The rich are different from you and me — they can buy themselves instant presidential campaigns.
Former New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg has elbowed himself into the Democratic nomination race solely on the basis of his fortune.
His campaign is high-handed as only a billionaire many times over could even contemplate. He entered late, is skipping the early contests and hasn’t participated in any of the debates to date (although that will change soon, thanks to the Democratic National Committee retrofitting its rules for Bloomberg).
It’s a free country, and with more than $50 billion to his name, Bloomberg can spend as much money as he likes on whatever suits his fancy. But Bloomberg 2020 is still an affront to small-d democratic sensibilities, a tribute not to his superior political skills or messaging compared with the other candidates, but to his access to an enormous personal bank account.
The level of his spending is truly astonishing — Croesus goes all-in on Super Tuesday. Bloomberg spent more than $300 million on various forms of advertising. He’s single-handedly changed the market for TV ads in many places. He spent $10 million on a Super Bowl spot, or about half of what Joe Biden raised in the entire fourth quarter.
This is the Bloomberg way. He spent a quarter of a billion dollars to become and stay New York mayor for three terms. He was eligible for his third term only because he got a term-limit law changed, with the support of charities that he happened to make generous donations to.
What’s wrong with all this, beyond the cynicism of thinking everything has a price tag? Maybe Bloomberg is right, that trying to go in and convince voters of your appeal at town hall events and meet-and-greets in places like Iowa and New Hampshire is for suckers.
But there is much to be said for grassroots politics. It forces candidates to take account, up close and personal, of what their voters believe and want. As president, Abraham Lincoln devoted serious time to meeting with random people who showed up to see him, in what he called “public opinion baths.”
The candidate who does countless of these early-state events must have the ability to inspire and impress, think on his feet, show endless patience and stamina. If he’s not up for it, or is a pretender, he will inevitably be exposed.
In comparison to the other candidates, Bloomberg is a Wizard of Oz candidate, shielded and inflated by his TV ads.
Another advantage of the traditional approach is that anyone can do it. Pete Buttigieg, the unknown mayor of a small Indiana town, finished strong in Iowa through sheer talent, tireless work and clever messaging.
All this said, perhaps Bloomberg will break all the rules and be the last man standing between Bernie Sanders and the cusp of the American presidency. Then, his spending might look to a lot of Democrats like a public service. There is also no denying that Bloomberg is a genuinely talented man.
Yet this style of campaigning shouldn’t be the norm. If Bloomberg succeeds, he will enrich many TV stations, consultants, pollsters and campaign workers, but impoverish our politics.