I was struck by a Mike Bloomberg tweet responding to President Donald Trump Thursday morning.
Trump tweeted: “Mini Mike is a 5’4” mass of dead energy who does not want to be on the debate stage with these professional politicians. No boxes please. He hates crazy Bernie and will, with enough money, possibly stop him. Bernie’s people will go nuts!”
To which Bloomberg responded: “We know many of the same people in NY. Behind your back they laugh at you & call you a carnival barking clown. They know you inherited a fortune & squandered it with stupid deals and incompetence. I have the record & the resources to defeat you. And I will.”
Bloomberg adviser Tim O’Brien had his own response to the president’s attack on the former New York mayor: “Translation: I’m a gelatinous pile of greed and revenge fueled by low-boil resentments, burning insecurities, an empty wallet, and constant reminders to myself that my dad was self-made while I was born with a silver foot in my mouth. Where’s my cheeseburger?”
The Trump tweet is nothing out of the ordinary, but the responses were.
Democrats have been bemoaning Trump’s language and style for years now, complaining that he is vulgar, crude and undignified. He is all those things, of course. But hand-wringing about checks and balances, the power of an unbridled executive, the independence of the judiciary, the Founding Fathers and the role of the attorney general is one thing. Taking on Trump by calling him a fool, a liar, a fraud and an uneducated clown who failed in business is entirely something else.
Many Democrats are looking for a fighter, someone who won’t fold like a cheap deck of cards. The responses Thursday by Bloomberg and O’Brien demonstrate a different approach than that followed by most or all of the other Democratic hopefuls.
That is: Don’t ignore Trump or simply complain about his behavior. Mock him, belittle him and fight back on his lies.
Risks and rewards
Of course, this approach has risks. One Twitter follower responded that “much of the world is suffering from ‘Trump fatigue.’ They want inspiration and maturity not more name-calling.”
And Michelle Obama famously urged Americans to respond with dignity, with her “When they go low, we go high” comment.
Both of those views are thoughtful and understandable. Most Americans don’t want to engage in trash-talking and demeaning an opponent. Most of us were taught to be gentle with others, to encourage people to be kind and dignified. Disagreements shouldn’t degenerate into mean-spirited attacks and rudeness.
How has that worked out so far? While the Democrats are following Marquess de Queensberry rules, Trump is playing by the “rules” of WWE, World Wrestling Entertainment.
I’m not suggesting the Democratic presidential hopefuls adopt Trump’s language or his mendaciousness. They shouldn’t attack their Democratic colleagues the way Trump attacks them. Bloomberg certainly hasn’t.
But when Trump attacks, they ought to fight back, just like Bloomberg and his team are doing. They should fight fire with fire, or as some have put it, “You shouldn’t go to a knife fight with a nail file.”
I’ve been skeptical about Bloomberg’s chances and remain so.
He has plenty of assets and liabilities as a Democratic candidate. But I’m at least a little less skeptical after seeing his counterpunching when attacked by Trump. Polls show that Democrats are “angry” with Trump, and a take-the-gloves-off approach has its appeal.
Bloomberg has serious potential in the Democratic race because he has the financial resources to answer Trump’s attacks — but also because he seems to have the will to do so.
Sen. Bernie Sanders’ supporters may never embrace Bloomberg because he is wealthy, and we’ll certainly have to see how the Democratic race unfolds with at least a handful of serious contenders still in the race after New Hampshire.
But Bloomberg’s aggressive style just might help make him a top-tier contender — and those billions don’t hurt either.
Note: This column appeared initially in Roll Call on February 14, 2020.
One state down, and many states to go. In one respect, former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg “won” the Iowa caucuses Monday evening regardless whether he finishes first in delegates or in the popular vote.
One year ago, Buttigieg was a mere asterisk in the Democratic contest. Then 37 years old and the gay mayor of South Bend, Indiana, Buttigieg seemed unlikely to raise the necessary money or to excite Democratic voters, who were likely to gravitate to better known officeholders like former Vice President Joe Biden, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren. Even former Rep. Beto O’Rourke, fresh off an unsuccessful but enthusiasm-generating Senate campaign in Texas, seemed like a potentially more significant hopeful in the Democratic field.
Veteran pollster Gary Langer described Buttigieg’s performance in the Iowa caucuses entrance poll as showing a “broad-based appeal,” while candidates like Sanders and Biden demonstrated much more narrow appeal.
Sanders did extremely well among young voters, but poorly among seniors.
Biden was strong with seniors but weak among younger voters.
Sanders did well among the most liberal voters, while Biden was strong among so-called moderates.
Iowa was not kind to Biden. His fourth-place showing was unimpressive, and while it is fair to note that the state is not necessarily ideal for him, his weak showing doesn’t necessarily inspire confidence in his ability to win the nomination.
As I noted months ago, he too often seems to lack agility and sharpness as a candidate.
Biden’s strategy continues to be surviving until South Carolina at the end of February, when African-American voters will carry him to victory in the Democratic primary.
But if he finishes behind Buttigieg in the New Hampshire primary on Tuesday and underperforms in the Nevada caucuses on February 22nd, will the air completely come out of Biden’s balloon?
Biden isn’t the only hopeful who leaves Iowa with huge question marks.
Warren seems to have finished third in the caucuses, which gives her one of the “tickets” out of the state. That’s a solid finish, but remember: Warren was often credited with having the top ground game in Iowa.
More important, Warren is in a mini-race against Sanders, and the Vermont senator beat her in Iowa and appears to be running ahead of her in the Granite State (where both Sanders and Warren are neighbors), as well as in national polls.
If Warren repeatedly finishes behind Sanders, she will at some point need to explain how she can win her party’s nomination.
Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar has reason to be happy with her relatively strong fifth-place showing (based on popular votes and delegates) in Iowa.
She clearly gained strength in the final weeks before the caucuses, and her message of pragmatism and electability certainly seems to resonate with some Democrats. But Klobuchar is competing with both Biden and Buttigieg for that Democratic “lane,” and her showing no doubt had something to do with the fact that Minnesota is an Iowa neighbor.
She won’t be able to repeat her “Midwest” message in New Hampshire, Nevada or South Carolina, so even if Biden stumbles more, it’s unclear whether she can overtake Buttigieg in the pragmatic lane.
Buttigieg has both assets and liabilities as a candidate — including questions about his appeal in the minority community — but he is one of the few candidates who can appeal to a broad spectrum of Democratic voters.
That is, he seems acceptable to Democrats of various stripes, in part because he is relatively new to politics and is not burdened by a long record of recorded votes and political positions.
Finally, Biden’s showing had to make supporters of Michael Bloomberg feel good. The pragmatic lane remains fractured, and the former New York mayor’s money means he can run a first-rate media campaign in Super Tuesday states on March 3rd.
One caucus does not equal the Democratic nomination. But Buttigieg benefits most from Monday’s results. Now he has to take advantage of that showing.
Note: This column appeared initially in Roll Call on February 4, 2020.
Sometime soon, the impeachment trial of Donald John Trump will likely end and the Senate, notwithstanding who might get called as a witness, will acquit him.
The president, of course, will claim victory and, having escaped punishment, will presumably return to doing what he has been doing for months — looking for ways to discredit Democrats, even if it involves help from foreign governments. The rest of us will also jump quickly from impeachment and back to the presidential race, hardly missing a beat.
That means Iowa and New Hampshire. As I have been arguing for months, the early national polls were essentially meaningless.
Iowa will scramble the overall Democratic contest, since the fallout from caucuses will affect New Hampshire, fundraising, media coverage and the narrative about who is ahead nationally.
Up in the air
Given the wildly conflicting polls (and the difficulty in polling caucus attendees), we still can’t be certain who’ll win Iowa, what the order of finish will be or what the margins between candidates will look like.
So there is a lot up in the air.
On the other hand, the shape of the Democratic contest continues to look a good deal like 2016, though the current field is much larger than the two-person contest of four years ago.
Then, populist progressive Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton, who had support from much of the party leadership and establishment, finished in a virtual dead heat in Iowa.
Clinton drew 49.8 percent of attendees, while the Vermont senator drew 49.6 percent. She won 23 delegates to Sanders’ 21.
This cycle, the Jan. 20-23 New York Times/Siena College poll found the two populist progressives, Sanders (25 percent) and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren (15 percent), drawing a combined 40 percent in Iowa, while the three “pragmatists” in the contest, former Vice President Joe Biden (17 percent), former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg (18 percent) and Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar (8 percent), combined for 43 percent.
Biden, Buttigieg and Klobuchar actually are mainstream Democrats who generally hold liberal views but preach working together across the aisle, electability and the benefits of caution, which separates them from Sanders and Warren, who preach fundamental, structural change and never talk about the need to compromise.
So the divide in the state between the Democratic Party’s two wings echoes the conflict from four years ago.
Of course, the race could change over the next week, and how supporters of the candidates who don’t hit the 15 percent threshold behave during the caucuses could well determine who “wins” and what the various margins look like.
Members of the media tend to look for “winners” and “losers” in contests, so candidates failing to meet expectations will suddenly find themselves in a media feeding frenzy.
They will have to spend time explaining their performance and prospects instead of talking about health care, the environment and guns.
A Sanders sweep?
Four years ago, Sanders followed up his surprising showing in Iowa by beating Clinton rather soundly in New Hampshire, 60 percent to 38 percent. He earned 15 delegates to her 9.
Of course, New Hampshire voters always seem to enjoy being quirky, and Sanders benefited from geography (being from neighboring Vermont) and the fact that the Granite State allows independents to participate in either primary.
This year, Warren is also from a neighboring state, and other candidates (such as Buttigieg), could benefit from the state’s interest in new candidates.
The new NBC News/Marist poll from New Hampshire shows Sanders leading the field with 22 percent to Buttigieg’s 17 percent. Those results, along with Iowa’s, have journalists talking about Sanders’ “surge.”
But while Sanders leads in polls, he is nowhere near his showings of four years ago. (Readers beware: Journalists like to find “surging” candidates.)
While a Sanders sweep of Iowa and New Hampshire would give him momentum, help his fundraising and cause party pragmatists to start pulling their hair out, it wouldn’t put him in a very different place than he was four years ago. (Of course, the lack of a large bloc of superdelegates this time benefits the Vermont progressive.)
The next two contests in 2016 were won by Clinton, who bested Sanders narrowly in Nevada (53 percent to 47 percent) but clobbered him in South Carolina (73 percent to 26 percent.)
This year, party strategists continue to believe that Biden’s strength in the African American community is unassailable, making South Carolina the former vice president’s firewall. But will that firewall hold if Biden underperforms in the first two or three contests? Wouldn’t both black and white voters start looking for alternatives if Biden were to finish third or even worse in Iowa and New Hampshire?
And then there is Michael Bloomberg. He remains a curious contender who aims to jump-start his campaign on Super Tuesday’s March 3 contests. But his rationale continues to be based on Biden failing, and he continues to assume Democrats will embrace a billionaire businessman.
The greatest danger for each of the party’s two wings is for the opposition to unite around one candidate while it finds itself divided among two or three contenders.
For example, what if Biden, Buttigieg and Bloomberg are fighting it out in late March for the “pragmatic” lane, while Sanders emerges as the standard-bearer of all progressives? That would surely advantage the Vermonter.
While polls suggest Democrats care more about beating Trump in November than having a nominee who matches their views, the fight between the two wings of the party could last for some time, possibly even until the Democratic National Convention in July. Obviously, the longer the battle, the greater chance for animosity, which would benefit only one person — Donald Trump.
Note: This column appeared initially in Roll Call on January 28, 2020.
The frenzy over businessman Howard Schultz’s announcement that he is considering an independent run for president is understandable.
Democrats think President Donald Trump is headed for defeat in a one-on-one general election contest, and anything that changes that trajectory improves his re-election prospects.
Unfortunately, few of the people who panicked about Schultz — or praised him — seemed to look at the numbers. So, let’s do just that.
First, let’s stipulate that if he runs, Schultz will position himself as fiscally conservative and socially progressive. He’ll stress his business credentials, pragmatic approach, centrist views, commitment to tolerance and diversity, and frustration with the two parties.
Let’s also note that Schultz has very deep pockets and would be the ultimate outsider and disruptor, giving him appeal to many voters, especially if the Democrats nominate an extreme liberal.
Let’s also acknowledge that American politics has become something less than predictable.
The impossible has already happened, so something else impossible could happen again.
But while more than four in ten Americans identify as independents, let’s not get carried away about Schultz’s chances.
Many independents are closet partisans, just as many “weak” partisans actually vote as if they are strong Republicans or strong Democrats. That’s just how people behave.
They like to think of themselves as more independent than they really are.
With Schultz positioning himself as a moderate and independent, he’s unlikely to find support among partisans and the most ideological.
Those voters are strongly attached to one of the two parties, and his moderate message won’t resonate with them.
Mapping it up
O.K., let’s turn to the numbers — that is, to the states.
The national election actually is a collection of state contests, with the winner needing 270 electoral votes.
For years, Gallup has ranked states on the basis of a number of measures, including Trump’s job approval/disapproval, self-identification as Republican/Democrat or independent-leaning Republican/Democrat, self-identification as conservative/liberal, and religiosity.
I’ve gone through the lists and identified nine states plus the District of Columbia, with 139 electoral votes, that are among both the most liberal and the most Democratic: California, Connecticut, D.C., Maryland, Massachusetts, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont and Washington.
Voters in these states would be less likely to find Schultz’s positioning appealing. (The list does not include five states that made one list but not both: Hawaii, Illinois, Maine, New Jersey and New Mexico.)
I found 16 states, with 96 electoral votes, that are among the most conservative and the most Republican: Alabama, Arkansas, Idaho, Kansas, Kentucky, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Utah and Wyoming.
These states would be even less likely to vote for Schultz than would the liberal/Democratic states because of Schultz’s very limited appeal in rural, socially conservative areas. (Again, this list does not include three states that made one list but not both: Alaska, Louisiana and West Virginia.)
The two lists of the most partisan and ideological states account for 235 electoral votes, leaving Schultz and the two major party nominees to compete for 303 electoral votes, 30 more than needed for a victory.
Schultz would need to win 270 of the remaining 303 available.
In other words, he’d need to virtually sweep the “competitive” states.
But remember, the so-called competitive list includes Alaska (3 electoral votes), Hawaii (4), Illinois (20), Louisiana (10), Maine (4), New Jersey (14), New Mexico (5) and West Virginia (5), which make either the most partisan or the most ideological list, but not both.
Many or all of these states would be difficult — or impossible, in the case of West Virginia — for Schultz. (For convenience sake, I have assumed Nebraska’s and Maine’s electoral votes are not split.)
Some “competitive” states that didn’t make either list for partisanship or ideology also seem like a stretch for Schultz, including Georgia, Indiana, North Carolina and Texas.
Culturally, Schultz seems most out of touch with the Trump states, which limits his options about where to compete. Does anyone really think that he is going to carry the Deep South, West Virginia, Kentucky, Oklahoma or Idaho?
His only hope of getting 270 electoral votes is to swipe states like New York, New Jersey, Illinois and Connecticut from the Democratic nominee, and to win swing, suburban states that are clearly trending Democratic, including Colorado and Virginia.
House always wins
To the extent that he can do that, he all but destroys the Democratic nominee’s chances. But what if Schultz fails to reach 270 electoral votes but does well enough to deny an electoral vote majority to either of the major party nominees? In that case, the House would select the next president (with each state getting one vote), and that would be Donald Trump.
Republicans currently hold a majority of 26 House delegations, to 22 for the Democrats. Two states (Michigan and Pennsylvania) have equal numbers of Republican and Democratic members, so they would not vote. But might not GOP House members faced with four more years of Trump look for another option, like Schultz?
No. That wouldn’t happen. Partisans behave like partisans, and House Republicans are not an independent, centrist bunch.
It’s certainly possible that voters will take a look at Schultz and decide that they don’t like him, don’t want him as president or regard him as little more than a spoiler.
A year from now, everyone may be wondering why anyone got excited about a Howard Schultz candidacy.
But it is more likely that, if he runs, Schultz becomes a factor in the 2020 presidential contest, if only because of his resources and the extreme positioning of the two parties.
A detailed look at state politics suggests that Schultz’s chances of winning the presidency outright are small, probably microscopic.
If he has any impact, it will be among suburban voters, a group that was significantly more Democratic in 2018 than in 2016.
Schultz isn’t likely to have much appeal among Trump’s rural, culturally conservative, white evangelical base. And that means he would be likely to do much greater damage to the Democratic nominee’s vote than to Trump’s. And that’s why Democrats have reason to be worried about Schultz’s candidacy.
(Note to readers: If this column seems vaguely familiar, it may be because you may recall a similar analysis in my Feb. 16, 2016 column about Michael Bloomberg.)
Note: This column first appeared in Roll Call on February 7, 2019.