Why Bloomberg would be the cynical choice for Democrats
Back in 2016, when Donald Trump had shockingly claimed the GOP nomination but still wasn't assured of the support of Republican elites and conservative intellectuals, "The Flight 93 Election" essay appeared in The Claremont Review of Books. The author — writing under the pseudonym "Decius" but later revealed to be conservative writer and activist Michael Anton — made the case that conservatives must support Trump. To do otherwise, he suggested, would mean the end of the American republic.
"A Hillary Clinton presidency is Russian Roulette with a semi-auto," Anton wrote. "With Trump, at least you can spin the cylinder and take your chances."
It was a startlingly cynical argument — and it succeeded. And now that Michael Bloomberg has become a contender for their party's nomination, it appears Democrats may have reached their own "Flight 93 Election" moment.
Under normal circumstances, Bloomberg might find it extremely challenging to try to buy the Democratic nomination for the presidency. A septuagenarian New York billionaire with a history of both misogyny and support for racist policies — not to mention a recent history of getting Republicans elected to the Senate — is exactly what the party is standing against in 2020, right?
Maybe not. Bloomberg is rocketing up the polls. Some Democrats and pundits appear to be convinced only a Trumpesque figure can beat Trump himself. Nominating anyone else risks — you guessed it — the end of the American republic.
"My fellow Americans, we face a national emergency," Thomas Friedman wrote last week in The New York Times. "Never before have we had a president so utterly lacking in personal integrity, so able to lie and abuse his powers with such impunity and so blindly backed by an amoral party, an unscrupulous attorney general and a media-fund-raising juggernaut."
Bloomberg, Friedman wrote, "can fight this fire at the scale of the fire."
"Among all the candidates, the person who I believe could stand toe-to-toe, strongest and longest with Donald Trump is Mike Bloomberg," added Harvard University professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. earlier this month. "I think that he's tough, and I think he could take on the bully Donald Trump. Very few people can stand up to a bully. Mike's got some bully in him."
The logic is appealing. For one thing, Trump really does appear to be a threat to American self-governance — and this moment really does feel like an emergency. And among the candidates, Bloomberg has probably done the best job of presenting himself as the anti-Trump — although that is in large part because he has ignored his rivals for the Democratic nomination and instead poured millions of dollars into TV advertising attacking the current president.
The problem with Flight 93 Election logic — vote for my candidate or the American democratic experiment is over — is that it encourages us to gloss over a candidate's flaws in favor of panicked, fearful, break-glass-in-case-of-emergency thinking. More dangerously, that thinking also encourages us to believe that there should be few or no limits to the methods we deploy to defeat the other side. We can justify supporting any candidate, using any political trick available, as long as we're convinced our rivals are the real bad guys, that the ends of defeating them justify any means. We betray our professed values for the sake of a political victory.
It's amorality cloaked as morality. And it's how we got into this mess in the first place.
I'm convinced that such thinking — along with the aforementioned millions of dollars in ad spending — is behind Bloomberg's rise. The fear of a second Trump term is palpable among Democratic voters. But Democrats should not take the route that Trump blazed. They should offer voters a choice, not an echo. Otherwise, what's the point?
Bloomberg is not completely without merit. He governed as a liberal Republican during an era in which that variety of political species had largely disappeared. He has given substantial amounts of money to anti-gun campaigns. And he certainly brings more governing experience to his campaign than Trump did.
In the end, the similarities between Bloomberg and Trump are just too much. And given the antipathy of the Bernie Sanders wing of the party to billionaires, generally, it seems likely that Bloomberg — no matter how much "bully" he has in him — could win the Democratic nomination but lose the general election when Sanders voters stay home. Democrats might lose to Trump either way, but it's better to do so upholding both big "D" and small "d" democratic values than by offering voters a somewhat different version of what they already have. The more Democrats can vote their hopes instead of their fears, the more they can encourage the rest of the country to do the same.
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