Has anyone checked on Mike Bloomberg?
On Wednesday night, Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren pummeled the former New York City mayor to near death on the Democratic primary debate stage in Las Vegas. “I want to talk about who we’re running against: a billionaire who calls women fat broads and horse-faced lesbians,” Warren said right out of the gate. “And no, I’m not talking about Donald Trump, I’m talking about Mayor Bloomberg.” The crowd gasped. She continued: “Democrats will not win if we have a nominee with a history of harassing women and supporting racist policies like redlining and stop and frisk.” Her opening parry was so brutal that one Twitter user set it to the beat of Nas’s Jay-Z diss track, Ether, racking up millions of views.
A woefully unprepared Bloomberg tried to defend himself, limply, by saying the 64 women who sued him and his companies just maybe “didn’t like a joke I told”—a line that drew boos from the audience—but that his female employees are generally very happy working for him. “We were voted the best place to work, second best place in America,” he said.
Warren eviscerated him. “I hope you heard what his defense was: ‘I’ve been nice to some women,’” she said. “That just doesn’t cut it. The mayor has to stand on his record, and we need to know exactly what’s lurking out there…Mr. Mayor, are you going to release those women from those non-disclosure agreements so we can hear their side of the story?”
"They signed the agreements and that’s what we’re gonna live with,” Bloomberg responded. Non-disclosure agreements are standard at a lot of corporations, and men like Harvey Weinstein have used them extensively to keep women muzzled after compaining about sexual assault, harassment, or discrimination. To have woman on the debate stage questioning their existence and grilling a powerful executive over them really cuts to the heart of what the #MeToo movement endeavors to achieve: a rebalancing of power in the workplace and society by which women are respected in the first place, and taken seriously when they report misconduct.
Warren’s epic cross-examination of Bloomberg marked a turning point for both of them. The former mayor had inexplicably edged out Warren in the polls this month after skipping a whole year of campaigning merely by dropping massive amounts of his own money on the race. Up until Wednesday night, he managed to maintain a Wizard of Oz-like image of himself from behind a curtain. He’s billed himself as the moderate savior of the Democratic Party, going so far as to ask former vice president Joe Biden, Minnesota senator Amy Klobuchar, and South Bend, Indiana, mayor Pete Buttigieg to drop out and clear the way for him. Part of his argument for clearing the field is his personal fortune. Since January, he has spent more than twice as much money on digital and network television ads ($310 million as of February 8) than all the other candidates combined. He’s lured thousands of staffers onto his campaign by offering salaries and benefits significantly higher than the norm, starving state and local Democratic campaigns of workers, and even reportedly hired an expert on narcissism to help him get inside Trump’s head.
The strategy has generally worked for him: Bloomberg bought his way into the Nevada primary debate and managed to pull 19 percent of Democratic support in a national poll, without debating earlier in this cycle or campaigning in Iowa or New Hampshire, whose contests he skipped. His snarky retorts to Trump on Twitter—saying New Yorkers laugh at Trump and call him a “carnival barking clown” behind his back, or tweeting “Impeached president says what?”—have thrilled many Democrats who are motivated by anyone who can go toe to toe with America’s Bully in Chief. Bloomberg is also about 17 times wealthier than Trump, which matters to people who equate money with power and competence, and is certainly an amusing comeback to Trump’s attack line about Bloomberg being physically short.
But money can’t buy charisma or an admirable public record, as Warren laid bare on Wednesday night, as she pressed him on stop and frisk, and his treatment of women. When Bloomberg had to come out from behind the curtain, face America in corporeal form and spar with a senator who literally created a federal agency dedicated to taking on Wall Street, he withered. The man, who for decades got away with saying “nice tits” and “I’d do her” to his female employees, had no idea how to interact with a woman he doesn’t employ or control, whose silence he can’t buy, and whose intellect dwarfs his own. “Democrats take a huge risk if we substitute one arrogant billionaire for another,” she said. Bloomberg scowled, rolled his eyes, and took boos from the audience without actually saying much in his own defense. His paper tiger patriarchy was fully exposed.
Bloomberg’s campaign basically acknowledged how poorly he performed in the debate. “He was just warming up tonight,” his campaign manager said in a statement. Warren, meanwhile, rose like a phoenix from Bloomberg’s ashes. Her campaign had been flailing up until Wednesday night, steadily dropping in the polls after a disappointing showing in Iowa and a New Hampshire debate that only boosted Klobuchar. She seemed subdued in some previous debates, shying away from any real conflict with her fellow Democrats and complaining that she wasn’t getting asked enough questions instead of taking control of the stage. Despite having created the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and demonstrated for years her ability to take on Wall Street corruption, she struggled to compete with Bernie Sanders as the anti-billionaire candidate. Sanders has been delivering the same democratic-socialist speech for decades while Warren’s own politics took time to evolve—a fact that his supporters will never let her forget.
Perhaps she needed the physical manifestation of a billionaire on a debate stage—the actual carcass of Michael Bloomberg—as a punching bag to prove her grit. It must have been cathartic for a lot of people to see an exceedingly competent woman completely dismantle a man who has exercised power and control over women, people of color, and low-income people in insidious ways his entire life. And most importantly for Elizabeth Warren, it finally gave her an opportunity to show voters exactly what she would do to Trump on a debate stage.
Laura Bassett is a freelance journalist writing about politics, gender, and culture.
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