When former New York City mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, the eighth-wealthiest vertebrate in the solar system, entered the race for the Democratic nomination for the presidency late last year and began buying advertising at an unprecedented pace, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., had harsh words for him.
First, in November, she said that his candidacy threatened to turn democracy into a choice between “which billionaire you can stomach.” Then, on Bloomberg’s own news network in December, she went even further: "I don't think, as a Democratic Party, that we should say that the only way you're going to get elected, the only way you're going to be our nominee, is either if you are a billionaire, or if you're sucking up to billionaires,” she told interviewer Joe Weisenthal.
But her reprimand of her own party fell largely on deaf ears and so Bloomberg arrived at last Tuesday’s debate in Las Vegas — his first time facing the candidates he and his money entered the race against — more or less wearing a bullseye. Warren yelled at him, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., yelled at him, even former Vice President Joe Biden took him to task for lying about his record on Obamacare — which Bloomberg has criticized repeatedly, calling it a “disgrace” in a speech at Dartmouth in 2010 and “really dysfunctional” in a speech to a finance industry trade association in 2014. (Bloomberg said on Tuesday he is now “a fan of Obamacare”; it is clearly a recent fandom.)
It was hard to watch Bloomberg’s snippy, abrasive, eye-rolling performance without a touch of schadenfreude. If Bloomberg was a sovereign nation and his $63.7 billion personal wealth (at the time of this writing) was that nation's gross domestic product, the IMF would rank him between Belarus (pop. 9.5 million) and Costa Rica (pop. 4.9 million), and the audience booed him so loudly that it’s noted in the transcript. Twice.
The problem with Bloomberg, as New Yorkers who lived under his administration already know, is that his wealth gives him the rare ability — unlike the current, thinner-skinned president — to smugly absorb insult after insult and demand after demand for some demonstration of personal decency without changing his behavior, or, indeed, his facial expression.
Take, for example, his acquisition by personal fiat of a third term as mayor in 2008, which he had gotten passed by a city council over which he wielded tremendous — and harmful — influence, despite the term limits law that voters had repeatedly upheld by referendum. Municipal law required the mayor to listen to members of the public who wished to comment on any bill he was about to sign, and he sat calmly as scores of constituents, many very angry, told him off for subverting the express wishes of voters. He took four hours of this abuse from New Yorkers, and then he signed the bill anyway.
Bloomberg always does exactly what he wants, and his implied proposition to people from whom he wants something has always been one of textbook — if scrupulously legal — corruption: Take his money and be nice to him, and he will give you more of his money, his supply of which is effectively unlimited. The quarter of a billion dollars he’s spent on ads — in a primary, by the way — probably doesn’t even spend his vast wealth down; if his current net worth is managed competently, that vast sum only slows its growth slightly. Knock a little more than ten percent off his net worth and you’ve paid in full for both the Trump and the Clinton campaigns in the 2016 general election.
Democrats don’t have to buy what Bloomberg is selling; Bloomberg isn’t literally extorting them, he’s just backing up the money truck and letting them come to their own conclusions. But plenty liberal organizations have done just that. Women’s rights PAC EMILY’s List has happily invited Bloomberg to their events even as as he's dodged allegations of discrimination and harassment. The Center for American Progress took his money and then coincidentally removed any mention of Bloomberg — and an entire chapter on surveillance of Muslims by the New York City Police Department — from a 2015 report on anti-Muslim bias in the U.S., according to the New York Times.
In private conversation, more than one nonprofit executive at this or that noble organization has admitted to me that they don’t really believe in "dirty money" or turning it down. If donations from Bloomberg (or Jeffrey Epstein, or whoever the wealthy pariah du jour happens to be) don’t go to me, they’ll go to someone else, and I’ll do better work with it than that person will. Bloomberg's candidacy is a logical extension of this thinking: My money can help us do great things together, like beat Donald Trump.
Warren — who has neither the financial support of donor-class Democrats to her right nor the legions of hardcore fans of her colleague Sanders — seems most keenly aware of how thoroughly these sorts of compromises destroy the moral fabric of the people who make them.
Bloomberg is capitalism’s excesses more or less incarnate — an anti-union oligarch who championed racist policing and contributed millions to water-poisoning Michigan governor Rick Snyder. Warren, who personally defeated a Bloomberg-backed Republican, Scott Brown, to win her Senate Seat, has represented a check on his exact brand of unfettered capitalism her whole career, and has worked tirelessly to subdue the industries and individuals that profit from hurting ordinary people. But as opponents savage her for refusing to disavow a super PAC that has launched to support her underfunded campaign, that sterling record may be her tragedy.
The unfettering of political money that came with the 2010 Supreme Court decision Citizens United v. the FEC has certainly contributed to the fundamental brokenness that Warren proposes to fix, but it is wrong to let Democrats off the hook: This is the party, after all, that dismantled a crucial component of its get-out-the-vote apparatus, ACORN, when a right-wing dissembler faked a sting video at one of its offices so brazenly that a man in the video sued him and got a large cash settlement and an apology.
Many people, some of them genuinely well-meaning, have raised concerns about Warren’s electability, both on the basis of the regrettable sexism of the U.S. electorate and on the basis of her having been boxed in — fairly or unfairly — as Diet Bernie. Now that Bloomberg has passed her in national polls against Trump, it seems fair to hear him make the case for his own electability — and to compare the depth of their policy plans.
One of Warren’s better innovations is her universal childcare plan, unveiled last year, which would guarantee affordable childcare and early learning opportunities to people with children under five.
Compare this to Bloomberg’s own childcare plan for one of his employees, suggested to her in person in 1993 and documented in a subsequent lawsuit: “It’s a f------ baby! All it does is eat and s---! It doesn’t know the difference between you and anyone else! All you need is some black who doesn’t even have to speak English to rescue it from a burning building!”
Last November, Warren told Iowa voters that “His view is that he doesn't need people who knock on doors, he doesn't need to get out and campaign with people, he doesn't need volunteers." She added, "If you get out and knock on a thousand doors, he'll just spend another 37 million dollars and that's how he plans to win a nomination in the Democratic party.”
A democracy that only works for people like Bloomberg and Trump, Warren finished, is “fundamentally broken.” We may all find out this summer if she was right.