Michael Bloomberg started his presidential campaign at Norfolk, Virginia, shaking hands with a snowy-haired afternoon crowd, drawing a combination of selfie requests and quizzical stares, before strolling to a nearby hotel ballroom and making an efficient statement before a bank of television cameras.
If Bloomberg’s first in-person appearance as a presidential candidate lacked something in organic political energy, he has already jolted the race through the sheer scale of his political spending, stunning the Democratic political establishment and stirring an outcry from the party’s populist wing. He is airing nearly $1 million in television ads in Virginia alone this week, as part of nearly $35 million in television advertising nationwide. Bystanders said they had already seen those ads.
In his remarks to the news media, Bloomberg invoked his record as mayor and his advocacy on issues like climate change and gun violence, education and smoking, and positioned himself as a political moderate who could bring the country together.
Alluding to the nearby military installation, Naval Station Norfolk, Bloomberg derided President Donald Trump as a lawless leader and quoted the resignation letter of the president’s former navy secretary, Richard Spencer, who quit last weekend after clashing with Trump over a disciplinary case involving a Navy SEAL accused of war crimes.
If Bloomberg’s first in-person appearance as a presidential candidate lacked something in organic political energy, he has already jolted the race through the sheer scale of his political spending, stunning the Democratic political establishment and stirring an outcry from the party’s populist wing
Bloomberg said, “The fact remains, we have a president, a commander-in-chief, who has no respect for the rule of law and no concern whatsoever for ethics or honour, or for the values that truly make America great.”
But the most consistent theme of the day, from the moment Bloomberg entered the casual D’Egg Diner, painted in subdued orange and off-white, was the financial firepower he has brought to the Democratic Party and some of its favourite causes.
Bloomberg, who is one of the wealthiest men in the country, entered the diner with Nancy Guy, a newly elected Virginia state legislator whose candidacy Bloomberg supported this fall. Bloomberg noted he had spent “hundreds of millions of dollars fighting the NRA,” including considerable “monies that we provided on gun safety” in Virginia’s recent elections, and had used his fortune to take on the coal and tobacco industries.
That avalanche of money has led several Democratic presidential candidates to point to Bloomberg’s campaign as an emblem of a broken system. Elizabeth Warren has derided Bloomberg as a wealthy interloper seeking to “buy a nomination in the Democratic Party,” and she urged voters to show that his approach would fail.
Battle of the billionaires
If Bloomberg is successful, Warren warned, then in the future, elections would be “about which billionaire you can stomach.”
“Michael Bloomberg is making a bet about democracy in 2020: He doesn’t need people, he only needs bags and bags of money,” Warren added. To at least some Democrats, bags of money do not sound like an unappealing asset in the context of a presidential race. (Bloomberg, 77, will be the second-oldest candidate among the Democrats in the race, as the party debates whether it is time for a new generation of leadership. Sanders, who took time off from the campaign trail after a heart attack in October, is the oldest at 78, followed by Biden (76) and Warren (70). Trump is 73).
And in Virginia, one of the Super Tuesday primary states Bloomberg is targeting in March, Democratic leaders say he has earned considerable good will for his prolific spending there over the last decade.
Whether that feeling of gratitude extends beyond Virginia’s political class is a great question mark.
— Alexander Burns is an American journalist and columnist who specialises in elections and US politics