Wednesday’s debate in Nevada was challenging for former Mayor Mike Bloomberg. Although he was able to get a barb or two in late in the night, for the first hour of the debate, Bloomberg became the political piñata I had warned about in a CNN column, arguing that “he would be better off staying off the national stage, letting his ads do the talking for now — at least until after Super Tuesday.”
I’m still not sure why Bloomberg campaign manager Kevin Sheekey, who I know well and respect, let the former mayor go on stage in the first place. He seemed utterly unprepared for the prickly questions his team knew were coming his way.
I worked alongside Bloomberg for nearly nine years, first on his 2001 mayoral campaign and later as his chief media adviser at City Hall, and I know it’s hard to coach Bloomberg — a man who made his billions by bucking convention and often disregarding the advice of others, but Wednesday’s debate performance was far worse than even I had imagined it would be.
But I don’t think it was so bad that his campaign can’t recover from it. It only raises the stakes considerably for Bloomberg’s next debate in South Carolina on Tuesday, February 25. If he is able to recover in South Carolina and deliver a far more convincing performance, he will be able to chalk up fumbles in Las Vegas as rookie presidential-candidate mistakes — and head into Super Tuesday with the wind at his back.
However, if Bloomberg shows up in Charleston appearing as unprepared for the big stage as he did in Nevada, it might be the beginning of the end for his presidential effort, despite the hundreds of millions his campaign has been pouring into advertising across the country.
I support his candidacy because I know that he is exactly the type of person that can right our nation’s ship after four years of a Trump presidency that has weakened our institutions, eroded the rule of law and undermined America’s standing in world.
I saw, firsthand, how Bloomberg guided New York City back from the brink of economic collapse after 9/11. Now our country is facing a disaster of a different kind, and there was no one standing on that Nevada stage better equipped and with more of the requisite experience to get this country back on track than Bloomberg.
But first he has to nail the South Carolina Democratic primary debate. And here is how he can do it:
1) Get new debate coaches and sparring partners. Bloomberg needs to bring in new people who he is not comfortable with to train for the next debate. He has a tendency to surround himself with people who have followed him from his company to City Hall to his foundation. But the people coaching Bloomberg and playing the roles of his chief Democratic adversaries cannot be people who know they will have to work with Bloomberg in the future. These longtime loyal aides are naturally inclined to measure their words and hold back on their critiques to not run the risk of offending their boss. Bloomberg needs sparring partners who will let him have it and be frank with the former mayor when he’s messing up.
2) Craft crisp, easy-to-deliver answers for his chief liabilities. It appeared in Las Vegas that Bloomberg did not have short, powerful answers prepared for the issue of the nondisclosure agreements, stop and frisk, redlining and his previous affiliation with the GOP. His record running New York City should not be a liability, but a proof point of why he is the best man for the job of president.
3) Package and practice delivering his chief selling points. Bloomberg has an impressive record in supporting a host of progressive causes, such as climate change and gun control, and he been a powerful supporter of Democrats running across the country. But very little of that got an airing in Nevada. He needs to practice finding ways to make those points, even if it means going off topic or wrestling control of the floor away from another candidate.
4) Start doing public interviews with the media — lots of them. Bloomberg is always more comfortable in a one-on-one setting, and he should treat media appearances as valuable training sessions for the upcoming debate stage. It was evident that Bloomberg was most at ease in the Nevada debate when the topic veered toward the topic of climate change, and that’s because he has spent a considerable amount of time in recent years leading global discussions around the issue. Lower-tension media interviews would go a long way toward acclimating Bloomberg to addressing topics not squarely in his wheelhouse. Monday’s CNN town hall is a step in the right direction, but he would be better off hitting the Sunday morning talk shows, starting this weekend.
5) Keep the focus on electability and defeating Donald Trump. Bloomberg and Sen. Bernie Sanders are really the only two candidates that have the financial firepower to go head-to-head with the Republicans and Trump and their massive campaign war chest. Bloomberg needs to appeal to the pragmatists of the party whose chief concern is removing Trump, and who fear that by nominating an avowed socialist, Democrats will be essentially handing the President a second term.
Something else that needs to change is that Bloomberg’s television ads are largely narrated by professional voice actors. Very few of them have the mayor speaking directly on camera.
Part of what made Wednesday night’s debate so jarring for so many Americans — at least those outside of the New York area — was that they had never heard Bloomberg speak before. He should use his tremendous ad buys not only to get his campaign messages across, but to get Americans comfortable listening to him — acclimating them to his thick Northeastern accent and tendency to use wonky business terms, and better setting expectations for when they see him live on the debate stage.
Admittedly, my political prescriptions entail a lot of work for Bloomberg’s campaign over the next few days, but fortunately they have the resources to get the best training and advisers money can buy.
All is not lost. The Bloomberg team can fix this. But they need to start making these changes now.