President Trump was winning the Democratic presidential nomination debate in Nevada on Wednesday until former New York City Mayor and billionaire Mike Bloomberg stopped dodging, weaving and apologizing — and started punching.
The debate’s point was for Democrats and independents to see if they could imagine one of the debaters looking credible against the expected withering fire from the Donald this fall — and maybe actually defeating the Trumpeter on Nov. 3.
No one on that Las Vegas stage looked remotely like a Trump beater.
Until, the is, the founder of Bloomberg News, Bloomberg Terminals and Bloomberg Businessweek showed he’d had it up to here with front-runner Sen. Bernie Sanders’ endless socialism pitch.
As if reading the minds of nearly every viewer over 40 (youngsters who can write on half a postage stamp all they know about socialism flock to Bernie), Mr. Bloomberg, his voice rising, said:
“I can’t think of a way that would make it easier for Donald Trump to get reelected than listening to this conversation. This is ridiculous.”
Finally, in the ninth debate (Mr. Bloomberg’s first) a Democratic nomination candidate showed the guts to call Mr. Sanders’ stupid idea a stupid idea.
“We’re not going to throw out capitalism,” Mr. Bloomberg said. “We tried that. Other countries tried that. It was called communism, and it just didn’t work.”
Applause from the audience.
That gave Mr. Sanders, 78, of Vermont his cue.
“We are living in many ways in a socialist society right now. … We have socialism for the very rich, rugged individualism for the poor,” he said, with the patented Sanders’ finger wag.
That, in turn, stirred an increasingly fed-up Mr. Bloomberg to make the case that he is the only one of the six on stage that ever ran anything really big, or for that matter anything at all — a Trump-defeating requisite for Democrats.
“I was going to say we maybe want to talk about businesses,” Mr. Bloomberg, who’s also 78. “I’m the only one here, I think, that’s ever started a business. Is that fair?”
He paused. Silence on the stage.
“OK,” Mr. Bloomberg said, satisfied he had hammered home his point.
For 12 years (three elected mayoral terms), Mr. Bloomberg ran New York City, the population of which is greater than 131 of the 232 sovereign nations in the world.
His stop-and-frisk policy, for all its imperfections and inevitable unfairness at times, cut the murder rate. But now someone has convinced him that he can’t get the Democratic nomination without pandering on race.
So he sounded weak and pandering in apologizing on stage for a policy that wins praise from his predecessor, former Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who says stop and frisk did make the city safer.
The man Mr. Bloomberg is chasing is Mr. Sanders, who’s ahead in 10 out of the 10 latest national polls and has about 25 percent of the vote.
Mr. Bloomberg is in second place at around 18 percent and rising. Vice President Joe Biden, 77, ties for second but is falling.
Given current polling state by state, the size of each campaign organization and the money available, the nomination contest is between Mr. Sanders and Mr. Bloomberg, and the rest of the field is background noise.
The others in effect are running for a miracle but will settle for being tapped by the Democratic standard bearer for vice president. Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota did well and remains the probable top V.P. pick for Mr. Bloomberg.
As real-time social media posters correctly noted, when the debate’s opening gun sounded (a figure of speech appropriate for the obsessive gun controller Mr. Bloomberg), he didn’t sound like a potential Trump trouncer.
Minutes into the debate, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, 70, of Massachusetts lit into him, demanding that he release, right there on the stage, his women employees from their non-disclosure agreements.
Again his response was wobbly, weak, defensive: The no-tell pacts were voluntary, some women may not have liked a joke he told, he employed some prominent women.
In a stage aside to the theater audience, Ms. Warren said, “I hope you heard what his defense was. I’ve been nice to some women.”
Reporters for major newspapers posted that Mr. Bloomberg, for all the millions he’s been spending on his campaign advertising in the past 10 weeks, was turning out to be a flop in person.
He was. In the beginning, he came off not as an entrepreneurial titan so much as a weak pip-squeak (5 feet 8 inches compared to Mr. Sanders’ 6 feet — Mr. Trump stands at 6 feet 3 inches).
Mr. Bloomberg did it to himself by sounding defensive, something you won’t catch the Donald sounding like. Ever.
Only when Mr. Bloomberg stopped trying to follow his aides’ script and got his blood up did he sound and look like a possible Trump thumper.
In a glorious example of irony tinged with unintended humor, Mr. Sanders’ brought out the best in Mr. Bloomberg.
“We are living in many ways in a socialist society right now. … We have socialism for the very rich, rugged individualism for the poor,” Mr. Sanders said.
Mr. Bloomberg turned, scowled and called him a hypocrite.
“What a wonderful country we have,” Mr. Bloomberg, oozing sarcasm, said. “The best-known socialist in the country happens to be a millionaire with three houses. What did I miss here?”
At one point, NBC’s “Meet the Press” moderator Chuck Todd asked Mr. Bloomberg, who is the 12th richest person in the world, if he should have earned so much money.
Mr. Bloomberg, no longer defensive, shot back “Yes. I worked hard for it.” And added that he gives a big chunk of it to the Democratic Party.
Applause from the Las Vegas audience.
Something else this debate made clear concerns Mr. Biden’s drift into irrelevancy. Mr. Bloomberg’s $63 billion fortune isn’t what’s sinking the former vice president; Joe is.
Nor will Mr. Bloomberg’s money buy him the nomination. If he puts potential supporters to sleep as he did in the first part of the debate Wednesday, they’ll think it means he can’t beat Mr. Trump.
Mr. Bloomberg will have a chance to perform more consistently in another debate on Feb. 25 in Charleston, S.C. It is the last debate before his first and crucial election test on Super Tuesday on March 3.
No matter, his $63 billion can’t and won’t buy him the nomination. He entered this race more than a year late. All his unprecedented advertising spending gives him is fast catchup on name recognition outside New York.
The history of all hitherto existing presidential contests shows that winning takes more than money.
In the 2016 Republican nomination race, by the time Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida had dropped out in mid-March, his campaign had spent $4 million more than Mr. Trump.
By the time Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas had suspended his bid, he had spent $85.8 million to Mr. Trump’s $63.3 million.
Personality, policy and a late stroke of strategic genius are why the Donald, against all expectations, was able to give that acceptance speech in Cleveland in the summer of 2016.
If it’s Mr. Sanders who accepts the Democratic nomination in mid-July in Milwaukee, Mr. Trump will be assured a second term. If Mr. Bloomberg winds up the nominee, the betting will still be on the Donald, but the odds will be less favorable to him.
And the fall contest will be even more interesting.