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Mike Bloomberg’s Unceremonious Democratic Debate Debut

The billionaire and former New York mayor received a cold reception from the Democratic presidential contenders during his first appearance on the debate stage

AP Images/Ringer illustration

Three months ago, Mike Bloomberg launched his presidential campaign. Though he’s peaked as high as 20 percent in recent national polls, he hasn’t mobilized voters so much as he’s reinvigorated the many op-ed columnists who wish to frustrate Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders. Strangely, Bloomberg’s boosters imagine him eviscerating his fellow New Yorker Donald Trump in the general election debates. On Wednesday, Bloomberg barely survived his first five minutes in prime time standing next to Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren onstage in Las Vegas. Warren introduced Bloomberg as a billionaire (not to be confused, she later added, with Trump) “who calls women ‘fat broads’ and ‘horse-faced lesbians.’” Former vice president Joe Biden described the NYPD “throwing close to 5 million young black men up against a wall” during Bloomberg’s tenure as New York City mayor. Former South Bend mayor Pete Buttigieg took a two-birds, one-stone approach by criticizing both Bloomberg and Sanders. “We shouldn’t have to choose between one candidate who wants to burn this party down and one candidate who wants to buy this party out,” he warned. For two hours, Bloomberg scowled. He didn’t diffuse the many arguments against him so much as he tweeted through them with prepared remarks. He called Sanders “ridiculous.” But he failed to counter the far more elaborate and damning dismissals coming from everyone else.

The ninth debate in the Democratic presidential primary was Bloomberg’s first appearance. (He qualified for Wednesday’s debate after the party dropped the individual donor threshold required for participation.) I imagine he would skip all of them if possible. He hasn’t campaigned so much as he’s purchased ad buys. His presidential campaign, having skipped the first four statewide nomination contests, doesn’t persuade, mobilize, or reconcile so much as it hopes to outspend and thus outlast its rivals until the party’s factional deadlock forces his nomination at the convention. Paradoxically, Bloomberg defies the Democratic Party’s post-Hillary Clinton consensus more than most of the other candidates: Sanders offends some moderates, and Biden offends some progressives, but Bloomberg offends everyone on stage. So there was, for once, some partisan unity against a presidential candidate other than Trump.

For now, Bloomberg can only hope the 19.7 million viewers who tuned in to Wednesday’s debate wore blindfolds and earplugs while sitting two rooms away from the screen. He owns a news media company, including a TV division, and yet he seemed to lack the basic media training for such an event. He couldn’t have sounded any more indifferent in responding to criticism, or any more scornful in assessing Sanders’s popularity. Buttigieg and Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar oppose Sanders while at least attempting to reckon with his agenda and his popularity. They’ve each incorporated elements of his revolutionary principles into their own moderate postures. On Wednesday, Buttigieg, Warren, and Klobuchar took turns equating Sanders and Bloomberg as intrusive, destabilizing forces that unnerve the average Democratic voter. “Let’s put forward somebody who’s actually a Democrat,” Buttigieg said.

Sanders’s expanding lead in national polls portends Biden’s collapse. It may well position him as the party’s true “unity” candidate: an unorthodox politician, perhaps, but the only presidential candidate to assemble a broad, diverse, and excitable coalition from an otherwise nervous and fractured base. On the other hand, Bloomberg promises to spend his fortune to defeat Trumpthis is his big idea. Bloomberg doesn’t just oppose Sanders in discussions about universal health care or the wealth tax; he seems to regard the party’s primary process as its main obstacle in winning the general election. Bloomberg has appropriated some proposals from Sanders, Warren, and New York Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and yet he seems to resent the democratic inputs that compel him to do so. Sanders antagonizes Democratic politicians, but he’s never antagonized Democratic constituencies as stridently as Bloomberg does.

Bloomberg’s candidacy seems destined to collapse under the weight of its contrast with Sanders. Sanders’s agenda can claim an essential continuity with FDR’s New Deal, and he can claim to have reinvigorated the party in its dark turn. Bloomberg can only scowl. His aspirations begin and end with his own election, the Democratic Party be damned.