In the midst of a predictably partisan impeachment trial, Donald Trump said not a word about the ongoing process or his abuse of power that led to it. Democrats may not be able to capitalize on Republicans’ exposed lack of morals in this year’s elections, facing deep fragmentation themselves, chaos in their primary processes and a problematic bid for the presidential nomination from an upbeat billionaire.
After an initial snub by President Trump and an unsmiling but confident State of the Union speech, Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic Speaker of the House, tore up the President’s text before the TV cameras, later calling it a ‘manifesto of misrepresentation.’ Staged or not, it was an effective moment. If the world hadn’t known it already, Pelosi’s fit of pique made it clear that nothing but hatred exists between the Democratic and Republican parties.
The speech and its attendant sideshows were predictable. Like most State of the Union speeches, Trump’s 78-minute-long oration consisted mainly of boasts about past accomplishments and rosy pictures of the future. This year’s version had the usual quotient of Trumpian lies and exaggerations, but was also distinguished by tropes more appropriate to potentates or quiz show hosts – awarding the Presidential Medal of Freedom to a bigoted right-wing radio commentator, granting a scholarship to an African American child and bringing an army sergeant home on a surprise visit to his wife and family.
The atmosphere in the House Chamber was deadly. No smiles, no bipartisan handholding; grim-looking generals and admirals, Democratic representatives exiting mid-speech. And the Speaker of the House, who never loses her cool, finally losing it.
The President had a good deal to gloat about. The impeachment effort had failed miserably. His popularity ratings are the highest they’ve ever been: 62% of Americans say that their economic situation is ‘excellent’ or ‘good,’ and London-based BookMaker.eu gives the president a 69% edge over any Democrat in the 2020 elections. Though nothing prohibits the Congress from impeaching the president again, his vindication is likely to encourage him to push his limits even further.
No wonder the Democrats are dispirited. The day before the State of the Union speech, failed technology delayed the results of the Democratic primary in Iowa, the first of a long series of tests of Democratic presidential hopefuls; as of this writing, the still-murky numbers indicate a dead heat between Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders and ex-mayor of South Bend Indiana Pete Buttigieg. But the results hardly matter. The next primaries will be equally indecisive. Sanders is likely to lead in New Hampshire, former vice president Joe Biden in South Carolina, and though progressive Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren probably won’t win anything, she and Buttigieg will do well enough to keep their hands in the game. Which leaves the party where it’s been for months: deeply, hopelessly divided.
Anti-Sanders sentiments are running rampant. The press has dubbed his more aggressive supporters ‘Bernie Bros,’ a class-tinged epithet that reflects some of the worst elitist tendencies in the Democrat camp. Hillary Clinton has said in a film documentary that Sanders did nothing to unify the party in 2016 after she won the nomination, and that ‘nobody likes him.’ Other Democrats doubt Sanders’s electability; with Bernie at the head of the ticket, they fear that Democratic candidates in swing-states will lose. A centrist group called Third Way is raising doubts about Bernie’s ‘potentially toxic background,’ while the Democratic Majority for Israel, a group of pro-Israel Democrats, has reportedly invested seven hundred thousand dollars in anti-Sanders TV ads.
All this is hardly unexpected. There were plenty of indications back in 2016 that the party did everything it could to quash the Sanders movement. On the other hand, it’s true that a few of his supporters do act like Trump heavies (Bernie supporters got into fistfights at Trump rallies in 2016), and that Sanders himself didn’t do much until fairly recently to address the intense battle waged on social media between some of his 10 million Twitter followers and more moderate Democrats.
The internal bickering doesn’t bode well for the Democrats’ ability to unite. The moderate vote is divided among several candidates like Biden, Buttigieg, tech entrepreneur Andrew Yang and Minnesota senator Amy Klobuchar, which dilutes its impact too much to be meaningful. Instead of debating policy, the candidates have begun to snipe at each other and spin their wheels.
Buying one’s way to the White House
And then there is Michael Bloomberg.
After declaring his candidacy less than three months ago, the ex-mayor of New York City has risen lighting-quick through the ranks. Recent polls put him at fourth place behind Sanders, Biden and Warren, and probably higher after the earlier frontrunner Biden’s poor showing in Iowa. Only a few days ago Bloomberg announced plans to double his advertising budget – although in two months he has already spent more on advertising than Obama did during his whole campaign. Whether or not Bloomberg, rated 12th richest man in the world, wins the nomination, runs as an independent, or puts some of his $54 billion fortune behind another candidate nominated by his party, his rise is worth studying, if only to see what unlimited money can buy in American politics, and to get a look at what will be the nature of Presidential campaigns in the years to come.
Bloomberg has been preparing for this race for years. After stepping back from a bid for the presidential nomination in 2016, he’s been active in environmental causes, serving in several capacities, among them UN Special Envoy on Cities and Climate Change.
But he also put tens of millions of dollars behind Democratic candidates in the 2018 midterm elections. One of his most effective strategies was to court mayors all around the country. A recent New York Times article described Bloomberg sponsoring a mayoral training program at Harvard, and how Bloomberg Philanthropies, the charitable arm of his tech corporation, has given over 350 million dollars in grants, technical assistance and educational aid to some 196 American cities.
The training program and grant-giving are typical of Bloomberg’s strategy: these are acts of legitimate, thoughtful altruism carried out with an eye to how they will further his political ambitions. The strategy has paid off: Bloomberg has been endorsed by over a dozen alumni of the Mayors for Mike program, including leaders of large cities like San Jose, California, and Houston, Texas.
In a more publicized – but related – gesture, last month Bloomberg offered a public apology for the controversial ‘stop-and-frisk’ policy that he supported during his years as New York Mayor. The policy allowed the police to stop and frisk any pedestrian whom they considered suspicious, which raised the ire of New York’s African American and Hispanic communities who were disproportionately targeted by the practice. Bloomberg’s mea culpa may have been sincere, yet in light of how decisive minority voters proved to be in the 2018 midterm elections, it’s hard not to see it as an effort to court votes that he’ll need if he is nominated.
By now Bloomberg has spent over 400 million dollars in TV and social media advertising in a clever, considered assault on what his media advisers – executives from Facebook and other social media – consider Trump’s weak points: his threats to reduce healthcare, lack of infrastructure funding and the general mood of chaos in the country. Bloomberg has increased his field staff to more than 2,000 people in 36 states, but has skipped the first four Democratic primaries and concentrated on ‘Super Tuesday,’ March 3, in which 14 states will choose 40% of the delegates to the convention.
According to his advisers, the tactic is a calculated gamble that will work only if Joe Biden doesn’t emerge from the early primaries as a strong contender. In the first primary in Iowa Biden finished a dismal 4th. Mike Bloomberg is a very smart man and plays the percentages well.
An upbeat billionaire
There’s an obvious problem in the Bloomberg candidacy: his obscenely large fortune. Even though Democrats have in the past backed wealthy candidates – Franklin Delano Roosevelt is perhaps the most notable – and even though their connection to the working class has frayed in recent decades, can they really get behind a candidate whose fortune equals the annual GDP of Switzerland or Sweden?
Bloomberg has offered a partial answer. A fairly radical tax plan – not as radical as that of Sanders or Warren, but perhaps radical enough to answer doubters who say that a billionaire will always put his money above the people. Bloomberg doesn’t support the ‘wealth tax’ proposal of Sanders or Warren, which he maintains is unconstitutional. Instead, he favours increasing the tax ceiling and raising income, capital gains, and corporate taxes significantly. He also proposes doubling the federal minimum wage, encouraging labour unions, and supporting entrepreneurs – a plan that he says will yield five trillion dollars in federal tax revenue in a decade.
If there’s any area in which Bloomberg can be trusted, it’s money. The son of an accountant who worked seven days a week, he managed to reverse a $2 billion New York City deficit and return the city to the black. Whether the Democrats want to nominate someone who will run the country like a corporation is, of course, another matter.
The party establishment has already bent over backwards to make room for Bloomberg. Recently it reversed a ruling that only candidates who’d gotten contributions from thousands of donors are allowed to participate in TV debates; now Bloomberg can participate even though he’s financing his own campaign.
Of the several candidates, Bloomberg seems to be the most upbeat. No wonder: all evidence indicates that Trump is afraid of him. The President tweets about Bloomberg regularly, dubbing him ‘Mini-Mike.’ When Bloomberg bought a 10 million dollar ad during the Superbowl, Trump had to have one too. When Trump accused him on Twitter of creating fake news, Bloomberg tweeted back: ‘Glad to see that you’re watching our ads!’
But serious questions about Bloomberg’s candidacy remain. Can the party overlook all the candidates who have been competing for the nomination for years? Can the progressive wing of the party stomach Bloomberg? If he’s not nominated, will he do as he has pledged and back the candidate of choice, or will his ego get the better of him and lead him to run as an independent? And even if he is able to win over centrist Democrats and moderate Republicans, would they be enough to swing the election in his favour?
The next months promise to be the most agonizing time that the Democratic party has faced in decades, and their National Convention in Milwaukee Wisconsin in July the most turbulent since 1968. In less than four years, Trump has morphed from a buffoon to a genuine demagogue; and the fact is that, Bloomberg or not, the Democrats really have no clue how to stop him.
Published 10 February 2020
Original in English
First published by Eurozine
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