The news came down in the late afternoon, sending shockwaves, or at least a moment or two of amused distraction, through my near-deserted row of the AIPAC conference press box. Dateline: Pago Pago. “Today, Samoan Chief Fa’alagiga Nina Tua’au-Glaude announced her endorsement of Democratic candidate Mike Bloomberg,” read the campaign press release. “Chief Tua’au-Glaude is a former delegate for President Obama at the 2008 Democratic National Convention,” it continued, swiftly achieving the missive’s actual goal: linking the unpopular former New York mayor with the beloved former president in any way whatsoever. It is no insult to American Samoa or its leadership to speculate that this endorsement probably isn’t the lifeline Bloomberg needs at this late point in his awkward lunge at the presidency. On the other hand, with former Vice President Joe Biden surging and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders enjoying a high floor of fervent grassroots support, it’s doubtful the Bloomberg presidential effort is going to have that much other good news to share in whatever time it’s got left.
The candidate’s shortcomings were on full display during his address at AIPAC’s policy conference on Monday morning, a speech that inadvertently cast AIPAC’s own fast-boiling crisis into unintentionally sharp relief. It is not that Bloomberg, who wore an adorable blue sweater vest under a dark blazer, was flat and uninspiring—it turns out even oratorically talented members of the Senate find it hard to speak in front of 15,000-odd people in an eerily darkened cavern where their image appears on 14 jumbotrons. It was something more fundamental than the candidate’s delivery. It’s the fact that Mike Bloomberg is bad at politics.
Let’s do some math here, shall we? Bloomberg is the most pro-Israel Democrat who stands a chance of taking the party’s nomination. His position on Israel—i.e., being for it—is an actual major difference of opinion between himself and the rest of the field, one that is shared by a majority of Americans and would therefore be malpractice not to exploit, assuming he really wants to be president. AIPAC should be his crowd—he was the only presidential contender who bothered to address the conference in person.
Bloomberg’s speech, in other words, should have been a round of batting practice in front of a home-town crowd. Bloomberg is a former mayor of New York City and is worth $50 billion, or maybe $60, making him by any measure an American Jewish success story; he mentioned the two Israeli hospital wings he endowed in his parents’ memory; he’s 78 years old; his campaign might be over in like three days. Why not fire up the artillery?
But with nothing to lose, Bloomberg hedged and played it safe.
“If elected president I will always have Israel’s back because Israel has a right to defend itself, by itself. … I will never impose conditions on military aid no matter what government is in power,” Bloomberg said. Later in the speech, he went after one and only one of his opponents by name. “In recent years we’ve begun to see cracks” in bipartisan support for Israel, “and that is deeply disturbing … unfortunately not all of my fellow Democrats in this race have attended an AIPAC conference. … One of them, Senator Bernie Sanders, has spent 30 years boycotting this event. He called AIPAC a racist platform. Well, let me tell you: He’s dead wrong.” And that was the whole show, folks. Digging real deep, Bloomberg and his no doubt amply compensated speechwriters, could find nothing more inspiring or imaginative than a pro forma rebuttal of the Vermont socialist’s recent characterization of AIPAC as a “platform for bigotry.”
Vice President Mike Pence, who spoke later during the same morning plenary, sounded like he drank his orange juice. “Today the leading candidate for the presidential nomination of the party of Harry S. Truman openly and repeatedly attacks Israel as a racist state and defames AIPAC,” Pence thundered, attacking Sanders by name for characterizing the targeted strike that killed Iranian arch-operative Qassem Soleimani as the “assassination of a government official,” and then again for criticizing Israel during a recent presidential debate. “The most pro-Israel president in history should not be replaced by one who would be the most anti-Israel president in the history of this nation,” Pence exclaimed.
What accounts for Bloomberg’s inability to hit batting-practice pitches? It is possible Bloomberg simply doesn’t want to undercut Sanders out of the possibility he will be the Democratic nominee. That seems unlikely, given the emphatic way that San Diego-area Democratic Congressman Juan Vargas, a Bloomberg endorser and surrogate, unloaded on Sanders in the post-speech spin room.
“I think Sanders is definitely a big obstacle for Democrats, just to be frank. I think Bernie Sanders is someone who would lose to Trump,” Vargas said quite plainly. “His policies basically say listen, we’re gonna give everything away for free, we’re gonna be a socialist nation—I don’t believe in any of that.” The congressman wouldn’t commit to voting for Sanders if he were nominated, but he promised things won’t get that far. “Even if he goes to the convention and doesn’t have a majority, we’re not gonna vote for him. The superdelegates—we won’t. It’s a losing cause.”
Maybe Bloomberg wanted to focus his fire on Trump. “I think Mike doesn’t necessarily speak in terms of dangers for Jews, he speaks in terms of dangers in terms of Trump possibly getting reelected,” Scott Richman, Bloomberg’s deputy director for Jewish outreach, said in the spin room. “The question of whether or not Bernie can reach that point of being able to defeat President Trump—I think Mike is very concerned about that.”
Or maybe Bloomberg wanted to respect one of the most sacred unspoken rules of AIPAC Policy Conference. Back in the before time, when presidential candidates circled the date of the AIPAC Policy Conference on their calendars, everyone was politely asked to refrain from talking politics on the podium—i.e., no hijacking the organization and its brand in order to score points against political opponents. After all, the point of AIPAC was that it was a bipartisan, nonpartisan, pro-Israel outfit.
Those days are gone, maybe since President Obama decided to kick AIPAC up and down Pennsylvania Avenue as part of his campaign for the Iran Deal, or at least since then-candidate Donald Trump scandalized the bipartisan pro-Israel lobby with a series of digs at Obama during his speech at the 2016 conference. AIPAC’s attachment to quaint notions of bipartisanship, may continue to define the organization, but in a way that makes them look like a bunch of awkward high school kids who have never been out on an actual date.
How AIPAC wishes to frame itself certainly matters very little to the Trump administration and its congressional loyalists. Here was House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy echoing Pence: “The United States is on the cusp of an anti-Israel movement gaining real political power,” he warned during the afternoon plenary. “While we are here defending democracy, Bernie Sanders is boycotting AIPAC. … He is campaigning with Congress’ most vocal supporters of the BDS movement.”
Bloomberg is above it all, of course. He positions himself as a bastion of competence and sobriety; his value proposition is a return to normal, technocratic politics, and a restoration of sanity and some modicum of decency after the serial crack-ups of the Trump era. The references to Sanders and his daily genuflections to different Democratic identity politics constituencies he might have offended in his days as a crude-talking, high-end office equipment salesman suggest that even Bloomberg realizes that a full return to normalcy is a delusion. The old norms aren’t coming back; the fact Republicans were so much less restrained than the former mayor in discarding these still-barely-existent rules might explain why he’s spending a billion dollars to become a Democratic also-ran.
If the game has changed for Bloomberg, it’s changed for AIPAC, too. Their marquee event is still of practical use to a variety of different constituencies: Jews who want to get involved in the political process, Democrats who want to prove their pro-Israel bona fides; Republicans who want to get a kosher stamp on their pro-Israel records and use them against Democrats; students who want an interesting couple days in D.C.; political operatives and elected officials sniffing around for gossip and cash, in that order; the list goes on. It is a remarkable accomplishment that all these disparate interest groups can be in one place in such polarized times, but it doesn’t feel like anything grander or more elevated than what it is, namely a semicoherent political operation sustained through its mere usefulness. The cracks are plainly visible, and there’s nothing and no one who’s coming to heal them.
In splitting the difference on attacking Sanders, Bloomberg showed that he hasn’t wised up to American political reality circa 2020. But the people in the White House, along with a certain Vermont senator whose own deft politicization of AIPAC has already proven more memorable and consequential than anything Bloomberg said today, sure have.
Read Tablet’s 2020 Presidential Election coverage here.
Armin Rosen is a staff writer for Tablet magazine.