You couldn’t make it up. On the other hand, you could make it up if you had US$60-billion in wealth.
As anyone with even a passing interest in the U.S. presidential election has ascertained, Michael Bloomberg has surged among Democratic candidates. As of Tuesday morning, he qualifies to take part in the next Democratic candidates TV debate (Wednesday, NBC, MSNBC, 9 p.m. ET). It might feel like these debates happen every few days, and the feeling would be right, but this one should be a doozy.
This might be where the narrative pivots, where the players strutting the stage are rearranged in order of leadership ability, gravitas and, in this particular context, capability of beating Donald Trump.
Bloomberg, the former New York City mayor who launched his presidential campaign in November, but dodged the early contests, will appear in Wednesday’s debate, live from Las Vegas alongside former vice-president Joe Biden, senators Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar, and former South Bend, Ind., mayor Pete Buttigieg. As of this writing on Tuesday, another billionaire, Tom Steyer, was still hoping to qualify. Seemingly, it takes more than a mere billion dollars to get any real traction in this race.
Where to even start in prognostication about this drama? Well, for a start, one is reminded of Simone de Beauvoir’s remark, “The most mediocre of males feels himself a demigod as compared with women.” And then there’s the age factor. The opinion survey that put Bloomberg into the debate was done for National Public Radio and was a national poll. It confirmed that the top contenders for the presidency are, right now, Sanders, Bloomberg, Biden and, naturally, sitting president Donald Trump. Their ages are 78, 78, 77 and 73. The youngest is Trump.
Mostly, mind you, the ineluctable truth about the TV debate is simply this – politics is performance.
U.S. theatre director and actor Jeff Zinn recently wrote an astute piece about assessing political candidates. “Maybe it’s an occupational hazard, but I tend to view politicians, and especially the current crop of contenders for the Democratic nomination, through the lens of performance,” he wrote.
“As a director, I’ve watched thousands of actors audition; it’s a truism in the field that you can tell whether or not someone is of interest within the first 60 seconds. An ineffable combination of presence, intelligence, connection, physicality, the sound of the voice, and a dozen other indicators, most of which are registering on a subconscious level, all contribute to a visceral reaction in the auditor, positive or negative.”
Of Warren, Zinn writes, “She speaks with passion and her message is strong. But this isn’t about message, it’s about affect. She tends to pivot away from tough questions into well-worn stories and talking points which come off as, well, canned.”
And about Klobuchar: “She has a sunny demeanor and her Midwestern charm goes a long way toward helping her performance, but I find her tense and tight. I believe it was in the first debate that an unfortunate confluence of nerves and hairspray added up to a twitching of bangs that was disastrously distracting.” Ouch.
For Zinn, Sanders is brilliant: “His overriding quality, always, is his passion. He burns with intentionality. When he speaks, the stakes are existential. His shape – the easily caricatured rumple – makes the point that his exterior is irrelevant to the message, which makes the message all the more effective.”
But let’s move on to Bloomberg. Zinn writes, “Mike Bloomberg never seems to be trying very hard to project anything in particular. This is what [legendary voice coach Patsy] Rodenburg calls ‘first circle’ where ‘… the energy you generate falls back into you. … You can come across to others as self-centered, uncaring and withdrawn.'
“I suppose," Zinn continues, "that’s what happens when you’re really rich and don’t much care what others think of you. But we are drawn to charismatic leaders who inspire. Will voters look past that lack of charisma?”
Thus, there’s a question mark about Bloomberg’s impact on TV and, in particular, in debates. Television can be ruthless in exposing weakness. The debater who appears to have a direct connection with the viewer – the invitation to collaborate that you’d accept – is the winner. Some political pundits grasp this, but many don’t. This event on Wednesday is about the use of television and stagecraft; it’s not about policies and statecraft.
The debate will be moderated by Lester Holt, Chuck Todd, Hallie Jackson, Vanessa Hauc and Jon Ralston. Maybe one of them will ask the question of Bloomberg that changes everything. Maybe one of the other candidates will undermine Bloomberg.
It feels like this campaign has been going on forever and yet, Bloomberg has barely crossed paths or crossed swords with the other candidates. You couldn’t make that up, unless you had billions of dollars.