In the 1939 film classic The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy and her companions visit the awesome chamber dominated by the giant who calls himself “the great and powerful Oz.”
Dorothy and her motley crew are cowering and fearful of the growling green image until her little dog, Toto, pulls back the curtain and reveals the actual “Wizard,” who is a little old man, pulling levers and yelling into a microphone. The man turns around and says,“Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain!”
But it’s too late for the Wizard—his cover has been blown. There’s nothing great and powerful about him.
Virgil got that same feeling—namely, that he was seeing faux-wizardry—when he read the big and bold headline atop the February 28 Politico: “The Wizards Behind Bloomberg’s Half-Billion Dollar Makeover: Two men were handed the biggest ad budget in the history of politics, and one job: Sell Mike to America. But can the candidate live up to their commercials?”
The “two men” working for Bloomberg are Bill Knapp, a veteran Democrat operative, and Jimmy Siegel, a veteran Manhattan ad man; the latter’s accounts have included Pepsi, Visa, and Schwab—and seven Super Bowl spots. In the pretty cartoon that accompanies the story, Knapp and Siegel are portrayed as magic-making stagecrafters, and later in the piece, the duo are featured in nicely posed photos. In other words, as far as Knapp and Siegel are concerned, the article is a 4,700-word home run.
Okay, so the Politico piece is a win for Knapp and Siegel. But there’s just one thing: Neither of them are the presidential candidate. Yes, Knapp and Siegel can get glowing press for their spots, and get paid a lot, too; according to the article, Knapp’s company has been paid more than $4 million, and Siegel’s company some $2.2 million.
And yet there’s something missing: Any confidence that candidate Bloomberg, the man paying for all these ads, is going to win. That lack of confidence in Bloomberg is signaled in the last line of the headline we saw above: Can the candidate live up to their commercials?
In other words, Politico is saying, the ads are great and powerful, but the candidate isn’t great and powerful. As the piece explained, “Behind more than a half-billion dollars in ad spending, the campaign worked better than basically all of Washington imagined it would.” So far, so good for ad makers, but it doesn’t solve the challenge to the candidate.
Yes, the article was mission: accomplished—at least as far as the admen were concerned. Yet unfortunately, Politico sighed, the actual candidate himself is not nearly so accomplished, and that was obvious, according to Politico, when he made his first appearance on the debate stage:
But then Bloomberg showed up in Vegas. That night, when the pent-up frustrations of his rivals all landed on his chin, Bloomberg shuffled off the stage having failed to match the management avatar they built up over nearly three months on the air.
Indeed, having buttered up the admen for their ad skills, Politico butchered Bloomberg for his actual persona:
The debates have laid bare the chasm between the controlled, even polished Bloomberg that viewers saw during commercial breaks and the stilted, prickly campaigner who took a pounding from Elizabeth Warren.
The article continued, “After all the money and ads on TV, voters were already prepared to want to get to know Bloomberg, and then at the debate enough of them felt like they finally did, and were disappointed.”
Virgil might observe that the purpose of campaign advertising is to help the candidate win. In the meantime, the advertisements are not supposed to be an end in themselves; they’re supposed to be a means to an end—the end-goal of winning the election. And so while the ads might be pretty, if they don’t help the candidate, then, well, they’re not so good.
Specifically to Bloomberg, we can say that if the ads project an Oz-like image that can’t be sustained—because soon enough, somebody will pull back the curtain—then the ads are misconceived, perhaps even counterproductive. That is, maybe the ads should’ve been more realistic about who Bloomberg really is, so that when the voters finally got a look at him, they wouldn’t be so surprised at the disjunction between the ad myth and the real man.
Certainly the guiding theory of a “self-funding” candidate, such as Bloomberg, is that he’s spending his money to help himself win. Of course, it’s possible that the men making the ads—and cashing the checks—have a different theory.
In the meantime, the Bloomberg ad machine keeps chugging along. According to Politico, Bloomberg has already spent more than $540 million on his campaign, and that includes money for 444,156 ad airings—more than seven times the number of airings by the Bernie Sanders campaign and nearly 30 times as many by the Joe Biden campaign. Indeed, one survey finds that a full 68 percent of Americans have seen a Bloomberg ad.
And according to Politico, the ads are strong:
Bloomberg has worked to portray Trump as everything he is not: a trust-fund kid who inherited his business career and wouldn’t know a charity if he crashed into one with his golf cart. In the ads, Trump is a liar who mocks military officials, is ignorant about the threat of climate change and just wants to sow division for his own gain. But the ads go after the president’s policies, too. On health care, they rake him for promising to protect pre-existing conditions and then trying to repeal Obamacare.
In awe of this onslaught, many Democrat candidates for the House and Senate—that is, those not competing with Bloomberg for the presidential nomination—are delighted to see someone pummeling Trump. But pounding the president isn’t the same thing as promoting Bloomberg. As the article explained, “Democrats see utility in the Bloomberg ads, if not his candidacy.” Ouch!
In other words, if Bloomberg is spending his money to trash Republicans, Democrats are happy. But if he’s spending his money to help himself, well, that’s another story.
So if one reads between the lines of the story—or heck, if one simply reads the actual lines—one gets the distinct feeling that Bloomberg is being bamboozled. That is, he’s spending all this money on advertising, and all this money on the campaign, and he doesn’t have anything close to a victory path.
In fact, just in the last few days, two Washington Post columnists, Jennifer Rubin and Greg Sargent, both strong advocates of a Democrat victory this year, have called on Bloomberg to drop out. Sargent dismissed Bloomberg’s effort as “a vanity campaign.” Indeed, the Bloomberg-should-drop-out consensus among Democrat partisans in the media—that is, those who put a Democrat victory at the top of their list, ahead of any particular Democrat candidate—has grown, now including Joe Scarborough of MSNBC, David Leonhardt of the New York Times, and Jonathan Bernstein of . . . Bloomberg News.
Of course, within the vain Bloomberg campaign, there’s plenty of desire to keep going. As that Politico article tells us, “The Times Square headquarters is teeming with hundreds of well-paid aides and everyone gets three square meals a day.”
In fact Politico made its way among the well-paid, well-fed staff to learn what the staffers thought of their candidate’s prospects. Citing “interviews with more than a dozen Bloomberg advisors and allies,” the article concluded that if the candidate has any chance to recover and win, it’s because of his ads, not his own persona:
If Bloomberg can bounce back on Super Tuesday from his Vegas debacle, he could change the rules of American presidential politics forever. And he’ll owe a big piece of his recovery to Knapp and Siegel, the guys behind his half-billion dollar curtain.
So this is what the Manhattan terminal mogul is paying for: ads that make him look like the Great and Powerful Bloomberg. And yet the actual candidate behind the curtain is just, well, Mini Mike.
Needless to say, the man who coined the Mini Mike moniker, Donald Trump, has had something to say about Bloomberg’s fate. As Trump tweeted on the 1st,
Mini Mike Bloomberg’s consultants and so-called “advisors”(how did that advice work out? Don’t ask!), are on the “gravy train” and all making a fortune for themselves pushing Mini hard, when they knew he never had what it takes. Don’t pay them anymore Mike, they led you down a very dark and lonely path! Your reputation will never be the same!
And on the 2nd, Trump needled some more: “The only people in favor of Mini Mike continuing with his hapless campaign are me and his political consultants, who are getting richer and richer by the day!”
It’s always possible, of course, that Bloomberg still has a shot at the nomination, and perhaps even the presidency itself. That is, even after Joe Biden’s comeback victory in South Carolina on the 29th, his candidacy could still fall apart—after all, there’s plenty of evidence that he’s having a hard time keeping it together, cognitively.
So if Bloomberg hangs in there—and perhaps if he spends ten, or twenty, or thirty billion dollars—who can say what will happen, in some final showdown with, perhaps, Bernie Sanders. We’ve never seen anything like that before, and there’s no way to lay odds on the unknown.
Moreover, if Bloomberg shows up at the Milwaukee convention with an open checkbook, once again, who can say? Indeed, we might even wonder what would happen if Bloomberg and his bucks showed up at the actual meeting of the 538 members of the Electoral College, which takes place a month or so after the November 3 presidential election. So maybe we could all find out: Just how loud does money talk?
Any such scenarios, of course, are highly speculative—and maybe nothing more than idle fantasy, the stuff of some future movie about a fraudulent wizard.
Yet in the meantime, in the here and now, the only thing we know for sure is that Bloomberg is spending a lot of money, fast. And his team of advisers is cashing the checks just as fast—and getting nice press as well.