The Democratic Party's embarrassing billionaires
Can Michael Bloomberg buy a presidential nomination?
So you want to run for president. Which is more important: having relevant experience or billions of dollars?
I used to think the answer was obviously the latter. The whole being worth many thousands of millions thing worked out well enough for our current president, in case you haven't heard. But I wonder now how much Donald Trump's success in 2016 really had to do with his being a billionaire, as opposed to someone who is very good at playing one on television.
For one thing, Trump only spent $66 million of his own money on winning the presidency — a large sum, but inconsequential in comparison with the $2.4 billion spent on the race in total. Would it have been difficult for a candidate with his poll numbers to have raised enough money to run the campaign Trump did in 2016? I don't think so. Trump's advantages in the last election had everything to do with his ability to monopolize the attention of the entire country and very little to do with the fact that technically during the primaries he paid for his own travel out of pocket.
If reports are to be believed, Michael Bloomberg is on the verge of entering the 2020 Democratic primary, where he will join Tom Steyer, a fellow billionaire activist and would-be technocratic politician. Until I read about Bloomberg's intentions on Friday morning I had not even remembered that Steyer was in the race. This is despite the fact that, with the Iowa caucus still months away, Steyer has already spent nearly $50 million attempting to make voters care about him. He is currently polling at less than 1 percent.
Why should we expect things to be any different for the former New York mayor? Bloomberg has some $50 billion at his disposal, but what can he get for his money? Ballot access? A spot in this month's debate is out of the question. And he is unlikely to be able, at this late stage, to establish himself as a serious contender in the early primary states, even if he is prepared to double Steyer's record spending. Instead, a viable Bloomberg campaign will depend upon Iowa and New Hampshire and South Carolina splitting, giving the party no clear front-runner ahead of Super Tuesday. At this point, the idea seems to be, Bloomberg will be able to present himself as a compromise candidate, someone who will be tough on guns and serious about climate change but realistic about Wall Street and taxation. (In this hypothetical universe the average Democratic primary voter cares about banning plastic cups more than about wages and the cost of health care and college tuition.) He won't be trying to win hearts or even minds. He doesn't need voters to like him — he just needs them to hate Trump.
The most important question about Bloomberg and Steyer's candidacies is not whether they are likely to succeed — I think we already know the answer to that — but why their fellow Democrats are not more openly contemptuous of them. If you had spent the last year or more traveling around the country, knocking on doors, giving speeches, holding rallies, practicing for debates, devising policy platforms, and, above all, trying to raise enough money to support all of this frenetic activity, wouldn't you be at least a little bit resentful of some dilettante helicoptering in and attempting to buy the love of the same voters? If you were a serious progressive, wouldn't you be sort of appalled at how the Democratic Party is allowed to serve as a playground for rich white men who have nothing better to do with their time than light vast eight-figure sums of money on fire out of vanity? If, on the other hand, you were a moderate facing accusations that your policies only benefit the billionaire class, I somehow doubt you would appreciate having an actual billionaire right there defending all of the same policies.
If I were Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren, I would be feeling very good about Bloomberg 2020.
Want more essential commentary and analysis like this delivered straight to your inbox? Sign up for The Week's "Today's best articles" newsletter here.