What would Mike Bloomberg actually do as president?

While his rivals attack the former New York mayor's record, his platform mirrors other Democrats' policies.
Image: Mike Bloomberg
Mike Bloomberg arrives for the 10th Democratic debate at the Gaillard Center in Charleston, South Carolina, on Tuesday, Feb. 25, 2020.Logan Cyrus / AFP - Getty Images

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By Benjy Sarlin

WASHINGTON — Mike Bloomberg is drawing a lot of scrutiny for what makes him unique — his torrent of spending, the influence of his philanthropic and political donations, his record as mayor of the nation's largest city and as a billionaire CEO.

But there's one area in which his campaign is so ordinary that it's attracted little comment either way: his policy platform.

On issue after issue animating the 2020 race — health care, taxes, housing, climate, guns, even reining in Wall Street — the campaign's stated plans resemble those of other center-left Democrats in the race while showing little sign of his roots as a Republican officeholder who was at times critical of President Barack Obama.

"In my view, Bloomberg has a very positive and forward-looking progressive agenda that fits comfortably in the center-left lane of the Democratic Party," Jim Kessler, vice president for policy at the centrist think tank Third Way, told NBC News. "It's a mix of pragmatism and idealism" similar to the policies of Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar, he added.

A spokeswoman for Bloomberg's campaign, Rachel Nagler, said the candidate sought out policies that had a realistic chance of passing Congress.

"A policy isn't going to do anyone any good if it sits on a shelf," Nagler said.

A Democratic pivot

Bloomberg joked last year he'd have to "change all of my views" and go on an "apology tour" if he ran as a Democrat, and his 2020 platform tacks away from some of his previous positions, leading some critics to question his commitment. After declaring he opposed minimum wage increases, for example, he announced his support for them as a candidate, aligning himself with the Democratic consensus.

A tough critic of the Obama-era Wall Street reforms and a vocal proponent of conservative arguments that the government created the financial crisis by expanding loans to poor communities, Bloomberg's new Wall Street plan praises the Dodd-Frank Act, promises to enforce its provisions more aggressively and calls for a financial transaction tax. He stops short of left-leaning plans by Sens. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., to stock corporate boards with workers and aggressively break up large companies.

"It's the entry point for running in a Democratic primary, but he's not particularly pushing the envelope on anything," Mike Konczal, a fellow at the progressive Roosevelt Institute, said of Bloomberg's plan. "At a time it really mattered, his vocal opposition [to Dodd-Frank], I think. really made things harder, so you want to question if this is a sincere turnaround."

On taxes, he has proposed $5 trillion in new revenue from businesses and rich individuals through familiar Democratic ideas such as taxing capital gains as income and raising the corporate tax rate to 28 percent. He did not follow the party's left wing in calling for a wealth tax on the ultra-rich, however.

Mitchell Moss, an urban policy professor at New York University and a former adviser to Bloomberg, said the former mayor's shift on economic issues reflects not only his new role as a national candidate, but also growing concerns about inequality in the years since the 2008 financial crisis.

"When you're the mayor of New York, you're going to be very concerned with the stability of the financial services industry," he said. "There's no virtue in living in the past or in consistency if the challenges are different."

On one of Bloomberg's biggest areas of vulnerability among Democrats, race and policing, his website is stocked with typical progressive calls to end cash bail, ban employers from asking about criminal histories and reduce the overall prison population. Bloomberg apologized for his stop-and-frisk policy as mayor, which has come under intense fire from campaign rivals, days before launching his presidential campaign.

His health care plan closely mirrors former that of Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana: They both would build on the Affordable Care Act by adding a public option, expanding the law's subsidies to cap premiums at 8.5 percent of income and restricting out-of-network prices from health care providers to 200 percent of Medicare rates to rein in rising costs. This is another area in which an earlier version of Bloomberg might have broken with the party — he called the ACA "a disgrace" in 2010 and argued it cost too much.

Henry Kraemer, a researcher at the left-leaning think tank Data for Progress who has tracked candidate housing plans, said Bloomberg's current platform shared ideas with those of center-left rivals like expanded funding for housing choice vouchers, more federal aid to prevent homelessness and new incentives to loosen zoning laws to make it easier to build affordable housing.

It's "superior to the status quo and worlds better than Republican plans," he said, if not as far-reaching as plans by Warren and Sanders.

But Kraemer, like some other policy minds on the left, was grudging in his praise, pointing to Bloomberg's clashes with housing advocates on issues such as zoning and homelessness as mayor.

Nagler, the Bloomberg campaign spokeswoman, said his past and current positions were not "especially different," but she added that "the mark of a true leader is her or his ability to learn and grow" and that "this sometimes means evolving their views as they become more informed and through listening to the citizens they serve."

From philanthropy to politics

Bloomberg has been a major donor to advocacy groups over the last decade on a variety of issues, and his work is reflected in his platform.

On guns, one could argue Democrats have followed Bloomberg's lead — he's the biggest funder of advocacy groups that they rely on for policy recommendations — but the result is they have similar plans to ban assault weapons and expand background checks, among other ideas.

Climate has been a major focus of his philanthropy and he's echoed his rivals' goals of eliminating carbon emissions by 2050 while also pledging to make new buildings carbon-neutral by 2025. Still, Bloomberg received a C-plus from Greenpeace USA for his plan, the same score as Klobuchar, a senator from Minnesota. The group docked him points for criticizing the Green New Deal, for declining to endorse a ban on fuel exports and for his plan's lack of detail.

"There's a lot of gaps in his plan when you get into the policy specifics of how he would move us away from fossil fuels," said Ryan Schleeter, a spokesman for Greenpeace USA.

The rating doesn't take the scale of his giving into account — he's committed $1 billion to pushing the economy away from both coal and — more controversially — natural gas.

Bloomberg clashed with teachers unions as mayor and as a donor over issues such as charter schools and performance standards for teachers. The party has shifted away from that approach since he left office, so this could be an area in which he stands out within the field, but he still hasn't released a detailed plan for K-12 education. Like other Democrats, he supports universal preschool and boosting tax credits for parents.

On higher education, Bloomberg has adopted a framework similar to those of rivals such as Klobuchar and Biden, the former vice president, that included calls to increase student aid, subsidize tuition-free college at two-year schools, route graduates to income-based repayment plans and fund historically black colleges and universities.

He drew the line at the Warren-Sanders wing's proposals, such as tuition-free public universities and mass student debt cancellation. Bloomberg's plan did include a demand that colleges end legacy admissions or lose out on federal aid, however, an idea that hasn't been widely discussed.

And despite his self-funding and claims that his wealth insulates him from pressure to please donors, Bloomberg seems to be operating in sync with rivals asking for donations.