Deep into the two-hour Nevada Democratic debate, co-moderator Chuck Todd of NBC asked former New York mayor Mike Bloomberg if he should have made so much money that it allowed him to become a billionaire many times over. Bloomberg looked at Todd with an expression that was a combination of boredom and annoyance before replying, “Yes, I worked hard.”
What else would he say?
Bloomberg’s biggest sales pitch as a 2020 presidential candidate is that he is a billionaire. He made that clear during the debate. He is a billionaire who is giving away much of his money through his philanthropy. He is a billionaire spending his money to save democracy for the populace, but especially for his children. He is a billionaire who doesn’t need to wave his hand frantically and beg for a few seconds of speaking time because he can just go buy as many national advertisements as he likes and speak without interruption. He is a billionaire who doesn’t have to scream until he is red in the face because he doesn’t need, need, need the presidency because … why? Because he is a billionaire and his life is good.
Wednesday night’s debate was the first that included Bloomberg. What did the billionaire look like for his debut? He took his place stage right wearing his nicely tailored dark suit and his Democratic blue tie and his starched shirt. Everything fit well but nothing was aggressively tailored. Nothing was exaggerated. Bloomberg’s clothes did not emphasize his wealth, but they didn’t deny it either – which is how the confidently wealthy dress.
A standard-issue politician’s flag pin was tacked to his lapel – the chief distinguishing feature between Wall Street formality and Washingon drone-dom. His face was without affect. As the moderators lobbed the first questions, his resting expression was one of boredom. As the night progressed, his face exuded disdain, then eye-rolling disdain, then disdain with a smidgen of disgust. Bloomberg the billionaire did not come to explain himself or to play nicely with the other candidates. He came to bask in his humanitarian certainty. He has come to save the day.
Stop your complaining.
Are billionaires inherently bad? That was a point of contention during the debate that was not settled, but the evening certainly proved that billionaire Bloomberg was the catalyst for a political bar brawl. Sen. Bernie Sanders’s face flushed red as he reached new heights of apoplectic fury over the amount of money that Bloomberg has pumped into his campaign: more than $400 million. Sanders, I-Vt., punched the air for emphasis. His voice roared and his eyes grew wide. He leaned forward into the microphone. Do you even need a microphone when your voice has reached the decibels of a howitzer?
Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., turned up wearing her familiar uniform: black trousers, black top, colorful blazer – this one purple – with the cuffs turned up. As always, she was loose-limbed, sharp elbowed and light on her feet. She opened with a double jab at Bloomberg, referencing allegations of demeaning and insulting language aimed at women.
“I’d like to talk about who we’re running against,” Warren said. “A billionaire who calls women ‘fat broads’ and ‘horse-faced lesbians.’ And no, I’m not talking about Donald Trump. I’m talking about Mayor Bloomberg.”
Bloomberg, who was standing to her right, didn’t flinch. She demanded that he release women with whom he’d settled sexual harassment cases from their nondisclosure agreements. He said no. Sure, he muttered some vague explanation of his thinking. But mostly, he just said no and left it at that. He faced questions about his advocacy of the stop-and-frisk policing policy. He repeated his explanation and his regret with about as much emotion as one might exhibit ordering a morning latte.
“I’ve apologized,” Bloomberg said. “I’ve asked for forgiveness.” And that’s that.
It may be that Bloomberg’s apology was sincere. But he did not come bearing an excess of empathy. He did not come with heart-wrenching stories of what he has learned about the effects of his policy on African American young men. He didn’t bring warmth. Or really even a smile. Or a pleasant expression. He didn’t ooze charisma. The billionaire simply showed up.
The other Democrats demanded to see his tax returns. Bloomberg told them they needed to be patient. “I can’t go to TurboTax,” he said dryly. Why not? Because he is a billionaire and the tax returns of billionaires are really, really long and complicated. So hold your horses.
Bloomberg and former vice president Joe Biden sparred over how closely the former mayor was aligned with President Barack Obama. Biden glared into the camera as he took Bloomberg to task for not supporting the Affordable Care Act. Bloomberg rebutted with barely more than a shrug.
Way over at stage left, former South Bend, Indiana, mayor Pete Buttigieg and Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., were having their own one-on-one battle over the importance of being able to name the president of Mexico when given a foreign policy pop quiz. They argued without scowling.
Bloomberg was not polite. He gripped the lectern. He gave sidelong glances. In addition to full-throated contempt, Bloomberg was armed with condescension. He summed up a conversation about Sanders’ economic policies as “ridiculous.”
“We’re not going to throw out capitalism,” he said.
Then Bloomberg mocked Sanders, a self-declared democratic socialist, for being a millionaire and having three homes. Sanders turned toward Bloomberg like a snake ready to strike. He ticked off his places in Washington and Vermont. Then he defended his right to a cabin in the country.
Bloomberg just turned away. And went back to looking bored.