The spectacle of a televised presidential debate in the US throws little light on politics and does nothing to clarify issues of governance. Debates exist as specific moments of entertainment in a serial drama abusively called a “democratic election.” When candidates go slightly off script, they do, however, manage to reveal unexpected clues about the culture of politics and the mindset of politicians.
This week’s Democratic presidential primary debate was hailed as the sequel to the preceding debate, in which an assertive billionaire had been humiliated and denied legitimacy by a group of players who weren’t happy about seeing someone with unlimited resources taking a seat at their card table with the intent of wiping them out. Michael Bloomberg had the reputation of a man with the means to force his way into other people’s games and lives. He had the money, but did he have the talent to overcome the group’s collective interest in chasing him away from their table? Could he come back and demonstrate the skills that might endear him to an unreceptive audience?
Michael Bloomberg knew he had to prepare more seriously for his second debate than he did for the first one. That may explain why he had someone script what he believed was a joke for the pleasure of the audience. For all we know, the author of the joke may have been one of the hundreds of influencers the media recently revealed Bloomberg is paying to think up slogans for his campaign.
During the feisty and generally chaotic debate, whose acerbic tone left little room for civilized humor, Bloomberg had some difficulty finding the right moment to place the joke that he considered essential to repair his broken image. If he could just draw a few laughs thanks to self-deprecating remarks, he could hope to leave the public with the impression that a cuddly human being was hiding behind the veneer of the rapacious billionaire.
Bloomberg Pays the Piper, the Media Plays the Tune
When he finally managed to slip it in, the joke fell flat. That tends to be the fate of hyperreal jokes told with no sense of their appropriateness to the context. The moment might have simply been forgettable. But Bloomberg’s choice of vocabulary to introduce the joke revealed something more, something important, not only about the man’s skewed conception of politics, but also about the absurdity of the situation itself.
This is how Bloomberg handled it: “I really am surprised that all of these, my fellow, uh, contestants up here — I guess would be the right word for it — given nobody pays attention to the clock, I’m surprised they show up because I would’ve thought after I did such a good job in beating them last week that they’d be a little afraid to do that.”
Here is today’s 3D definition:
People who participate competitively on television, in front of a live audience, in a game whose purpose is purely to earn an impressive amount of money or valuable prizes in a very short amount of time by doing very little other than demonstrating some particular skill or knowledge.
Effective humor in a live situation requires impeccable timing. Everything indicates Bloomberg would have preferred placing his joke earlier in the debate, to mark the transition with the previous debate. He made his discomfort apparent when he introduced the set piece with: “Let me also say, because I have the floor for a second,” followed by the scripted joke that he awkwardly fumbled in his execution. The fumble occurred when he sought for the word to describe the other candidates.
Instead of the usual “colleagues” or “fellow candidates” or even “adversaries,” he came up with “contestants.” This probably inadvertent humor made Elizabeth Warren and some in the audience laugh. But the prepared joke that followed came off as so bizarre, it only evoked odd noises of consternation in the audience. Listeners realized that it was meant to be a joke, but it was impossible to imagine why it might be funny.
On the other hand, Bloomberg’s awkward characterization of the other candidates as “contestants” when introducing the joke did get a few laughs. But Bloomberg’s failure to find the appropriate word not only undermined his subsequent attempt at humor, it also revealed a deeper truth, confirming his belief that politics is no more than a high-stakes game in which contestants vie to win a prize.
This cynical view of politics became even more apparent when he produced a Freudian slip that delighted many of his critics in the media. Boasting about how his money had served to elect Democrats in 2018, Bloomberg explained: “All of the new Democrats who came in, who put Nancy Pelosi in charge and gave the Congress the ability to control this presidency, “I bought — I, I got them.” He did catch himself before fully pronouncing the word “bought,” but it was clear that it was his first choice.
This second stumble demonstrated what many have claimed as obvious since his entry into the presidential race: Bloomberg uses his wealth to buy elections — and not just advertising, but also people whom he can call on for support because he pays them.
Recent history has seen examples of verbal and even visual gaffes that have had a fatal effect on some candidates’ presidential ambitions. In the run-up to the New Hampshire primary in 1972, Democratic frontrunner Edwin Muskie was caught on film tearing up in reaction to a newspaper editorial that attacked his wife. Muskie’s enemies — including president Richard Nixon’s preparing for reelection in the year of Watergate — played up the incident to prove that the senator from Maine was unpresidential because he couldn’t control his emotions.
The Washington Post reporters, Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, who later became famous for breaking the Watergate scandal, in an early exposé published in October 1972 wrote: “Immediately following his ‘crying speech,’ Muskie’s standing in the New Hampshire primary polls began to slip.”
Woodward and Bernstein’s article contained many important details concerning the illegal operations designed to undermine democratic processes that would later lead to impeachment proceedings followed by Nixon’s resignation in 1974. Even though the public was now aware of the nature of Nixon’s crimes, a month after the publication of The Post’s article, Nixon was reelected by a record majority, carrying 49 of the 50 states.
One interesting observation from the 1972 Post article merits special reflection in a post-Russiagate world. Woodward and Bernstein based their report on what the investigative team had learned about Nixon’s motives concerning the Democratic primaries: “The investigators said that a major purpose of the sub rosa activities was to create so much confusion, suspicion and dissension that the Democrats would be incapable of uniting after choosing a presidential nominee.”
This is exactly how the media and even Bernie Sanders have been describing Russian meddling in the US presidential primaries. In other words, the strategy was designed, developed and honed in Washington, DC. What Moscow is doing today merely imitates, but with far less direct impact, what political operators and campaign strategists have been doing ever since Nixon. It’s a great American tradition that has been adopted and implemented by campaigns ever since, though with the precaution of avoiding ham-fisted criminal acts such as burglarizing rival headquarters. In the age of cybercrime, that is hardly necessary.
Whether Bloomberg’s awkward lapses in the debate have the same effect as Muskie’s crying in the New Hampshire snow remains to be seen. But the billionaire’s linguistic slips are qualitatively different than the errors of candidates in the past. What they reveal goes beyond the mere image of the man vying for the nation’s highest political office.
In a 2016 article in Fortune, Shawn Tully reviewed seven political gaffes that “changed the course of U.S. History.” He concludes: “The facts of what really happened don’t matter. The impression is impossible to shake because a few seconds of video shows voters more about who the candidate really is than all the image-building speeches and interviews before or after.”
The difference with Bloomberg has less to do with what we learn about who he “really is” than about the world he belongs to and the value system he adheres to. Tully’s examples reveal faulty strategic decision-making or the perceptions of the candidate as failing to demonstrate presidential character. That is what led to Muskie’s downfall, like Howard Dean’s famous unpresidential scream in 2004. When Bloomberg reveals that he sees political campaigns as a cross between the board game Monopoly focused on hoarding assets and a TV quiz show, it becomes clear that his reasoning focuses on a single area of human endeavor: competition for money or, alternatively, competition with money as means of winning. And winning in Bloomberg’s world is achieved by buying, possessing and manipulating resources to one’s advantage.
If this campaign does turn out to be a national debate between capitalism (Bloomberg, Trump) and socialism (Sanders) or between billionaires (Trump, Bloomberg) and their critics (Sanders, Warren), Bloomberg will have massively helped to define the terms of the debate. More than Donald Trump — the man Anand Giridharadas calls a “faux billionaire” — the multibillionaire Bloomberg has demonstrated that the core of the Democratic Party is perfectly comfortable with the logic and worldview of what we can now identify as the billionaire class.
That Republicans love billionaires has never been a secret, but Democrats carry with them the idea — historically validated by Franklin Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson and Jimmy Carter — that they would always stand up for and even fight for the interests and the culture of “the common man.” That began to change with Bill Clinton’s presidency, but the party was careful to maintain at least a significant trace of that reputation.
If the Democrats have any hope of restoring the image of “the party of the people,” they have every reason today to accept and promote Bernie Sanders as their presidential candidate, even if that goes against the culture of the party’s infrastructure. Mike Bloomberg has revealed too many secrets. He has removed the veil that shielded the Democratic National Committee from its collusion with moneyed interests. The party will have to choose between accepting the definitive loss of the little bit of faith that some average Americans still have in it or rebuilding around a new group of leaders, many of whom are likely to be, not 78-year-old white guys, but young minority women.
[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.