Michael Bloomberg got his ass handed to him on Wednesday night. He proved almost entirely unable to defend his record or policy positions against a concerted series of attacks from his fellow candidates, most of whom appear to regard him as a Johnny-come-lately who bought his way into the Democratic primary.
But while his debate opponents and the moderators attacked him for his poor record on policing, his history of misogyny, and his relatively recent conversion from Republican to Democrat, they unfortunately gave Bloomberg a pass on foreign policy.
Indeed, Bloomberg’s foreign policy views are one of the worst parts of his candidacy, an impressive feat when you consider his record on stop-and-frisk or on sexual harassment. Not only is he largely out of step with the rest of the field, but the former mayor of New York manages in one package to combine some of the worst foreign policy qualities of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.
FOREIGN POLICY NON-DISCLOSURE
Criticism of Bloomberg at the Nevada debate focused on everything else. Viewers got to hear a lot about Bloomberg’s appalling history of misogyny in the workplace. We explored repeatedly the issue of his taxes. And at times it seemed like every third sentence from other candidates’ mouths featured the phrase ‘stop-and-frisk.’
Perhaps his opponents can be forgiven for this. After all, Bloomberg’s prior experience was as mayor of a big city, a role which traditionally has little foreign policy purview. And his record on various economic issues – or the mere existence of another candidacy from the billionaire class – provide an ideal foil for many of the other candidates.
But there’s no excuse for the moderators’ choice not to ask a single substantive question on foreign policy. Their only contribution on the topic was a question reminding Sen. Amy Klobuchar of a recent interview where she flubbed the name of the president of Mexico. As Klobuchar herself noted at the time, such Jeopardy-style questions provide great gotcha moments for TV, but do almost nothing to help you understand a candidate’s policies.
The only places where Bloomberg’s almost reflexive hawkishness seems to be restrained are also those places where his business interests are most important.
And that was it. No mention of Afghanistan. Nothing on Iran. No discussion of the Trump administration’s trade war with China. Indeed, China was only discussed in relation to climate policy. The only mention of Russia referred to the 2016 presidential election. There was not a single question on the Trump administration’s newly-released $740 billion defense budget.
Presidential candidates are effectively auditioning to run a country that possesses the world’s most powerful military; it’s malpractice for the media to ignore these topics.
It’s part of a broader problem, though: a stunning mismatch between what candidates are asked about on the campaign trail, and what they’ll actually be able to influence as president. Foreign policy is simply the most visible manifestation of this phenomenon. Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren are unlikely to get a Democratic congress willing to pass their health or climate initiatives. But thanks to the imperial presidency, any of the candidates on stage – if elected – would suddenly obtain an almost limitless amount of power in foreign policy.
BLOOMBERG THE HAWK
Michael Bloomberg is almost the personification of this media focus on pointless questions and ‘electability’ over substantive policy issues. His support is built on a series of massively expensive, personality-focused ads which rarely address concrete policy considerations. After all, who needs actual content when you’ve got Michael Douglas shilling for you every morning on drivetime radio?
But applying a little scrutiny on foreign policy suggests that it’s also a liability for his campaign. In fact, Bloomberg in many ways combines the worst of Hillary Clinton’s foreign policy instincts with Donald Trump’s conflicts of interest, a re-run of 2016 that no one wants to see.
There are two key areas of concern. The first is Bloomberg’s almost reflexive hawkishness on most foreign policy questions. It’s an approach to world politics that is reminiscent of Hillary Clinton, and perhaps unsurprising given Bloomberg’s background as a Republican in the era of George W. Bush.
As The Intercept noted last year, Bloomberg not only backed the war in Iraq, but also helped to sell the Bush administration’s narrative linking Saddam Hussein to the 9/11 attacks. He favors providing defensive weaponry to Ukraine, and recently argued that President Trump was right to order the assassination of Iranian General Qassim Soleimani.
He’s also at odds with his fellow candidates – and much of the Democratic electorate – on key foreign policy questions. He argues for a strong US response to Iran’s ‘hegemonic behavior’ in the Middle East, believes the US-Saudi relationship is critical, and refuses to commit to a timetable for withdrawing troops from Afghanistan. Though he now says he would re-enter the Iran nuclear deal, he strongly opposed it when it was signed.
Bloomberg’s aggressive approach to counterterrorism overseas is matched by his worrying record on civil liberties at home. It’s not just stop-and-frisk. As mayor, Bloomberg praised the Patriot Act and allowed the NYPD to spy on protestors. And he’s suggested that it’s time to alter the constitution to allow for increased anti-terror surveillance.
The other major concern about Bloomberg on foreign policy, however, is far more Trumpian: the potential for conflicts of interest. As owner of Bloomberg LP, he has repeatedly spiked stories that might hurt his business interests in China. He has praised Xi Jinping, saying the Chinese dictator is, well, “not a dictator.”
Indeed, the only places where Bloomberg’s almost reflexive hawkishness seems to be restrained are also those places where his business interests are most important. He has promised to sell his business if elected, but we’ve seen this before with Donald Trump. Even if he divests from the company that carries his name while president, there’s always informal influence and the post-presidency to worry about.
One of Elizabeth Warren’s best lines of the night was her comparison of Bloomberg to Trump: two billionaires, both alike in their misogyny. But in focusing so heavily on Bloomberg’s record, moderators and candidates alike missed the opportunity to question his foreign policy views, a disturbing amalgam of Clinton-style hawkishness and Trumpian conflicts of interest.
Michael Bloomberg thus offers the disquieting possibility of a 2020 general election between two awful foreign policy options. So perhaps during the next Democratic debate, the moderators might deign to ask a couple of questions on foreign policy. If not, maybe Elizabeth Warren would be willing to challenge Bloomberg on the topic. I’m willing to bet that she’d skewer him on that just as effectively as she did on everything else.