Sunday, March 21, 2010

Will Bloomberg Run?

From The Wall Street Journal:

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg's top political strategist, Kevin Sheekey, will exit City Hall and return to the company the mayor founded, fueling speculation that Mr. Bloomberg is laying the groundwork for a potential White House bid.

Just to clarify - successful presidential campaigns need to establish exploratory committees in order to determine if (and if so, how) their champion can best put together a winning strategy. Kevin Sheekey's ability to do this would be compromised if he was simultaneously serving as one of the top aides for an incumbent New York City mayor; hence it would be an inestimable advantage to a potential Bloomberg candidacy if one of the candidate's chief minds was employed in the private sector (especially at one of Bloomberg's own companies).

Mr. Bloomberg tapped Howard Wolfson, a nationally known Democratic strategist who served as a senior aide on Hillary Clinton's 2008 presidential campaign, to take over Mr. Sheekey's duties this spring as deputy mayor for government affairs. Mr. Wolfson accepted the promotion Monday, his first day on the job as a senior aide.

The change reignited speculation in political circles that Mr. Bloomberg, who won a third term last November, is contemplating the possibility of an independent run for the Oval Office in 2012. Mr. Bloomberg, 68, considered a 2008 White House bid but ultimately decided against it because the odds of winning an independent bid were formidable.

"The idea of continuing onward is not far from his mind," said a person close to Mr. Bloomberg.

Hence the question: Will Bloomberg run? Only Hizzoner himself knows the answer to that one, although these early signs suggest that his response could be affirmative.

But could Bloomberg have any chance of making a dent in the actual campaign, much less winning? I think that depends on several variables:

1) How is the economy faring at the time?
If people are satisfied with President Obama's performance on economic issues, the chances are that a Bloomberg candidacy would fail (although given the mayor's well-known pragmatism, the odds are equally high that he wouldn't bother running in the first place if that was the case). On the other hand, if the economy isn't doing well, there is a second question...

2) Who will the Republicans nominate to oppose President Obama?
Should the GOP select someone from the party's moderate wing AND someone who is well-respected in the business world - the two qualities most likely to create a winning ticket in the 2012 contest - Bloomberg, both out of pragmatism and a desire to help the party with which he mostly closely identifies, will probably abstain from running, since the odds are that he wouldn't perform very well in such a contest. Then again, the only Republican who I could see fitting that description (a success in business, comparatively moderate) is Mitt Romney. All of the others - Sarah Palin, Mike Huckabee, Ron Paul, Newt Gingrich - are so far to the right that I could easily see Bloomberg deciding to oppose them, for moral as well as practical reasons.

3) How will a Bloomberg candidacy affect the dynamics of the race?
Third-party campaigns are notoriously unpredictable. Considering the institutional strength of the Democratic and Republican party machinery, no third-party candidate today can hope for success without billions of dollars in the bank, significant pre-existing name recognition, and/or a numerically strong ideological following based around a single cause. Bloomberg has the first quality and then some; he could easily invest twice the amount spent by the Obama and McCain campaigns in 2008 without noticing any difference in his wallet's thickness. Although he doesn't have meaningful name recognition outside of the East Coast, the presence of the first variable (billions of dollars in the bank) could easily change that once it became necessary. The third factor, on the other hand, is more problematic for Bloomberg - although he was elected to New York's mayoralty three times as a Republican, his ideological leanings are relatively consistent with those of the Democratic party's left-of-center wing. His prior affiliation with the GOP could thus alienate him from liberals while his moderately progressive views could anger conservatives; of course, these variables could also cause him to appeal to independents, since it will prevent him from being too strongly associated with either extreme in our current political dichotomy.

In short, Michael Bloomberg is most likely to run if the economy is still poor in 2012 and the Republicans nominate an ideological extremist as Obama's opponent. Should that happen, millions of Americans will feel dissatisfied with the performance of the incumbent while being extremely leery of supporting the only meaningful alternative; as such, the presence of a candidate like Bloomberg - a man who has excelled in business (thus making him marketable as a man who knows how to turn the economy around), who has avoided excessive partisanship, whose views are centrist (albeit with a leftward tilt), and who will have by that time spent a full decade as a remarkably capable mayor of this country's largest and most complex city - could be extremely appealing.

That doesn't mean that a Bloomberg campaign would lack setbacks. There is the fact that he's Jewish, and since America has never had a viable Jewish presidential candidate, it is impossible to know how Bloomberg's background would affect his chances. What's more, the same business acumen that could draw supporters to the Bloomberg tent may also work against him, as his close relationship with Wall Street - an institution that is already at the nadir of its popularity - will be doubly toxic in an election that hinges on economic performance and anti-establishmentarianism. Even his renowned ability to "get things done" could be spun into a quasi-authoritarian streak, particularly in light of the questionable methods he used to become legally eligible for a third term as mayor (an election which he subsequently won by the skin of his teeth, and against a political nobody at that). Finally, there is a scandal that lurks in Bloomberg's background - back when he was the CEO of Bloomberg LLP, cases bubbled to the surface of Bloomberg condoning sexual discrimination in the workplace, even going so far as to chastise female employees who became pregnant and argue that a woman who claimed she was raped couldn't be believed because there hadn't been another person present to witness the event. Bloomberg may have the clout to suppress such revelations from coming forth, and should he do so they will obviously be unimportant; on the other hand, if they were revealed, they would likely cause his political stock to plummet.

So could Michael Bloomberg become America's president? While it's impossible to say, there was an election in American history that was remarkably similar to the one that would have to take place in 2012 for Bloomberg to become candidate:

The year was 1992. The incumbent president was running for re-election, but he was extremely unpopular due to the faltering economy. His chief opponent was also widely disliked, due mainly to allegations of corruption and sexual impropriety from his past. Thus when a billionaire threw his hat into the ring and presented himself as a business-savvy fixer-upper, he became so popular that - only five months before the election - he was ahead of the two other candidates in the polls (39% for himself, compared to 31% for the incumbent president and 25% for the other candidate).

Of course, the incumbent president in question was George H. W. Bush, his chief opponent was Bill Clinton, and the third-party billionaire was H. Ross Perot. Unfortunately for history, we will never know how Perot would have fared had events followed a normal progression. Approximately one month after the June polls showed him to have a significant lead over the other two candidates, Perot inexplicably withdrew from the race. Two months after that, he re-entered, arguing that he had only withdrawn because he had been informed that George Bush would publish compromising photographs of his daughter that would ruin her wedding if Perot continued his White House bid (it was later discovered that one of Perot's own aides, Scott Barnes, constructed this myth in the hope that it would cause a backlash against Bush to benefit Perot). As a result of the consequent perception of kookiness and erratic behavior, Perot fell to third in the polls, never regaining his earlier strength.

Yet despite this, Perot STILL managed to poll 19% of the popular vote, which was not only the third-highest total for ANY third-party candidate in American history, but also the highest EVER for a third-party candidate who wasn't a former president (Theodore Roosevelt, who had been president from 1901-1909, polled 27% when he ran under the Progressive Party ticket in 1912; Millard Fillmore, who had been president from 1850-1853, polled 22% when he ran as a Know-Nothing candidate in 1856).

It is hard to come up with a decent lesson for this story. Clearly the American people WANT a president who is far-removed from the partisan bickering that existed in 1992 and still prevails today. It is equally clear that individuals like Ross Perot, who are wealthy enough to self-finance their campaigns and become national political figures, can earn a lot of votes due to their business acumen and reputations for "getting things done". As such, it is not inconceivable that - under the right circumstances - Michael Bloomberg could become the first president elected from a third-party since Abraham Lincoln in 1860 (the Republicans were, at that time, a brand new organization, opposing the well-established Democratic party and a host of fragments from the recently-dead Whig Party).

Then again, the impacts of third-party candidacies are notoriously impossible to predict. No one knew whether the third-party candidacies of Henry Wallace and Strom Thurmond would cause President Harry Truman to lose in 1948 (they didn't); whether the candidacy of Ross Perot would help Bill Clinton or George Bush in 1992 (the evidence is inconclusive); or whether Ralph Nader would cost Al Gore the presidency in 2000 (he did). The only way to know if Bloomberg could win would be for him to run. Given the circumstances that would have to exist in America for that to happen, I hope we never find out.

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