Michael Bloomberg Will Be the Elephant at the Democratic Debate

Raise your hand if you predicted that Amy Klobuchar would be invited to the final Democratic Party debate before the Iowa Caucuses but Kamala Harris wouldn’t be, or if you thought there would be a mayor on the stage but no governors. Who believed billionaire Tom Steyer would be there but Cory Booker and Julián Castro would not?

There have been some surprises in the Democrats’ campaign so far, but one thing seemed predictable: Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders would be near the top of the pack. The media puts them at the top of the moderate and progressive camps, respectively, with Pete Buttigieg and Klobuchar joining Biden and Elizabeth Warren joining Sanders. Steyer is a bit of a wildcard.

Meanwhile, there are still some people who are technically running but didn’t make the cut, like businessman Andrew Yang and Senator Michael Bennet. And there is former Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick and billionaire media mogul Michael Bloomberg, both of whom got into the race very late.

The debate will air at 9 p.m. ET and be televised on CNN. Someone on that stage will almost certainly win the Iowa Caucuses and seize the early momentum in the race. At some point, though, they will have to reckon with Bloomberg, who is running a completely unconventional campaign. Here is how Michael Scherer of the Washington Post describes it:

The thing that makes Bloomberg different is that he can knock on all doors at once. Bloomberg is running aggressively to win the Democratic nomination, but he is simultaneously building out a general election machine to defeat President Trump, with a new structure—data, field organizing, advertising, and policy—that aims to elect Democrats up and down the ballot even if the party’s voters reject the former New York mayor this spring.

The party he is moving to transform, which he only rejoined in October, has become little more than a bystander to his ambition. With more than 800 employees, $200 million in ad spending so far and a fully catered Times Square office that houses hundreds of employees, “Mike Bloomberg 2020, Inc.” does not resemble a primary campaign in any traditional sense. It is an experiment in what happens to democracy when a single faction operates without economic constraints.

He has large ambitions, but his immediate electoral strategy is focused on winning the contests that begin in March. In this sense, the early contests in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Nevada are really about discovering if a single person can be found to take on Bloomberg or if he’ll face a scattered opposition.

This doesn’t make Tuesday’s debate unimportant, but it does cast it in a different light. Most people have been focused on deciding which candidate is best able to take on Donald Trump, but before they can get to him they will have to vanquish a different New York billionaire.

I’m sure this will come up during the debate, and perhaps Tom Steyer will argue that it takes a billionaire to beat billionaires. If he’s convincing, it will another sign that we’re beginning to resemble the oligarchic system that prevails in the former Soviet Union more than we resemble ourselves.

In the meantime, we’ll see more jousting among the progressive and moderate wings, as they compete to be the alternative to Bloombergism.

Support Nonprofit Journalism

If you enjoyed this article, consider making a donation to help us produce more like it. The Washington Monthly was founded in 1969 to tell the stories of how government really works—and how to make it work better. Fifty years later, the need for incisive analysis and new, progressive policy ideas is clearer than ever. As a nonprofit, we rely on support from readers like you.

Yes, I’ll make a donation

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly. See all his writing at ProgressPond.com