Michael Bloomberg will participate in his first Democratic presidential debate tonight. The conventional wisdom holds that he’s in for a tough night — a comeuppance, his detractors would say.
That’s certainly the Washington Post’s take in this article by Michael Scherer. He writes, seemingly with glee:
Wednesday night, Bloomberg will be forced to leave his comfort zone and test his chops as a charismatic politician. When he steps onto the debate stage in Las Vegas for his first hostile and uncontrolled campaign test, there will be no management decisions to make, teleprompters to lean on or endless ad budgets to filter his image with focus-grouped messaging.
That’s all true. In addition, Bloomberg will likely be the special target of nearly everyone on the stage. Sanders will attack Bloomberg because the former mayor may now be his most dangerous rival and because Sanders loves to say “billyonaezes.”
Other leading contenders will come after Bloomberg because his emergence threatens to push them further down the chain of being than they already are. Plus, they resent the fact that he’s ahead of them despite their year on the hustings.
All of this may, indeed, produce a brutal evening for Bloomberg. However, the Post’s David Von Drehle — that rarest of Washington Post journalists, an against the grain thinker — has a different view.
Von Drehle has taken the trouble to watch Bloomberg’s performances in debates held in 2001, 2005, and 2009 when he was running for mayor of New York City. In a column also notable for the zingers he directs at the Democratic debates collectively, Von Drehle writes:
Perhaps Bloomberg has lost a step or two in the more than 10 years since his last encounter. . .Based on the record, though, expect to see a disciplined, efficient debater. Bloomberg doesn’t swing for the fences. To borrow from another sport, he’d rather jab than throw haymakers. He never looks as though he’s shuffling through a mental file marked “zingers,” but he’s deadly with the subtle eyeroll.
Bloomberg’s style projects the brusque self-confidence and worldly competence of a self-made mega-billionaire. He’s not a pleaser — he has that in common with both Sanders and Trump. A typical Bloomberg moment came in 2001 when he was asked the perennial question posed to all would-be New York mayors: What are you going to do for those neglected stepsisters, the Bronx and Queens? Rather than kiss up to Corona, the plutocrat basically said that Manhattan will always be where the action is, get over it. However, he added, he could move some government jobs to the outer boroughs. This practical measure would shorten commutes for city workers while freeing up space for more big corporations in the heart of the city.
Von Drehle goes on to report that all three of the Bloomberg debates he watched “produced more policy detail in an hour than the presidential Democrats have tackled in a year.”
If Bloomberg projects this sort of competence, expertise, and authenticity tonight, it may negate attacks on his wealth and campaign spending, and partially deflect attention from his past utterances — some of which are genuinely offensive and some of which run contrary to Democratic orthodoxy.
However, Scherer reports that Bloomberg is receiving a huge amount of debate coaching from his army of advisers. I wonder whether all of this preparation will give rise to a less authentic and ultimately less sympathetic version of Bloomberg than the one Von Drehle observed earlier this century.
I don’t know what to expect, but I look forward to watching it.