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Fat Chance

Regarding his national aspirations, he adopted a posture of self-protective self-deprecation. “What chance does a five-foot-seven billionaire Jew who’s divorced really have of becoming president?” he asked. ~New York Magazine

Well, when you put it like that…none at all. How about this: what chance does the New York Mayor who openly and cravenly cavorts with the cop-bashing, race-baiting Al Sharpton in the wake of a controversial police shooting have of becoming president? If it were possible, even less of a chance. (On the Sean Bell shooting, see Heather Mac Donald’s thorough repudiation of the hysteria surrounding the entire episode.)

It is election years like 2008 that fully reveal the amazing arrogance and self-confidence that someone has to have to believe so strongly that he should become President of the United States that he actually goes around the country telling everyone this every chance he gets. In “normal” years, Michael Bloomberg’s candidacy wouldn’t even be a bad joke. No one would even mention it. What constituency is up for grabs that he represents? The billionaire vote? Gates and Buffet are probably going to vote for the Democrat anyway, so he’s already behind among the billionaires. Frank Luntz says that Bloomberg’s polling in the mid-20s in a three-way contest with Clinton and a Republican not McCain or Giuliani, but what that mid-20s figure really represents is just how much a large part of the public really doesn’t want one of the candidates from the major parties to win. Normal, non-partisan people are so disgusted by them, you could probably put my name on the same poll and I might draw 10 points. But would those people actually vote for Bloomberg when it came time to push the button? Almost certainly not, because they would find that there is virtually nothing distinctive about the man’s views that a voter couldn’t already find in one of the other two.

If they are to be even marginally successful, except in strange states like Connecticut, independent candidates have to represent something genuinely different from what the major parties are selling. More importantly, they have to be able to tap into the issues where the establishment candidates are singing from the same hymnal and blatantly ignoring the majority of the people. Trade, immigration and foreign policy are three vital areas where the leadership of both parties holds views manifestly out-of-sync with tens of millions of Americans, and it is often the same people who find themselves completely unrepresented on all three. (There are non-interventionists who actually think free trade brings peace and who think immigration is our strength, but you can practically count them on two hands. Most non-interventionists would, I think, tend to take the view of “Let’s mind our own business, and keep other people out of ours.”) If the nominees for 2008 were the likely front-runners, the two-party establishment consensus on these three areas creates a real opening for an independent candidate. Just not an independent candidate like Bloomberg, who stands with the consensus on at least two out of the three (and evidently has no coherent foreign policy views worth mentioning).

Nonetheless, it is a measure of how wide-open both sides are that someone who probably couldn’t win election outside of a large metropolitan area on the coasts thinks he has even a remotely plausible shot at doing well enough in the general election so that he wouldn’t embarrass himself and become the fodder for late-night comedians for the next year afterwards. It is also a measure of how hopeless his cause his that the folks at New York Magazine have to include the note on their cover: “He’s Serious.” Naturally, no one would assume that he was serious unless the magazine explicitly told us so, because a Bloomberg for President campaign is about as unserious of a venture as it gets. No doubt, he himself has, or will be able to get, the money needed to run. But run where? To represent whom? To say what? “I was Mayor of New York”? To which a disgruntled Chicagoan might reply, “Good for you! Stay there!”

Comparisons will inevitably be drawn with another eccentric billionaire who thought that he was no less ridiculous of a candidate than the major party nominees (and he was right), but Bloomberg will not be the Perot of our time. He will be more like the last Republican-turned-independent presidential candidate of my lifetime. Why does Bloomberg want to be the new John Anderson? What is the deep, abiding vision that the man has that simply must be brought before the nation? To begin with, there is the megalomania:

Today, he seems to view himself as a man of destiny, whose wealth and wisdom empower him to transform not just the city but the country and even the world.

Beyond that, his backers advance the image of Bloomberg as competent, successful mayor. He has evidently done an acceptably good job in New York. For the 280 million Americans whose lives have little or nothing to do with New York City, this is an interesting thing to note and then set aside. What else has he got? That is, what about him would make anyone want him as president?

As an aside, I should add that I have no personal experience of the city pre- or post-Bloomberg to gauge whether it has improved, as the statistics suggest it has. New York is to me like a strange and faraway kingdom that one hears about in stories, sees on television or reads about in The Economist, but which could be, for all I know, an elaborate Hollywood sound stage. It is telling that I have been to London on multiple occasions, and I have visited both Berlin and Edinburgh twice and yet never once have I gone to New York City. I can’t say that I really dislike the place, because I have never been there, but nothing about it makes me want to visit–what can I say? I just don’t get the attraction.

Besides, would Americans really be able to tolerate two former New York mayors campaigning in the same year? I would get tired of it pretty quickly. In fact, I’m already tired of the two of them, and neither has really started campaigning yet.

So what does Mayor Bloomberg stand for? Rather predictably, he seems to hold the conventional laundry list of acceptable urban liberal views on just about every contentious issue out there today. He favours gun control, he is pro-immigration and pro-amnesty, and he is supportive of all stem-cell research and apparently supportive of the Dubai ports deal. Since he was a Northeastern Democrat until fairly recently, this is not in the least surprising. His “vision” thus far induces yawning, not a sense of someone about to reshape the political landscape for good or ill. If I had been forced to pick his positions for him, these are the positions I would have chosen. He plays to the stereotype of urban Northeasterner with precision. There is scarcely anything about his political views that would get the attention of a Midwestern suburbanite, a small-town Westerner or a Plains state rancher. Entire stretches of the country would be like a foreign land to him, and he would seem very strange to a lot of people in those stretches of the country. On immigration and Dubai, he is fantastically out of step with the country, and I think he understands perfectly well just how unrepresentative his views are on many things. To whom, then, would he make his appeal?

He has aided Claire McCaskill in her successful Missouri Senate bid, which will make him particularly obnoxious to many Republican voters, and he has aided Joe Lieberman, which will make him The Enemy of All Progressives Everywhere, second only to Joe Lieberman himself. So, support for embryonic stem-cell research and warmongering are the best-known positions of two of his chosen candidates. His campaign slogan might be: “I support destroying human life at all stages of development.” It’s a winner!

He begins to make more of what might genuinely be called a “centrist” appeal when he talks up the failures of the major parties and the problems of deficit spending and the ballooning national debt. The article writer, John Heilemann, hears echoes of Perot here, but this is not exactly right. Why? For the very reason that he seems to count as an advantage for Bloomberg:

And Bloomberg has none of Perot’s isolationist or nativist leanings.

Naturally, someone writing for New York Magazine may not appreciate that Perot’s “isolationist and nativist leanings” were the very things that distinguished him and made him desirable to the disenchanted Middle American middle-class voters who felt betrayed by Bush’s tax raise, and who felt ignored by his preoccupation with foreign policy questions, alienated by excessive Democratic spending and threatened by the establishment consensus on NAFTA. If Bloomberg doesn’t have his “giant sucking sound” moment (the moment where Perot memorably and dramatically took a popular stand on free trade and also happened to be substantially right about the effects of NAFTA) as an independent candidate, he won’t have much success, no matter how much money he throws at the race.

In the end, there is no great likelihood that Bloomberg will even make the attempt. But it’s never too early to make clear why that attempt would fail rather badly.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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