The Dem establishment panic and the Bloomberg trial balloon

There are worse billionaires on the planet than Michael Bloomberg. Donald Trump, for starters (if you grant that he's really a billionaire). Also, Sheldon Adelson and Rupert Murdoch and the Saudi ruling family and whichever Koch brother is still above ground.

The three-term Republican New York City mayor has at least committed significant resources toward fighting climate change and for gun reform. And he made his mint — $57 billion — by founding a financial services firm that turned into a mass media company, not from pillaging impoverished countries or poisoning politics or by virtue of inheritance.

Still, it takes a special kind of entitlement to look at modern politics and assume that what Democratic voters really want is a 78-year-old patrician to swoop in and save them from themselves.

Learn how to read a room, Mike.

Last week, Bloomberg — who toyed with a run for president earlier this year before backing out — filed paperwork to get on the Democratic ballot in, of all places, Alabama. His spokesman said Bloomberg was worried about the current candidates' prospects against Trump.

This is an odd assessment for any number of reasons. Begin with the fact that the top five Dems are consistently beating Trump in polls. A recent Washington Post/ABC News survey had Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren, and Bernie Sanders besting him by between 14 and 17 points. To the degree the Democrats are weak, it's in the Rust Belt states whose outsize say in the Electoral College cost Hillary Clinton the White House in 2016. But do you think white working-class Michiganders are clamoring to vote for Mike Bloomberg?

Beyond giving some pundits and New York Times columnists a jolt in their nether regions, Bloomberg doesn't have a built-in constituency. He's Biden without the Obama shine and the Scranton roots. And he's basically wearing a "Kick Me" sign for Warren and Sanders.

As best I can tell, Bloomberg has one narrow path to the nomination. The Alabama primary takes place on Super Tuesday, March 3, alongside primaries in 15 other states, including North Carolina, Texas, Virginia, Colorado, and California, which, presumably, Bloomberg will also enter. By then, Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina will have voted, and the Democratic field will have winnowed. The bet, then, is that Biden will falter, and there will be no moderates left to face Warren and/or Sanders. Enter Bloomberg and his billions, the last stand of the centrists.

There are easier and more effective ways to accomplish this goal. Bloomberg could have, for instance, dropped $100 million into a super PAC to prop up Amy Klobuchar — a moderate who actually could win Rust Belt votes next year — without blinking. Instead, he'll do it himself. Obscene wealth is a hell of a drug.

To be clear, there's no guarantee Bloomberg will follow through on this trial balloon. I rather doubt he does. The initial polling doesn't show him blowing the doors off the joint — shocking, right? — and very rich, entitled men don't like to lose, especially on a public stage.

But Bloomberg's candidacy reflects a larger concern among Democratic donors and officials. They can see the writing on the wall: Biden is a weak front-runner. If nothing changes, the Democratic nominee will either be a cantankerous 78-year-old Vermont socialist or a 70-year-old Massachusetts policy wonk, both of whom have pushed the party leftward on health care, immigration, wealth taxes, climate policy, criminal justice reform, and a host of other issues.

For the party's operatives, this is risky on many fronts. Deep pockets might stop giving, scared off by the higher taxes they'd pay to fund the Green New Deal or Medicaid for All. Selfishly, the power structures from which they derive their incomes might erode in the coming realignment. The media will paint initiatives to curtail climate emissions and expand health care access — and asking rich people to pay for it — as Leninism 2.0.

But mostly, it's that Democrats have spent the generation since Ronald Reagan living in fear of their own shadows, assuming that the cards are stacked against them and that the best choice is the safest choice, the least divisive choice, the grown-up choice, even as the GOP reoriented itself radically rightward and its inmates took over the asylum.

This risk-aversion is understandable: Better-qualified Democratic candidates lost to intellectual welterweights George W. Bush and Donald Trump while winning the popular vote. So if the American people want a generic, inoffensive Democrat — Any Functioning Adult 2020! — to defeat Trump, what the hell, give it to them.

This is the unspoken calculus behind the Biden campaign. It's the calculus behind the Bloomberg tease, too: 2020 isn't about big ideas. This election is about a reset, about creating a post-Trump space in which the Republican Party can come to its senses, about making democracy function again.

This message is tailor-made for the centrist pundit, and perhaps for swing voters in a general election. But it's focused on the wrong question: The key to 2020 won't be wooing a shrinking pool of undecideds — people know whether they like Trump or not. The key is turnout: Trump's zealots will vote. Will Democratic voters mobilize?

Maybe restoring sanity is a good-enough incentive; maybe getting rid of Trump will do the trick, regardless of who replaces him. But even if the Democrat prevails, this election-as-reset theory is built on the fantasy that Trump is the cause and not a symptom of the GOP's embrace of white nationalism and authoritarianism, and that eliminating him will fix it.

More important, however: The world is burning right now, and climate change and inequality won't wait for the GOP to get its shit together. What Bloomberg — and, I suspect, Biden, too — is about to discover is that progressives are tired of being told to make nice while Republicans jump off a cliff.

This election isn't about accommodation. It's about bludgeoning the MAGA right into irrelevance.

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Jeffrey C. Billman

North Carolina-based journalist, focusing on politics and policy analysis.
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