Is the Democratic Party ready for receivership? Clearly not, judging by the beating that billionaire Michael Bloomberg absorbed last week in his first debate, in Nevada. The more interesting question is whether the Democrats might be ready to surrender to one by July, when the Democratic National Convention meets in Milwaukee.
Bloomberg is meeting with his advisers this weekend to consider how to respond to the hazing he received in Las Vegas, especially from Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren. Here’s the way Courtney Weaver, US political correspondent for the Financial Times, put it in her excellent Big Read dispatch yesterday, “A hostile takeover bid roils party”:
Hanging over the meeting will be the fundamental question about Mr. Bloomberg’s hostile takeover bid for the Democratic party – whether the 78-year-old billionaire can salvage his campaign, including through a stronger performance in the next debate [in South Carolina] on Tuesday, or whether, after spending more than $400 million of his vast fortune so far, he is engaged in little more than an extensive ego trip.
It is true that Bloomberg must sharpen his debate performances. He is not the first general to be bloodied in his inaugural battle. But whatever pundits conclude about what will have happened in the South Carolina debate will mean relatively little compared to the vote counts after the Super Tuesday primaries on March 3. That’s when voters in 14 states, including California and Texas, will go to the polls, deciding close to a third of DNC delegates.
The cardinal fact is that Bloomberg has vaulted into second place among Democratic candidates in matchups against Donald Trump in a series of recent general election polls, second to Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders. The average of credible polls of all voters by Real Clear Politics shows Bloomberg preferred to Trump 49.6 to 45.0, a fact that went virtually unremarked in most debate commentary. Sanders was preferred to Trump 50.2 to 45.6 in another RCP average. It is possible to believe one and not the other.
I cannot remember a time when mainstream pundits took so much authority unto themselves as they did last week. David Brooks, Bret Stephens, even Edward Luce wrote as if they were theater critics with the authority to close a Broadway production. It was a further symptom of the very real Trump Derangement Syndrome, I reckoned: the extent to which the prospect of a second term for Trump evokes despair and despair impairs judgement. (See this helpful column by never-Trump veteran Ross Douthat instead.) Meanwhile other candidates’ handlers were spinning whomever and however they could.
In politics, a hostile takeover bid that succeeds is called receivership. I first used the term in December 2016, six weeks after the election. I mentioned the last time the US had elected an outsider to the presidency, in 1952. Dwight Eisenhower had worked out extremely well, I wrote, but already there were “plentiful signs of [Trump] becoming a disaster.” It was time to begin to think ahead.
To what? Polarization will be even worse by 2020. We’ll badly need to elect a president who can be trusted. It’s not too soon for the rudderless Dems to begin thinking about the possibility of drafting a soldier-statesman of their own…
At the time, the best exemplar I could think of was Robert Gates (b. 1943), who had served as Secretary of Defense under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama. Two months later, in February 2017, as the extent of Trump’s unsuitability was beginning to become clear, I expanded a little:
Democrats are facing a stark choice in 2020. They can hope that a suitable candidate appears out of the mists, and risk the kind of circular-firing-squad primaries that produced President Trump. Call this the Lochinvar strategy. Or they can seek to persuade some centrist figure to accept a draft from the party, a fusion candidate who might govern from the center in the White House while both major parties reorient themselves. Call this the receivership approach.
Now Bloomberg (b. 1942), former Republican, three-term mayor of New York City, financial data billionaire, has volunteered for the job. He is better-suited to the job than Gates, though not so well as Eisenhower. He has accomplished much and has money to burn. The $400 million or so he has spent thus far amounts to barely a tenth of his income this year from his $60+ billion fortune.
More to the point, Bloomberg is a center-left pragmatist with especially strong and well-tested convictions about the need to rein in world-wide atmospheric pollution. And he may indeed be the single most knowledgeable critic extant of his fellow New Yorker.
What Bloomberg needs to do in his meeting this weekend is come up with ways to make his takeover bid a good deal less hostile than it now seems. There are nice things to be said about all of his rivals, including Elizabeth Warren, who must by now be a special bête noire. He needn’t say much, as she will continue to sink in the polls. Warren’s many estimable qualities, as well as her deficiencies as a presidential candidate, are analyzed by Caroline Frasier in the current New York Review of Books (subscription required). The latter turn out to be generational.
He may not be able to do this. He never was a good retail politician. His humor tends toward the sarcastic. And great wealth tends to insulate and isolate its possessor from the travails of everyday life. But he should try. There are ways of talking about what Bloomberg thinks he is doing that would make him a less forbidding figure.
So never mind the pundits, or the opinion polls. See what voters have to say on March 3. There’s time enough then to count delegates and discuss the intricacies of convention rules
Whatever else, Bloomberg’s candidacy is not going into history as an ego trip. Venture capitalist Tom Steyer’s campaign is more nearly an example of that. And from the point of view of most Democrats, Sanders’ takeover campaign is even more hostile. Unlike Bloomberg, he’s not even a registered Democrat!