Money can't insulate Bloomberg on the debate stage
Going into the third Democratic nominating contest of this primary season, Pete Buttigieg and Bernie Sanders are virtually tied in the (currently meaningless) delegate stakes. The latter has established himself as the de facto front-runner. The next most formidable candidate in the race, however, has not stood on a single debate stage or appeared on a single ballot so far. Thanks to hundreds of millions of dollars in self-financed advertising, Michael Bloomberg is leading recent state polls in Florida, Oklahoma, and Arkansas; neck-and-neck with Sanders in Virginia; and coming in second in California.
Standing aloof from the field and letting his internet and television consultants do his arguing for him has suited Bloomberg and his strengths (which, so far as I am aware, even his supporters would say do not extend much beyond his wealth) up to this point. Wednesday's Democratic debate in Las Vegas will be the first time that he has been forced to articulate his views in the company of his opponents. His debut comes amid a number of reports about his views on race, women, and policing that could politely be described as unflattering.
How are things likely to go for Bloomberg in Vegas? President Trump has predicted that he will flop. His assessment is more colorful than those of Sanders and Elizabeth Warren but if anything even less negative. We should expect both of them to come out strongly against Bloomberg's record (though Sanders may want to avoid the "He's not even a Democrat!" line) on criminal justice and financial regulation and to argue that his fortune, not so implicitly his main pitch, precludes him from seeking the presidency in the first place.
A more important question is what his fellow moderates will have to say. Buttigieg has already made it clear that he is willing to have it both ways. For Joe Biden, Bloomberg presents the best opportunity he has had yet to burnish his supposed credentials as a no-nonsense man of the people, and the billionaire shares too many of his own weaknesses (age, a less-than-progressive record, the perception that he is a pet of the DNC establishment) to have any serious line of defense against this kind of rhetoric. My dark horse here is Amy Klobuchar, who I predict will attempt to appeal to Midwestern common sense by echoing right-wing talking points about the former mayor's history of banning Slurpees. Something like this will register with many viewers even though it is likely to be widely derided in the press.
The question is how much of a difference any of this is likely to make. Will anyone who was otherwise sanguine about the prospect of one of the richest men in the world almost literally buying the presidential nomination of one of our two major political parties change his mind because Sanders says it's bad on television? What voters who are uncomfortable with Bloomberg's past statements on the subjects of race and crime will leap into the arms of Biden, whose own less than edifying contributions to these debates are even more well known? More to the point: if the single most important thing in the minds of millions of likely primary voters is beating Trump regardless of the cost, will it really matter who the potential vehicle is for it, especially if he begins to seem inevitable?
Bloomberg's billions will not help him to win a televised debate. But they may shield him from the otherwise significant consequences of losing one.
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