Michael Bloomberg kicked off his presidential campaign this week with a television ad blitz that gobbled up a stunning amount of airtime in major media markets around the country and in a number of smaller swing states.
The spot is mostly unremarkable: It talks up Bloomberg’s biography, business success, philanthropy and paints a pleasant portrait of his record as mayor of New York City. But there is a sharp signal of intent baked into the otherwise gauzy introduction – one that gets at the fierce rift within the Democratic Party as it prepares for 2020, with Bloomberg and other more industry-friendly, centrist candidates on one side and progressive populists like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren on the other.
“Everyone without health insurance is guaranteed to get it, and everyone who likes theirs can go ahead and keep it,” the ad says – an indirect if obvious attack on “Medicare for All,” the single-payer health care plan, and political flashpoint, that would ultimately eliminate private insurers.
Bloomberg is a longshot to win or meaningfully compete for the Democratic nomination, but his decision to run immediately blew open the party’s battle over the influence of money, and the wealthiest Americans, on the political system. For Sanders and Warren, Bloomberg’s campaign brings with it both an opportunity to sharpen their messages and an existential new threat: a billionaire prepared to reach deep into his near bottomless pockets in an effort to derail them, their agenda and a style of politics that more deeply engages the electorate.
The progressive senators, who have forsworn big dollar contributions, condemned Bloomberg out of the gate, with Sanders last week calling the billionaire businessman’s initial outlay an attempt to “circumvent the political process.” Absent grassroots support, Sanders said, candidates like Bloomberg had “no business running for president.” Bloomberg has said he won’t take any donations, a step to signal his independence, but one that his rivals argue effectively cuts him off from accountability to voters.
A few days later, Warren took the unusual-for-her step of calling out Bloomberg by name in Iowa.
“I am here on Day 2 of Michael Bloomberg’s $37 million ad buy,” Warren said to laughter in Ankeny on Monday. “Michael Bloomberg is making a bet about democracy in 2020 – he doesn’t need people, he only needs bags and bags of money.”
Contrasting her grassroots-style campaign with Bloomberg’s plans to bombard the airwaves, Warren laid out the progressive movement’s view of the fight at hand.
The question, she said, is “which vision of our democracy, which version of our democracy, is going to win. And if Michael Bloomberg’s version of democracy wins, then democracy changes and it’s going to be about which billionaire you can stomach going forward.”
Warren’s team took her remarks and cut them into an online video, which it tweeted out a few hours later. Online, at the campaign store, her “Billionaire Tears” mug is still for sale.
Meanwhile, in New Hampshire, Sanders kept up his own attacks on Bloomberg.
“I understand the power of the ‘1%,’” he said at a rally in New Hampshire. “You’re seeing that right now literally with Mayor Bloomberg, who has decided to use part of his 55 billion dollars not to buy a yacht, not to buy another home, not to buy a fancy car, but to buy the United States government.”
The Democratic Party has, over decades, become more and more welcoming, and in many cases dependent, on contributions from big business interests and wealthy donors. Even amid a progressive resurgence that has made it less politically palatable for Democrats to accept money from corporate PACs or lobbyists, billionaires like Bloomberg – who has given prodigiously to an assortment of liberal causes, most notably in forming his gun control organization – have largely avoided the scorn directed at conservative benefactors like the Koch Brothers.
Tom Steyer, the other billionaire vying for the nomination, effectively bought his way onto the debate stage by paying for ads soliciting donations. But his smaller fortune – in the most relative terms – and lower national profile has made him a less appealing foil for progressive activists, who in many cases have come to see him as a reliable ally.
Bloomberg does not have the same kind of cred. His no-donor pledge, which follows a blueprint similar to the one he followed during his time as mayor, has only stoked anger on the left.
“I will be the only candidate in this race who isn’t corruptible, who isn’t going to take a penny from anyone, and will work for a dollar a year,” he said in Phoenix on Tuesday, after filing for Arizona’s state primary. But for progressives critics, including Sanders campaign manager Faiz Shakir, that misses the point.
Bloomberg “says, ‘Oh, I’m not going to take a salary because I can’t be bought,” Shakir said during a livestreamed briefing for supporters later on Tuesday. “Well, that’s just because you’re not accountable to the American people.”
New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who in her famous 2018 viral ad said her primary against one of the party’s most formidable fundraisers was “about people versus money: we’ve got people, they’ve got money,” put Bloomberg at the center of a recent fundraising appeal for Sanders.
“Bloomberg is launching his presidential bid. His plan? Dump piles of cash on the media. Typical billionaire move,” she wrote, the email’s subject line filled only with an eye-roll emoji, before offering a sense of just how much Bloomberg was spending. “Meanwhile, Bernie Sanders would need 1.7 million of us to donate his average contribution – $18 – to match one week of Bloomberg’s TV buy.”
Sanders and Warren have both rooted their campaigns in an argument that, as Warren puts it, “the wealthy and well-connected” hold an outsize and insidiously damaging grip on elections and the actions – or inaction – of government.
In a February speech inaugurating her presidential bid, Warren laid blame for the historic levels of economic inequality at the feet of the “richest and most powerful people in America.” She also predicted, with history as her guide, how the pushback to her message would sound.
“When I talk about this stuff, someone screams ‘class warfare,’” Warren said. “Well let me tell you something. These same rich guys have been waging class warfare against hard-working people for decades. I say it’s time to fight back.”
Sanders, who has been campaigning against “the billionaire class” for decades, made the point bluntly in an August tweet.
“If there is going to be class warfare in this country,” Sanders wrote, “it’s about time the working class won that war.”
Micah Uetricht, an editor at Jacobin, the socialist magazine, grabbed and reproduced the tweet in sticker form, selling 500 within 24 hours and donating the proceeds – after printing up another thousand – to the campaign. A few months later, this past Sunday, the Sanders team in a fundraising email offered up a similar deal to a much wider audience.
“Contribute any amount,” they wrote to supporters, “and get our ‘Class Warfare’ sticker.”
CNN’s Annie Grayer and Daniella Diaz contributed to this report