What appeared to be a ritual demolishing of the billionaire candidate may humanize him to voters.
Michael Bloomberg must have expected the ambush. He should have prepared himself. For some reason, he didn’t. In his first presidential debate, in Las Vegas last night, his rivals pelted him with rotten fruit. Standing there at the end of the row of candidates, taking it, he seemed inert and discomfited. He made me think of a marble bust. He looked vaguely like William McKinley.
Welcome, the others jeered, to the presidential race. It was a ritual hazing—cruel and a little too easy. The 2020 Democrats, especially the Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren supporters on the left, enjoy the theater of Cultural Revolution now and then, and Donald Trump’s “Mini-Mike” was the perfect specimen-bourgeois billionaire, led out to be tormented in the public square and condemned for his deviations—for his off-color (and weirdly off-center) remarks, for stop-and-frisk, and above all, for his plutocrat’s money. There was a frisson of Robespierre in the spectacle, an aspect of pent-up fury, of revenge.
Next morning, the commentators shoveled on further obloquy. They agreed that in this debut, the billionaire had “lost,” and that his novel, Wizard of Oz candidacy was badly damaged. He’d been forced out from behind his campaign of slick and expensive television advertising and required to show himself, in real time, for what he is.
The consensus on the left declared the evening a triumph for Warren. She was “on fire.” She was “aflame.” MSNBC and the New York Times editorial board assumed that her fiery passion was a good thing. They used the word “eloquent.” Warren insulted Bloomberg as mercilessly as she knew how, her relentless voice hammering and quavering, her hair bouncing as usual, her blue eyes flashing behind the oval panes of her eyeglasses. The performance seemed to pay off in all directions; the Warren campaign raised $3 million in contributions in the hours after the debate. These things are a matter of taste. Senator Warren’s indignation struck me, anyway, as narcissistic (a common affliction on the left). People out in the un-woke reaches of the country find that quality to be not just unlikeable but unbearable.
Bernie Sanders, as usual, was simply indignant. That is his main attraction—the integrity of his indignation. If anybody won the Las Vegas debate, it was Sanders. Or perhaps it was a tie between him and young Pete Buttigieg, who, amid the brawl (old people pumping their arms and shouting like self-centered, insecure adolescents demanding attention and waving their report cards) appeared calm, self-possessed, intelligent. Barack Obama in debates used to convey something of the same quality: coolness and reserve. So did John Kennedy. Such demeanor played well as the old people traded medical notes about their stents.
Joe Biden had, for him, a good and lively night. And yet, thin and pale, he has become the Democrats’ Knight of Woeful Countenance—or the ghost of Christmas past.
I suspect that the reviews panning Bloomberg misunderstood the impact of his Las Vegas performance on the campaign as it advances. It may be, of course, that Bloomberg will not connect with voters and that his hundreds of millions will come to nothing. That is unknowable. For the moment, I suspect that the other candidates’ ceremonial bashing of his faults during the Vegas debate will have the effect of subtly inoculating him. In certain voters’ minds—if not those on the left—the evening made him appear to be mortal and ordinary and fallible and, therefore, human, despite the money and all those embarrassing nondisclosure agreements. Mortal and ordinary are his ticket of admission—a political visa.
I am speaking of a reaction that may set in among moderate Democrats, centrists, independents, and the vast number of reluctant Trump supporters who would vote for a Democrat if only the Democrats would nominate someone plausible—trustable. To such people, Bloomberg might be the one. The seemingly humiliating debate may serve to prepare voters—in almost subconscious ways—to be receptive to Bloomberg. They may find satisfaction in forgiving a man with all that money. Some voters may be inclined to be faintly disgusted by the other Democrats’ attacks on him, which had a crow-like, mobbing quality. Bloomberg played somewhat against his enemies’ stereotype: he did not act the arrogant billionaire. He stood and listened and blinked and at length pointed out—almost pleadingly—that he gave a lot of his money away and that his money was on the side of good. It was a lame answer, but perhaps the right one.
America has always vexed itself with the question: What shall we do with all this wealth and power? How can we use it to accomplish good? As the campaign unfolds, it’s possible that voters will begin thinking about Bloomberg in that light, in the context of his idea of public service, which is, after all, highly developed. They may come to think of the Las Vegas debate as a sort of ritual lustration.
Lance Morrow, the Henry Grunwald Senior Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, was an essayist at Time for many years.