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Can Bloomberg do it?


You have to perform a thought experiment with each of the Democratic candidates: Imagine them onstage, debating Trump. Trump is a good debater. Granted, he lies, a lot, and he relies on appeals to fear and resentment; but those are proven debate techniques. In the 2016 primaries, he trounced his Republican challengers. They all seemed wooden and scripted; Trump by contrast was refreshingly “real,” not in the sense of morally authentic or humanly decent, but in his insults and contempt, he at least was someone you could look at and think, “Well, he’s certainly not afraid to say what he thinks.”

He’ll be even better this time around, having had the benefit of four years of being president. He’s perfected his reality show shtick: He was already good on “The Apprentice,” but now he’s got all that extra rehearsal time to benefit from.

So back to the thought experiment: Whoever the Democratic candidate is, is going to have to be as good as Trump on that stage. Trump is a tall man. Bloomberg is a short man. That’s going to count against him, because T.V. is above all a visual medium. (Remember that in 1960, according to polls, most people who heard the JFK-Nixon debates on radio thought Nixon won, but people who watched them on T.V. gave the nod to Kennedy.)

Americans don’t like short people. The evidence for that is overwhelming: we “look up” to our leaders but we “look down on” criminals and losers. Employers hope a new man will “grow into the job”; if he doesn’t, he “didn’t measure up.” “One way in which social weight—power, authority, rank, office, reknown—is echoed…is through relative size, especially height,” a former U.C. Berkeley sociologist wrote. One of the reasons for Ronald Reagan’s political success was his height. When he stood among the leaders of the free world his manly head towered above the rest. Trump, who infamously hovered around Hillary Clinton during one of their 2016 debates, already has begun insulting Bloomberg’s height. “Mini Mike is a 5’4” mass of dead energy,” he tweeted earlier this month. We can expect a lot more of that kind of personal smear.

Bloomberg, however, is no slouch. First of all, he’s a New Yorker. New Yorkers, I can tell you from personal experience, are fighters. Trump is a New Yorker: he goes for the gut, and his instincts tell him where each person’s gut is. (Remember “Low Energy Jed Bush”? That caused real reputational harm to Bush.) So Bloomberg’s going to have to fight back. He can’t base his response purely on policy: reversing tax cuts, fighting climate change, healthcare, protecting a woman’s right and so on. That kind of stuff, while important, doesn’t appeal to voters’ emotions, which is what so often drives them. No, Bloomberg is going to have to counter: tit-for-tat.

He can’t tease Trump about his height because, as I’ve explained, Americans already like and trust tallness. What can he go after Trump on? Let’s face it, Bloomberg (or anybody else going after Trump) is going to have to be bitchy. Mayor Pete can probably draw on his inner bitch (he’s got one, I’ve seen it, although he hasn’t had to unleash it much). Klobuchar? She’s pretty nice, and may not have the huevos (so to speak) for it. Warren might have the chops. But I’m writing today about Bloomberg, so let’s examine him a little further.

The thing about Bloomberg that can be so devastating to Trump is that Bloomberg knows Trump well. He’s lived and worked beside him in New York for decades. New York’s a big city, but all the billionaires know each other pretty well—the good and the bad. Trump carries a lot of baggage: ripping off vendors, lawsuits (including from porn stars), shoddy construction, misleading promises. That’s where Trump’s vulnerable: not his physical attributes but his business practices, which are a direct reflection on his character. The electorate already knows Trump is a pig. Bloomberg may be best situated to remind them of that.

Oh, I said Trump’s physical attributes aren’t his vulnerable point, but there’s one thing about him that nobody’s really poked fun at yet: his hair. It’s ridiculous. Everybody knows it. Bloomberg doesn’t have much to speak of in the hair department, but at least he doesn’t dye it and poof it up and do comb-overs, which are the marks of an insecure, vain man: everybody can see a comb-over, everybody knows it’s obvious, so when someone does a comb-over, it’s doubly-ridiculous, because he’s trying to fool people who aren’t fooled in the least. People who do comb-overs are con men. Donald Trump does a comb-over. Bloomberg can use that—and it’ll be all the more effective because Trump is thin-skinned and can’t stand criticism.

So, yes, I can see Bloomberg onstage with Trump, giving as good as he gets. But we’ll learn more about Bloomberg’s debating skills well before the Presidential campaign gets under way: Bloomberg is going to end up on the Democratic primary stage at some point, going up against whomever’s left. His performances then will tell us a lot about how he would “stand up to” Trump in the Presidential.

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