Mike Bloomberg has woken up a sleepy primary contest

Jaime Watt Navigator Ltd.
Executive Chairman
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This article originally appeared in the Toronto Star on February 23, 2020.

In his 1913 book, “Essays in Rebellion,” British journalist Henry Nevinson illustrated an issue facing the Atlantic fishing trade.

The problem: when shipped in tanks overseas, cod tended to be “lethargic, torpid … prone to inactivity, content to lie in comfort … rapidly deteriorating in their flesh.” The solution, devised by an enterprising fisherman, was to insert one catfish into each tank, ensuring that each cod came to market “firm, brisk, and wholesome … for the catfish is the demon of the deep, and keeps things lively.”

Nevinson thus introduced the concept of the catfish as a stimulating, corrective presence that forces its neighbouring creatures out of their inertia. Over a hundred years later, the term “catfish” has become a popular expression for social media users who, while pretending on the internet to be someone they are not, play the same kind of role.

Watching the Democratic primary debate this week in Nevada, it became clear that former New York City mayor Mike Bloomberg is, himself, a catfish. Setting aside the unflattering comparison to Nevinson’s “demon of the deep,” it now looks like Bloomberg’s greatest impact as a candidate will be in his capacity to jolt his competitors out of their lethargy. He may not come out on top — characterizing his debate performance as disappointing would be kind — but his candidacy will cull the field and refocus the race.

For months, the democratic primary has felt underwhelming. Initially framed as a coronation of former vice-president Joe Biden, surprises along the way have culminated in Sen. Bernie Sanders’ firm dominance in most national polls. Virtually all pundits agree that position will erode as the field narrows to just one or two centrist alternatives to the Vermont senator’s staunch socialism.

But the reality is, aside from Sanders’ proposed political revolution, none of the candidates has really caught anyone’s imagination. Biden seems to have fallen asleep at the wheel, Pete Buttigieg has yet to garner any serious support from crucial minority groups and Elizabeth Warren’s emphasis on substance over style has left voters wondering whether she is up for a general election fight.

But all of that changed on Wednesday night.

For the first time, each candidate seemed energized, on their toes and unafraid to throw punches. Like a catfish among the cod, Bloomberg forced his stage mates to eschew their friendly demeanour and act like the competitors they are.

Warren came for Bloomberg, Amy Klobuchar swung at Mayor Pete and perhaps most significantly, Sanders learned to defend himself from exactly the kinds of attacks that he would face from Donald Trump.

Responding to Sanders’ ardent defence of democratic socialism, Bloomberg noted how “wonderful” the U.S. must be, considering “the best-known socialist in the country happens to be a millionaire with three houses.”

Sanders was taken aback. The senator is used to attacks for his socialist views but has yet to experience any serious challenge to the working class bona fides, which have defined his entire political identity. His flustered response shows just how unfamiliar Bloomberg’s tactic was. No doubt the Sanders camp was taking notes.

The similarities between Bloomberg and Trump — both are defined by their wealth, brashness and New York City demeanour — make the former mayor a perfect debate proxy for the president. And no one took better advantage of this than Warren, who spent most of the debate attacking Bloomberg.

After months of Warren’s restrained focus on policy solutions, many have wondered whether she could put up the fight necessary to take down Trump. Last week, she answered that question, explicitly comparing Bloomberg to Trump and tearing down Bloomberg’s “history of hiding his tax returns, of harassing women and of supporting racist policies.”

For the first time, voters could see just how Warren scraps. She stuck to her principles, was articulate and proved that she can fight back without getting covered in mud.

In reality, the rumble in Nevada may not make a difference: Bloomberg’s $400 million (U.S.) ad buy will reach millions more Americans than the debate did. Regardless, the catfish has been set loose in the tank.

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