Editor’s Note: Arick Wierson is a columnist with CNN, a six-time Emmy Award-winning television producer, and former senior media adviser to New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg. He currently advises political and corporate clients in the United States, Africa and Latin America. You can follow him on Twitter @ArickWierson. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion at CNN.
Ever since joining the presidential fray, former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg has repeatedly said that he will do everything he can to dethrone President Donald Trump — even if that means supporting another Democratic nominee with views quite different than his own — such as Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren or even Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders.
But the Sanders camp isn’t having it. After Sanders refused at his town hall on Monday to say whether he’d accept financial help from the billionaire, Sanders’ senior campaign adviser, Jeff Weaver set the record straight in an NBC News interview. “It’s a hard no,” he said, adding, “I think we can raise over a billion dollars in small-dollar contributions.”
But that’s a generous assessment by the Sanders team. Trump and the RNC have already raised over $525 million in the past year and $60 million in January alone — and he isn’t even in full campaign fund-raising mode yet. In contrast, Sanders raised less than half that sum in January and will need to ramp up his average monthly haul quickly if he wants to get anywhere near the billion-dollar mark and a chance at leveling the playing field against Trump.
Whether or not to accept Bloomberg’s beneficence is something the Sanders campaign has evidently been struggling with for some days. Weaver’s recent comments suggest that after the town hall the campaign realized that reporters would continue to pepper them with questions about the Bloomberg offer until they came down on one side or the other.
But the position Sanders landed on is a very peculiar one. It suggests that he would rather lose to Trump than to tarnish his ideological purity by taking money from a billionaire. That his campaign would turn down hundreds of millions — perhaps even $1 billion or more — in financial help is a revelation that should be very troublesome for Democrats across the country who have set their sights on removing Donald Trump from office, no matter his successor.
It’s important to highlight that Bloomberg’s offer is not a random gesture from some random billionaire. I don’t think anyone would criticize Sanders if he declined to take money from, say, conservative oil, ranching and textile baron Charles Koch or casino magnate Sheldon Adelson. Such help would be suspect at best. But in turning down Bloomberg’s dollars, Sanders isn’t just turning down cash that can buy valuable TV, radio and Facebook ads.
The support Bloomberg is offering up potentially includes campaign offices and resources — things a nominee’s campaign might need to confront Trump. Wall Street would call this type of assistance “smart money.”
Even Warren, who Democratic strategist James Carville recently said, “hates Michael Bloomberg more than she wants to win,” allowed that she would accept Bloomberg’s offer to help fund her campaign if she emerges as the standard bearer for the Democratic Party.
Other top Democratic contenders have said they would accept Bloomberg’s funding should they find themselves facing off with Trump this fall.
Some might think that it would be equally uncomfortable for Bloomberg, an avatar of capitalism, to be offering to support an avowed Democratic socialist with whom he is so decidedly in disagreement on so many issues. But Bloomberg didn’t get into this race to stop Sanders from becoming president — he has said jumped because he felt no other Democrat had the ability to take on and defeat Donald Trump.
Of course, in response to Sanders’ rejection of his help, the Bloomberg campaign has said it will not force its support on a candidate or that doesn’t want its help.
I worked alongside Bloomberg when he was mayor of New York for nearly a decade and I can offer a pretty educated guess about how he is likely thinking about the possibility of bankrolling the Sanders campaign. Bloomberg likely knows that in Sanders, he would have a president who will attempt to enact a litany of policies that are either untenable or replete with peril.
Yet Bloomberg knows that under Sanders, there will at least be a set of institutions that can keep Sanders in check, or negotiate more moderate, palatable versions of his proposals. Under four more years of Trump, there is a strong possibility that those very same institutions may not still exist in any recognizable form.
“It’s easy to make the commitment to support any of the Democratic candidates if they get the nomination,” Bloomberg said this week. “It’s easy to do it because the alternative is Donald Trump, and that we don’t want.”
Were Sanders to agree to accept Bloomberg’s money, he would inevitably take some short-term heat for having vigorously attacked his Democratic rivals, principally former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, over taking donations from wealthy backers. Sanders suggested that, if elected, Buttigieg could not be trusted to push back against the powerful interests of those that have donated to his campaign.
But Sanders could easily backtrack on this argument, claiming the stakes are too high to let anything get in the way of his ability to defeat Donald Trump.
Sanders’ refusal of aid from a fellow Democrat shows how hard it would be for him to actually unite the party should he emerge as the nominee at the Milwaukee convention. Perhaps Sanders is most interested in maintaining his ability to continue blaming the billionaire class for so many of modern society’s shortcomings.
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If Sanders becomes the Democrats’ nominee, refuses to take Bloomberg’s money and ends up losing to Trump in the fall, he will become the bête noire of the Democratic party, shouldering the blame for four more years very of a Trump presidency that has already weakened our institutions, eroded the rule of law and gravely undermined America’s standing in world. And that could very well end up being Sanders’ true legacy.
It’s also entirely possible — should Sanders somehow actually win the nomination — that he might change his tune about Bloomberg’s largess. The nominating process is one thing, and a general election contest against someone like Donald Trump is entirely another.
The question at that point will be if Bloomberg’s offer still stands.