Money can buy a serious campaign, but it can’t force a billionaire to face his record head-on.
This version of what went wrong is rooted in a contrarian piece of political strategy often employed by a pioneering political media consultant David Garth, for whom I worked as a writer and strategist in the early 1970s. Stripped of several colorful adjectives, it says: “If there is an elephant in the room, tell the people you see the elephant in the room.”
When Tom Bradley was trying to become the first black mayor of Los Angeles in 1973, after losing four years earlier, Garth’s ad had Bradley recognizing that “some of you may have believed I’d favor one group over another … but I couldn’t win that way, because Los Angeles has the smallest black population of any big city in America.” He won. When New York Gov. Hugh Carey was running for reelection in a state where the death penalty had overwhelming approval, and everyone knew Carey was against it, he took to the airwaves to explain why. When New Jersey Gov. Brendan Byrne broke a “no new taxes” campaign pledge, he explained why he felt he had to do it.
What would this have meant in the case of Bloomberg? It would have meant a blunt acknowledgment—and self-awareness—of his strengths and weaknesses.
In practical terms, it would have meant a relentless campaign that, in effect, ran straight toward the incoming fire. It would have meant buying airtime for unscripted conversations with, for example, young black men who’d been victimized by stop and frisk, and with women who were (to put it mildly) skeptical about how he and his company treated women in the workplace. It would have meant freeing the three women from nondisclosure agreements involving his conduct when he announced for president, not after Elizabeth Warren had dismembered him a debate.
It would have meant saying flatly: “I did not always support Democrats in every race, and I cannot honestly embrace every position you may favor. But faced with Donald Trump, it is a matter of national urgency to remove him from the White House and elect a Democratic Senate to save our courts and the health of our planet. And it’s imperative to elect somebody who really knows how to run a government.”