. Neither the money he has spent thus far in the race nor all the money he is prepared to spend in the months ahead will make it substantially easier for him to secure a majority of pledged delegates at the Democratic National Convention, a task that will be daunting even for the candidates currently ahead of him in the polls. His only hope, if one assumes he’s running to win and not to play a kingmaker role, is that the delegates at the convention might choose him if no one else has established the necessary majority on the first ballot.

This is a scenario that would dangerously divide Democrats even if the chosen nominee were substantially less controversial than Bloomberg has already proven himself to be since entering the race. Over the past few weeks, a wide variety of matters from Bloomberg’s past—his stop-and-frisk policy as mayor of New York, his previous comments on everything from redlining to end-of-life care, and his alleged history of sexual discrimination and harassment—have been litigated in the press. But even if those issues make Bloomberg’s nomination exceptionally unlikely, the responses his campaign has already garnered have told us much about the party that he hopes to represent in November—a party in which he has apparently purchased a substantial interest.

On Saturday, The New York Times ran a piece on Bloomberg’s past decade of political giving that names him “the single most important political donor to the Democratic Party and its causes.” His fortune, it stated, “fuels an advocacy network that has directed policy in dozens of states and cities; mobilized movements to take on gun violence and climate change; rewritten election laws and health regulations; and elected scores of politicians to offices as modest as the school board and as lofty as the Senate.” That network, as luck would have it, is now proving itself useful to Bloomberg’s campaign. According to the Times, former members of the gun control group Moms Demand Action were surprised to discover that Bloomberg had rented their email list for use by his campaign shortly before announcing his run in November—a move that followed the gradual commandeering of the organization by the Bloomberg-funded group Everytown.

Even Bloomberg’s ostensibly philanthropic giving—which, as the Times noted, just happened to reach a five-year high last year—is yielding dividends for his candidacy. Over 100 mayors have endorsed Bloomberg since he launched his campaign, a fact the Times attributed to former members of Bloomberg Philanthropies who have since transitioned to his campaign pointedly reaching out to former beneficiaries. One of those mayors leads the city Bloomberg hopes to occupy. Bloomberg Philanthropies has given millions to the government of Washington, D.C., and various local organizations in recent years. The city’s current mayor, Muriel Bowser, who has called Bloomberg “a mentor and a friend,” has been keen on returning the favor since he began his campaign. Bowser greeted his announcement in November with a tweet heralding the arrival of “an important voice.” That was followed by an official endorsement in January. And late last week, it was reported that D.C. residents have been receiving mysterious calls from a pollster testing responses to a Bloomberg-Bowser ticket.

Bowser was asked about her enthusiasm for Bloomberg’s candidacy by The New Yorker’s Isaac Chotiner in an interview that ran Saturday. During their conversation, Bowser falsely stated that Bloomberg had ended his discriminatory stop-and-frisk policy before he left office as New York’s mayor in 2013. Asked about the numerous allegations of harassment and discrimination leveled against Bloomberg and his company, Bowser went silent:

Is that something you have talked to him about?

I have talked to Mike about a lot of issues, but what is your question about it?

Well, it seems like something that people who support him would be concerned about. And I was curious if you had spoken to him about it, or had some thoughts about it.

I am certainly aware of a lot of allegations, including some we have talked about, and also aware that they don’t directly impact my thoughts that Mike is going to be a good President.

They don’t? O.K., so that’s your answer?

[No answer.]

This is a line of questioning that ought to await any of the Democrats backing Bloomberg now, given the effort many in the party have devoted to calling out and fighting sexism in the Trump era. The tally of figures whom Bloomberg has bought into silence might surprise. The Times’ piece on Bloomberg’s giving recounts an incident from late 2018. At the time, members of the women’s group Emily’s List, then demonstrating and organizing against the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, were debating disinviting Bloomberg from a New York fundraiser over critical remarks he’d recently made about the #MeToo movement and the allegations against disgraced anchor Charlie Rose. “You know, is it true?” he’d asked. “You look at people that say it is, but we have a system where you have—presumption of innocence is the basis of it.” Ultimately, the Times reported, “the group concluded it could not risk alienating Mr. Bloomberg,” given his financial support for Democratic candidates. That support, it should be said, has also been extended to Republicans—over $17 million of Bloomberg’s political donations since 2012 have gone to GOP candidates.

Each new revelation of Bloomberg’s checkered past has been met with a round of angry denunciations online. Bernie Sanders’s supporters have been particularly vocal, no doubt because they anticipate the possibility that Sanders might secure a plurality of delegates but end up in a showdown with Bloomberg at the convention. Their outrage, as expressed in aggressive tweets, was compiled into a video released by the Bloomberg campaign on Monday. “We need to unite to defeat Trump in November,” his campaign’s account tweeted. “This type of ‘energy’ is not going to get us there.”

The deflection here—the effort to shift attention from the matters making Bloomberg’s critics angry to the critics themselves—is unlikely to work for two reasons. The first is that little that has been tweeted in criticism of Bloomberg has been as crude or untoward as Bloomberg allegedly telling an employee to kill her unborn child. The second is that the body of Democrats who are irate about his campaign and who would react to his nomination with extraordinary hostility is much broader than the cadre of “Bernie Bros” that the other Democratic campaigns and the press have long criticized.

The Bloomberg candidacy is nothing less than a self-destruct button for the Democratic Party. The constituencies that would align themselves, loudly, against his coronation would include the demonstrators of Black Lives Matter and other groups who’ve brought national attention to the racism of our criminal justice system since the Ferguson protests of 2014, as well as the progressive movement’s erstwhile campaigners against money in politics. They would be joined by ordinary Democrats who simply deplore the Republican Party to which Bloomberg once belonged and, Emily’s List notwithstanding, many of the women who’ve spent the Trump era demonstrating against sexism in politics and in our political and professional lives.

All told, these factions comprise the majority of the Democratic Party’s activist base. Whether or not a meaningful number of Democrats would stay home in November, it is a certainty that many would show up in Milwaukee, in the event that Bloomberg attempts to force the impossible, to prevent the impossible from happening. We’ve seen, these past few weeks, just how many of the party’s elected officials are already willing to risk a showdown. One imagines most other Democrats, if for nothing else than political self-preservation, want to avoid one. Until that changes, Michael Bloomberg, for the first time in a long time, is not going to get what he wants.