Bloomberg was primed. Why did he sputter?

  • >>Matt Flegenheimer, Alexander Burns and Jeremy W Peters, The New York Times
    Published: 2020-02-21 11:45:05 BdST

Michael Bloomberg had put in the hours, his people said — holding mock debate sessions with top aides and meeting at length to prepare in New York and Palm Springs, California.

His campaign had anticipated the unsurprising questions about allegations of a hostile workplace for women at his company, stop-and-frisk policing in his city, the unseemliness of a Democratic contender who has long written checks to Republicans. And Bloomberg recognized that he would have to answer them or at least deflect serviceably enough to survive.

But Bloomberg’s debate performance Wednesday proved so lacklustre that both supporters and rivals counted themselves taken aback, leaving his campaign more rattled than at any point since he entered the race. While Bloomberg sought to project a steely calm Thursday during a swing through Utah, he and his team have been left to explain away a comedown that exposed some of his gravest liabilities.

Howard Wolfson, one of Bloomberg’s closest advisers, on Thursday shouldered the blame for the outcome of the debate.

“I led the debate prep, and I accept the responsibility for inadequately preparing him,” Wolfson said.

Several people close to the Bloomberg campaign, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private concerns, said that the former New York mayor’s advisers had quietly acknowledged that Bloomberg would have to take a wholly different approach to the next debate, in South Carolina on Tuesday night.

Bloomberg himself signalled plans to ratchet up attacks on the party’s nominal front-runner, Sen Bernie Sanders of Vermont, trying to shift focus to a progressive foil.

“So, how was your night last night?” Bloomberg joked to a crowd of hundreds in Salt Lake City on Thursday morning. He warned that the party “may be on the way to nominating someone who cannot win in November.”

“If we choose a candidate who appeals to a small base like Sen Sanders,” he concluded, “it will be a fatal error.”

Yet if Bloomberg had hoped this week to present the primary as a two-man show, his debut onstage seemed only to invigorate his competition. More moderate peers, already exasperated at the Bloomberg campaign’s implication that they should step aside for him, seemed particularly emboldened after his unsteady night, even as the muddle of centre-left candidates threatened to improve Sanders’ chances of racking up victories in a fractured field.

Bloomberg’s presence has also helped instill fresh clarity and energy to the campaign of Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, who followed her blistering debate with a continued offensive Thursday against the former mayor.

“I’ll bet he’s reaching in his pocket and spending $100 million more on advertising,” Warren said on “The View,” “to try to erase everyone’s memory of what happened last night.”

Anxious for weeks about how their candidate might handle the unforgiving lights of a presidential debate, some in Bloomberg’s circle were at once alarmed at the results and eager to place his failure in perspective. As much as he struggled, he is still sitting on a fortune no one else can match, stuffing the electoral map with expensive advertising buys and staff hiring that has powered his rise in state and national polls. Several voters in Utah conveyed little concern Thursday about the ramifications of a single tumultuous evening.

But for a man asking Democrats to trust that he is the most capable and formidable opponent for President Donald Trump — no nonsense, no surrender, no baggage heavy enough to sink him — his sluggish showing in Las Vegas could amount to a troubling data point, reflecting on both his political talents and his team’s feel for the 2020 moment.

Neal Kwatra, a veteran Democratic strategist who dealt extensively with Bloomberg’s City Hall, said the former mayor’s advisers had done him a “double disservice.”

“You know your guy isn’t good at this kind of political engagement anyway,” Kwatra said, arguing that Bloomberg should have skipped the debate even after qualifying. “And then you put him in harm’s way with competition that has been doing nothing but this.”

Among other concerns, allies have acknowledged Bloomberg’s vulnerability on the history of nondisclosure agreements at his company with former female employees amid allegations of mistreatment. His difficulty in explaining those agreements is likely to persist, the allies said, for the simple reason that there is not a particularly good answer he can give. People close to the campaign conceded that the issue had the potential to shadow his candidacy for weeks or longer, since Bloomberg has ruled out permitting the women to speak and the underlying claims against him and his company are so damaging.

On Wednesday night, he staggered through a defence as Warren lashed him for declining to encourage former employees to detail their experiences publicly if they so chose. At one point, Bloomberg — hoping to inoculate himself by saying he had not been accused of anything heinous — allowed that maybe the women “didn’t like a joke I told.”

Bloomberg’s campaign was urging political surrogates to cast the debate in the most optimistic light possible, emphasizing that the pile-on against him showed that other Democrats regarded him as a growing threat and highlighting exchanges later in the debate between Bloomberg and Sanders, in which Bloomberg handled himself with greater confidence.

Some of Bloomberg’s advisers were arguing in private that the underlying strategic bet of the former mayor’s campaign had not changed as a result of the debate: His candidacy has always depended on many Democratic primary voters suppressing their distaste for aspects of his record because they perceive him as a strong candidate for the general election.

But the onslaught of criticism against Bloomberg, and his inability to effectively acquit himself on the stage, tested some of his campaign’s central assumptions about his strengths.

A crowd listens to Michael Bloomberg, a Democratic presidential candidate, address a campaign rally in Salt Lake City, Feb 20, 2020. The New York Times

A crowd listens to Michael Bloomberg, a Democratic presidential candidate, address a campaign rally in Salt Lake City, Feb 20, 2020. The New York Times

Until Wednesday night, the campaign’s theory of the race seemed to be playing out, buttressed by hundreds of millions of dollars in ad spending and a message that the former mayor has the experience and tenacity to send Democrats back to the White House.

While allowing that the debate had done him little good, Bloomberg’s advisers were less certain that it had helped others also hoping to appeal to more moderate and independent voters, like Pete Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, Sen Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and former Vice President Joe Biden.

Some Bloomberg advisers said it was a conscious choice to largely refrain from attacking anyone besides Sanders at the debate, reasoning that the Vermont senator is on the cusp of an unstoppable breakthrough if he wins in Nevada on Saturday and has a strong finish in South Carolina a week later.

“We appear to be the only campaign that sees that Bernie is poised to capture the Democratic nomination on Super Tuesday,” said Kevin Sheekey, Bloomberg’s campaign manager. “I’m not sure if there’s a difference between seeing that too late and acquiescing.”

Bloomberg’s top strategists are among many Democrats who have invoked the 2016 Republican nominating contest as a cautionary tale. With a front-runner, Trump, whom some in the party initially found unacceptable, multiple candidates pummeled each other as they fought to position themselves as the surviving non-Trump alternative. And by the end, none were left standing as the party gradually coalesced around Trump as its nominee — a scenario many swore they could never allow to happen.

In Utah, Bloomberg suggested that Sanders, his “hand-waving and finger-pointing” rival, was running a campaign based on reckless, empty promises.

Responding generally to attacks Thursday, a Sanders spokesman, Mike Casca, said the senator’s opponents “have thrown everything they can at him” since the beginning of his campaign, to little effect.

At Bloomberg’s events, at least, some voters seemed amenable to his argument.

“Mike is a uniter. Bernie’s a splitter,” said Kathy Littlefield, a retired pharmacist who professed anxiety about the glut of non-Bernie candidates still in the race. “Someone needs to give them a wake-up call. There are five of you tied for second place. Five of you together can’t beat Trump. And I don’t think Bernie can unite the Democrats.”

But it is far from clear that Bloomberg can. His stumbles laid bare both the risks of joining a stage full of competitors who had spent the past year sharpening their debate skills and the unique challenges awaiting a billionaire unaccustomed to having conversations on anyone else’s terms.

“It’s very hard,” Kwatra said, “when you have someone who isn’t necessarily amenable to instruction and direction.”

Ahead of the debate, veterans of past Bloomberg campaigns suggested he would be ready, observing that his mayoral debates generally went off without major incident and noting that he has submitted to regular questioning from reporters in recent months. “He’s out taking questions from the press every day,” Wolfson, the adviser, said before the debate. “So, there’s a version of Q-and-A that occurs on a daily basis.”

While this forum proved a different beast, Bloomberg’s appeal as an above-it-all executive has endeared him to some voters who worried little about the appraisals of his first debate.

In Salt Lake City on Thursday, voters said they were more disheartened by the acrimonious tone in Las Vegas than they were by Bloomberg’s unimpressive night.

Susan Chamberlin, a retired Salt Lake County worker who said she was undecided about her vote in the state’s primary next month, suggested that Bloomberg had made the best of a difficult situation — by not fighting back more forcefully, not protesting too much as his record was flamed.

“He had to expect that they were just going to pile on,” Chamberlin said. “And when they do that, sometimes it’s best to just stand still and take it.”

© 2020 New York Times News Service