Tonight is the 72nd Democratic presidential debate of February 2020 and everybody is very excited! To debate Michael Bloomberg!
Bloomberg, the billionaire former New York City mayor who has already spent more on traditional advertising for his presidential campaign than anybody ever, has been blasting up national polls over the last two weeks. But tonight will be the first time this campaign when he’ll actually have to appear somewhat like a normal candidate — show up on a stage carefully groomed by a TV network, in a traditional early campaign state, with other people who would also like to be president but would prefer to be somewhere else at that particular moment.
The reason for opposing candidate enthusiasm is obvious: Bloomberg’ll have to be One of Us and can’t just keep rising on the back of his infinite TV ads and sprawling campaign; he’ll have to face the traditional questions about health care policy and whatever else from moderators; he'll have to stand there and face labored-over attacks from everyone; he’ll have his facial expressions and hand gestures and possible mouth errors broadcast, for memes.
Bloomberg, though, is not a total amateur.
Debates when you’re running for mayor of New York, occasionally wedged between the traffic report and a Yankees playoff game, aren’t the high-pressure affairs of a presidential debate. Bloomberg’s experience in one-on-one debates with city officials over a decade ago doesn’t mean he’s all set to defend himself against very prepared people who have been debating each other at least once a month since last summer.
But you can still learn a bit about what to expect from Bloomberg tonight from watching his old debates, or at least I hope you can, as I spent two hours this week watching Bloomberg’s last debate from his first campaign in 2001 and his final debate from his last campaign in 2009. The two debates show both how Bloomberg’s style and ability shifted as he became more of an established politician, and how eager he can be to defend himself and bring whatever research he has to break down someone else. They show how his specific brand of awkward translates to TV. And they give a sense of how he could respond to a few specific issues that could come up tonight.
“Most people assumed I would easily win any debate. I shared that assumption, in terms of anticipation," Mark Green, the former New York City public advocate who lost a close race against Bloomberg in 2001, said in an interview Tuesday night. "The truth is that during the debate, while I felt comfortable, I remember saying to myself, Wait a second, he’s doing better than I thought!"
His party loyalty.
The last debate of 2001 and the final weeks of the year's mayoral campaign came at a very specific moment for New York City — the city was still reeling from 9/11. The primary had been stopped and rescheduled; there was an argument over whether to grant then-mayor Rudy Giuliani’s request and extend out his term as mayor. And the Democratic frontrunner, Green, was suddenly being pressured by the out-of-nowhere billionaire Bloomberg, who had recently moved to become a Republican after being a Democrat his whole life. He got Giuliani’s endorsement days before the debate, which probably helped.
One question that night (and during the campaign generally): Was Bloomberg’s party switch just opportunism to avoid a clogged Democratic primary?
“Well I was a Democrat up until about a year ago,” Bloomberg said. “It was obvious I could not run for mayor in the Democratic Party.”
“My rival on page 232 of his book Bloomberg by Bloomberg — and they call me arrogant — said that not only is politics a noble profession, but that people should stick with the parties that they like,” Green said. “He wrote, ‘I will give money to any Democrat even if the Republican is more qualified.’ As Warner Wolf would say, go to the videotape, you can look it up.”
“Well, number one, I’m glad that Mark’s read the book,” Bloomberg replied, with a bit of a smirk, before teasing him for knowing the page number.
The rest of the response was a standard appeal to nonpartisanship. “It isn’t so important whether you’re a Republican or a Democrat, as long as you’re a New Yorker,” he said. “If we’ve learned anything, it is getting people together here in a nonpartisan way, that’s what we’ve done since Sept. 11, that’s what we have to do to go forward. I’ve got to have lots of votes in this city regardless of party. And if we can put together that fusion coalition, we can make it better."
Bloomberg, who won his last term as mayor as an independent, registered as a Democrat in 2018.
Green — who is now, among other things, the recent author of Fake President and is supporting Sen. Elizabeth Warren for president — felt Bloomberg succeeded in 2001 in part because of low expectations. “While he was quite shallow on public affairs and didn’t have much of a presence, he was personally poised, spoke well, and got by," Green said. "In other words, the bar was low because it was not his realm."
Bloomberg tonight, he said, "will exceed low expectations."
His past comments.
One thing you can expect to see in tonight’s debate is other candidates (or moderators) push Bloomberg to answer for recently resurfaced comments he’s made about women and about people of color. A version of this played out in 2001.
In that debate, Green got a chance to ask Bloomberg a question and went for it with a series of specific past comments attributed to Bloomberg.
Green cited, among other quotes, incidents where Bloomberg allegedly had said rape “could be prosecuted only if there was a third-party witness” and that domestic violence “is a quality of life crime.”
Bloomberg’s defense: “They were certainly said, but out of context.” And then reasonable preparation to give the context.
“When it came time, the issue of saying you needed a third-party witness, it was for a five-year-old case that the judge dismissed,” Bloomberg said. “Two years after an event occurred, you do need some kind of corroborating evidence, and the judge said that. In terms of quality of life crimes, the issue is not the label, the issue is how do you stop the despicable behavior of domestic violence? Don’t worry about labels, worry about the substance. That’s what my company has done, that’s what I’ve done. We’re not talkers, we don’t have an ideological position, we’re not worried about labels, what we’re trying to do is to just go and do something about domestic violence. Once again, you’re taking these things out of context, and it’s the typical smear when time gets close.”
How he goes after opponents.
Bloomberg hasn’t been in a political debate since late October 2009. But that debate, with Democrat Bill Thompson, was particularly contentious. Thompson, then the city’s comptroller, repeatedly lit into Bloomberg for many of the same things his Democratic 2020 opponents have brought up this month.
The mayor, Thompson said, is engaged in “pay-to-endorse politics” and buying political support, out of touch with regular people, responsible for policies that are pricing the middle class out of New York. And, Thompson said, Bloomberg’s administration was targeting New Yorkers with “an excessive number” of parking tickets. (This one probably won’t come up tonight, but.)
Bloomberg made an attempt at a one-liner about his spending — “He’s getting money to his campaign, and I’m giving money out” — but mostly kept turning the debate back on Thompson.
The mayor fixated on what he said were Thompson’s shortcomings when he was leading the city’s board of education, repeatedly bringing the debate onto terms he was more comfortable with. Thompson, he said, “failed our future.” He “paved the way” for mayoral control of the city’s schools because “everybody looked at this job that was done in the 1990s when you ran the board of ed and they said, ‘no más.’” (Spanish!)
And, amid an economic crisis, Bloomberg kept pushing the price of what Thompson wanted to do as mayor. “I can’t keep straight who he wants to tax, but he’s going to tax somebody,” Bloomberg said.
Bloomberg knew what he was in for in that last debate — most of Thompson’s criticisms were widespread among Democrats in the city by that time. He was prepared to defend himself on the specifics and prepared with specific counters to both change the subject and try and weaken his opponent.
Green wouldn't disclose much particular advice for Democrats facing off with Bloomberg tonight. “I have been speaking to a candidate about this, won’t say who, but you can guess," he said. But he said Bloomberg has an "Achilles heel of being kind of Wall Street haughty, with a rich guy’s condescension of everybody else, and he gets annoyed if he’s questioned too vigorously or closely."
There's a downside, though, to a Bloomberg pile-on to poke at that Achilles' heel, Green said: You typically get more time if you're attacked. "If they all go after him, he could end up with 25 minutes of airtime while the others average 12.”