After sitting on the sidelines of the race for the Democratic presidential nomination until the end of last year, including missing all the debates and skipping the on-the-ground campaigning essential for the first four contests, Mike Bloomberg has shot out of nowhere to claim 15 percent of Democratic support in recent polls.
Bloomberg, the former mayor of New York, who once identified as a Republican and then as an independent, finally made his presidential debating debut Wednesday night after leapfrogging to third in national surveys. How did this happen? How was he able to claim a coveted podium spot when more established political figures like Sens. Kamala Harris and Cory Booker were forced from the debate stage — and the race — by sagging numbers?
The simple answer is money. Bloomberg has spent more than $400 million on advertising since November — and he's spent more on TV in that time than all of his competitors combined. He has bought so many TV ads that other presidential and down-ballot candidates are being pushed out of the market as ad prices spike, Politico hasreported. And the spending isn't just on traditional media buys. Bloomberg has spent $87 million on Facebook and Google advertising.
The gargantuan sums don't include the amounts he has donated to state Democratic parties, congressional candidates and mayors, which might have something to do with his ballooning list of endorsements. And then there's the even harder-to-quantify sums he's invested in issue advocacy organizations that are now paying political dividends. In just one example, Bloomberg's co-founding of the gun control group Everytown for Gun Safety provided his campaign with a massive email list of potential voters out of the gates.
In other words, Bloomberg is well on his way to buying the Democratic nomination and quite possibly the presidency. Whatever you think of his merits and the urgency of removing President Donald Trump from office, it's easy to see that this is wrong and dangerous for our democracy. Our country's politics and policy outcomes are already dictated by corporate interests and the ultra-rich. The wealthiest people in our country should not be allowed to use their money to capture the most powerful job in the world.
As clear as the problem is, the solution is a bit harder. Many good government groups and organizations working to solve problems like gun violence and climate change rely on wealthy individuals and personal foundations for financial support, for instance.
But there are a few straightforward steps we can take to immediately safeguard the system from the dangers of Bloomberg's profligate approach to procuring elected office: We should ban political ads, and we should enact a public financing system for congressional elections so lawmakers don't have to rely on obscenely rich donors like Bloomberg for support.
Until this sweeping ban is put in place, there are other interim steps that could make a difference. TV news claims to serve a civic purpose, so networks should take a stand against the anti-democratic distribution of political ads. Networks should commit to providing equal allocation of their ad inventories to candidates or free air time.
The federal government should also step up its application of existing regulations, including its rulesthat require certain types of parity among politicians on TV. In theory, the so-called equal time rule requires publicly licensed television stations to provide equal opportunities for qualified political candidates to appear on their platforms, so broadcasters are not allowed to keep some candidates from buying ads while allowing others to do so.
But, as Bloomberg shows, it is not enough to provide an equal opportunity to buy ads when, with enoug money, a candidate can flood stations with no room left for others. Last winter, Rep. Marcy Kaptur, D-Ohio, introduced a bill that would require broadcasters to allocate a certain amount of equal time for free political advertisements. Social media platforms, which allow for highly targeted advertising campaigns, need similar regulations. An equal time rule that requires social media companies to allow opposing campaigns to speak to the same targeted audiences would make a huge difference.
The networks should also move to reject deceptive and misleading ads, with many of those from Bloomberg serving as good case studies. While the Federal Trade Commission is supposed to protect Americans from false advertising, political campaigns are mostly exempt from the rules. Many of the spots Bloomberg has put on the air so far distort his entire history in office and public life, underscoring the need to revoke this exemption.
In fact, one of the most dangerous aspects of Bloomberg's ability to use advertising in place of public events, where he could face audience questions and protesters, is that it hasn't just allowed him to unfairly raise his profile above those of his competitors; it has also enabled him to spread copious misinformation about his record and views across the country without any pushback. If you've been bombarded by his campaign's advertising, you might think Bloomberg is a staunch liberal who's been unfairly maligned by supporters of Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt.
Bloomberg is running ads that say "Mike will raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour." But Bloomberg, by his own admission, has never supported efforts to raise the minimum wage. Other Bloomberg ads call out President Donald Trump for wanting to cut Social Security and Medicare. But Bloomberg has pushed to raise the retirement age for years while warning about the growing U.S. deficit.
Another ad touts Bloomberg's funding of efforts to shut down coal plants. That much is true — but he also apparently invests in oil and gas companies, and he has opposed efforts to restrict fracking. In short, he is no climate hero.
Bloomberg is also using his wallet to drown out damaging news stories with his own narratives. In recent weeks, journalists have resurfaced a series of racially troubling comments made by Bloomberg, such as his inaccurately blaming the 2008 financial crisis on the end of "redlining," in which banks avoided giving mortgages to minority customers in low-income neighborhoods.
Another audio clip shows Bloomberg defending his mayoral administration's "stop and frisk" policy, which predominantly targeted young black and Latino men for pat-downs by police. Bloomberg responded by putting out two new television ads touting his commitment to racial justice.
Meanwhile, The Washington Post this weekend published an investigation detailing decades of sexual harassment allegations and lawsuits against Bloomberg and his company. The same day, his campaign released an online ad in which numerous women spoke about how Bloomberg supports women in the workplace.
If Bloomberg really wanted to use his money for good, he could quite easily buy up and forgive all of Americans' medical debt. But whatever he desires to spend his fortune on, he should not be allowed to use it to rewrite his record — or to drown out the voices of his Democratic opponents. Media outlets should stop cashing his checks.
- _Andrew Perez is a researcher and former reporter covering the money in politics beat who lives in Portland, Maine. _
This piece was first published by NBC Think.
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