After two thousand five hundred and thirty-nine days of the failed and benighted Administration led by George W. Bush, the victory of Barack Obama in Iowa last Thursday night—and the embracing speech he delivered in Des Moines to celebrate—was a thrillingly hopeful, and potentially transformative, moment in American political life. Obama distinguished himself in a talented field by pulling in young voters who normally disdain the ballot box and Republicans and Independents who normally disdain Democrats, and by offering an increasingly clear vision of a way out of the moral and policy depredations that have brought the national spirit to its lowest ebb in memory. It was no less uplifting, after two centuries of white men in charge, to see Hillary Clinton, who is hardly done campaigning, give a gracious concession speech to a winner, an African-American, who, as he put it, has “a father from Kenya and a mother from Kansas.”
Onto this crowded and rejuvenated political stage now comes Michael Bloomberg, our skilled and uncommonly non-neurotic mayor, engaged in a different variety of the electoral enterprise—a prolonged game of Presidential footsie. Even as he has issued denials of interest to everyone from the press corps at City Hall to Ryan Seacrest on Dick Clark’s New Year’s Eve broadcast, Bloomberg has deputized some of his leading aides to draw up scenarios for a third-party candidacy and to keep the interest of the press well fluffed. The press, titillated by access, has coöperated with front-page “would-he, could-he” stories. This week, Bloomberg will attend a meeting of Unity08, in Oklahoma, to discuss third-party options, and in recent weeks he has displayed a vague yet imperious disdain for the assembled candidates, while privately hustling from one policy consultant and policy grandee to the next, to ask, “What chance does a five-foot-seven billionaire Jew who’s divorced really have of becoming President?”
The reason that Bloomberg’s coy exploratory venture has earned him such attention is obvious. “There are two things that are important in politics,” Mark Hanna, the Ohio industrialist and senator who ran William McKinley’s campaign, in 1896, said. “The first is money and I can’t remember what the second one is.” All the front-runners except Mike Huckabee are millionaires to one degree or another—Obama is the poorest, with a net worth of just over a million dollars, Mitt Romney the richest, with two hundred million—but Bloomberg is wealthier by an order of magnitude. According to Forbes, he is worth more than eleven billion dollars. Bloomberg owns an estate in Bermuda, a horse farm in Westchester County, a condominium in Vail, a ten-million-dollar town house in London, and a thirteen-and-a-half-million-dollar town house on East Seventy-ninth Street. To commute among them, he takes his private jet, a Falcon 9. He isn’t stingy, though; he’s one of the leading philanthropists in the United States and has said that at some point he hopes to give away as much as four hundred million dollars a year.
Still, running for President is not cheap. Some press estimates say that Bloomberg would have to spend half a billion dollars to get on the ballots of all fifty states, pay for a staff and commercials, and run an effective national race. Kevin Sheekey, the Mark Hanna of Bloomberg’s non-candidacy candidacy, told Newsweek that the number is higher: “If it happens, it’s a billion-dollar campaign.” Whatever. If Bloomberg feels like it, he can put a Presidential run on his Amex card. His credit is good. And he is experienced in self-financing. In 2001, he invented himself, with a wink, as a Republican, and spent some seventy-four million dollars to overcome Mark Green and rule New York. In 2005, he spent eighty-five million dollars on his reëlection campaign: eighty-five million dollars to defeat the juggernaut that was Fernando Ferrer, the Bronx borough president. The Times editorial page, which generally supports the Mayor, rightly decreed the amount “obscene.”
For the moment, Bloomberg’s flirtation with a third-party run is a plutocrat’s relatively harmless indulgence of ego and curiosity, but he may get serious. It has happened before. In 1992, the similarly loaded computer-systems executive H. Ross Perot ran a campaign fuelled by more than sixty million dollars of his own fortune. His was a memorable political expedition that featured a spacey ideology of managerialism and nativism and a personality well beyond the bounds of special. Perot won nineteen per cent of the vote and pretty much guaranteed a victory for Bill Clinton, who had deftly appropriated one of Perot’s issues: deficit reduction. Third-party races matter. In 2000, the consumer advocate Ralph Nader, another special personality, fulfilled his historical destiny with an anti-corporate, anti-globalization campaign, which insured that the balloting in Florida between Al Gore and George W. Bush was close enough to enable the conservative majority on the Supreme Court to hand the election to the Republicans. Or at least that’s the way it worked out.
Bloomberg’s confederates say that their man would not dream of running as a spoiler. He is not the quixotic type. If he runs, it will be to win and because the major parties have selected “polarizing” candidates who leave a large part of the electorate cold. Bloomberg’s people speak, in particular, of Hillary Clinton’s “negatives” and of the right-wing ideologies of Mike Huckabee and Mitt Romney. Sheekey’s strategy is to see where the race is after the Texas primary, on March 4th; at that point, Bloomberg can still get on all the ballots and, like so many prevaricators before him—Obama included—will likely be excused his oaths not to run.
Bloomberg’s record as mayor has, for the most part, been stellar. Those who contend that he has been the city’s best executive since Fiorello LaGuardia have an excellent argument even if he does lack the earthy panache of “the Little Flower.” With a style both rational and visionary, Bloomberg has cleared up the economic crisis that was left him; established the largest school-construction program in the history of the city; cooled some of the racial animosity; initiated important real-estate and municipal developments in all five boroughs; and made it possible to get a drink or eat dinner without risking lung cancer. He has sustained the best aspects of Rudy Giuliani’s first term—especially a close, effective attention to crime—without any of Giuliani’s creepy insularity and preening divisiveness.
But what of Bloomberg as a Presidential candidate—why the flirtation? Ed Koch, who is supporting Hillary Clinton but is a fan of Bloomberg’s, blames New York’s most reliable amenity. “It’s the water,” he says. “There’s no lead in it, which can cloud your thinking.”
Perhaps, but Bloomberg, beyond his scolding talk of hyper-partisanship, hasn’t offered much to distinguish himself from those who have braved the comical and often appalling endurance test known as the nominating process. With Clinton, Obama, John Edwards, and others still in the Democratic race, Bloomberg’s pro-science, anti-gun, pro-green, anti-smoking, pro-choice, anti-French fries just-left-of-center ideology seems a domestic agenda that is already well covered. And surely six years of trips to Staten Island do not make him an expert in foreign affairs. Bloomberg could siphon votes, mainly from the Democrats, but to what end?
In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, especially, third-party candidacies usually grew organically out of some overarching moral vision. The Liberty and Free-Soil Parties stood against the evil enormity of chattel slavery; the Socialist Party of Eugene Debs and Norman Thomas embodied a suppressed yearning for social justice and greater economic equality. “When a third party’s demands become popular enough, they are appropriated by one or both of the major parties and the third party disappears,” Richard Hofstadter wrote, in “The Age of Reform.” “Third parties are like bees: once they have stung, they die.” Bloomberg is not without ideas about political and economic reform, but he professes no grand and specific national plan. Still less has he evinced any desire to sting and then die.
There is no law against the super-wealthy funding their own third-party candidacies. (The Supreme Court took care of that thirty-two years ago, in Buckley v. Valeo.) And, as New York’s unfortunate term-limit law ushers Bloomberg out of City Hall, the Mayor has every right to mull his future: the rumors include his becoming a full-time philanthropist, buying the Times, and running for governor. But so far the big Presidential tease has been a prolonged exercise in self-regard. A man with Bloomberg’s sense of noblesse oblige should know that there is something unseemly about waltzing into the Presidential race, or even hinting at it, for no reason more compelling than that he can afford to pay the bill without flinching.