Feb 10, 2020 - Politics & Policy

Letter from Planet Bloomberg

Illustration of a crowd of people marching towards a giant screen showing Michael Bloomberg.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Mike Bloomberg's campaign feels corporate. It's calm, orderly and punctual. His audiences clap politely, and you can't walk two steps without running into a paid staffer with talking points. Nobody whoops or yells. Nothing is left to chance. No expense is spared. The candidate is self-consciously low-key.

The big picture: After being immersed in Donald Trump's freewheeling White House and campaign for more than four years, I found the day I spent flying around with Bloomberg's campaign last week in California to be a foreign experience.

  • The supporters I met didn't profess their love for Bloomberg like regular fans at Trump rallies, who come across as football fans cheering for their quarterback (though some wore printed T-shirts saying "I Like Mike").
  • Bloomberg promises to govern quietly. "What about no tweeting from the Oval Office ever again?" he said to applause in Fresno.
  • Even the protesters are well-behaved. During Bloomberg's speech in Compton on Monday, a young man, standing in silence, held up a sign saying, "Billionaires should not buy elections." At a Trump rally, the president would have told security to "get him the hell out!” At the Bloomberg event, a staffer politely asked him to move to the back.

Between the lines: Part of the quietness can't be helped. Bloomberg's unlimited money cannot draft — at least not yet — tens of thousands of fired-up men and women in campaign hats to arenas all around the country.

  • But the Bloomberg supporters with whom I spoke said they admired his wealth and accomplishments.
  • They expressed anxiety about the state of the Democratic field and were looking for a safe bet to beat Trump. One supporter said that you need a very rich man to beat Trump.

Why it matters: Bloomberg is being taken seriously by the national media and the president of the United States, though he doesn't track the typical path of a would-be nominee and despite some rivals' anti-billionaire message. On the day of the Iowa caucuses, Bloomberg's press plane was packed with national media — the New York Times, CNN, CBS, Fox, Reuters, the New Yorker, AP, NBC News, Axios.

  • The scale of Bloomberg's staff buildup and national advertising spend is unprecedented in modern American politics. His operation is coming to resemble his own personal political party.

Bloomberg wore a navy suit and tie and mulberry sweater last Monday as he jetted around the delegate-rich California. On the stump, he called himself the "un-Trump."

  • His curtain-raisers introduced him with words like "pragmatic" and "practical." His stump speeches were laced with words like "decency" and "sanity" and phrases like "commonsense plans that are workable."
  • Bloomberg is self-deprecating. He makes fun of his spelling and his age.
  • He doesn't give nicknames to his Democratic opponents. He won't even criticize them unless prompted.
  • At a coffee shop in Sacramento, Bloomberg said, "I'm not running against the other Democratic candidates. I'm running against Donald Trump."

Behind the scenes: After Bloomberg's speech in the grassy courtyard at Fresno City College, his states director Dan Kanninen and I discussed how wildly Trump's rallies differ from Bloomberg's events.

  • "I think there's a big element that wants a cooling rod in this boiling teapot," Kanninen said.

What he's saying: Later on, at a stop in Compton, I asked the candidate what he made of the "cooling rod" metaphor and whether he's self-consciously trying to lower the temperature of national politics.

  • "No, I'm just not a person that yells and screams," Bloomberg told me. "That's just not me. Never has been and probably won't be. I got elected three times without being rah-rah yelling and screaming, but being more rational and explaining."
  • "At my age, I'm not going to change," Bloomberg added. "I'm just not going to get in a yelling and screaming match with him. ... He can yell and scream all he wants and I'll just sit there and say, 'Thank you, Mr. Trump, Mr. President, and say my own thing in my own style, my own way."

On the other hand, while Bloomberg talks about returning to "human decency," his campaign mocked Trump for his "obesity" just the day before our interview. I pointed out the comment to Bloomberg.

  • "Um, I did see that," Bloomberg replied. "I am out here on the campaign trail," he added. "I can tell you nobody asked me, should they have done that."
  • Asked whether it was the wrong thing for his campaign to put out a statement saying Trump was lying about his "fake hair, his obesity, and his spray-on tan," Bloomberg laughed.
  • "I don't know why he'd find that objectionable," he said, finally.
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