The case against Michael Bloomberg’s presidential run seems strong.
He’s a political chameleon, who went from Democrat to Republican (in order to find a place on the New York City ballot in 2001) to Independent to Democrat (again).
He spent a lot of money in politics. Some of it helping Republicans, such as Pennsylvania Sen. Pat Toomey.
He’s the poster child for political excess, having dropped a quarter of a billion dollars—that’s billion, with a “b”—in his three mayoral campaigns and having just launched his presidential bid with a $34 million buy, promising—or threatening—to spend a another billion.
He’s a friend of Wall Street at a time when the Democratic party is turning toward an “eat the rich” view.
He’s got a track record of insensitive comments and his recent apology for New York’s “stop and frisk” policy that targeted minority men certainly looks like opportunism.
And he’s 77-years-old, making Bernie Sanders, Joe Biden, and Elizabeth Warren look positively youthful by comparison.
So it may seem like sheer lunacy to consider that Bloomberg might be a strong candidate against Donald Trump—and might even be plausibly considered the candidate with the best chance of being an effective Democratic president.
So take a deep breath and follow me into Fantasy Land.
First, as has become increasingly clear, Donald Trump cannot be defeated unless Democrats take back at least some of the blue and purple states he won in 2016. The next Democratic nominee may well exceed Clinton’s 3 million vote plurality, and it will mean nothing. Remember: The Clinton margin (and more) came from her 4.2 million vote edge in California.
Those blue and purple states now appear to be very close—the latest Emerson poll shows Trump even or slightly ahead in most of them—which means that a Democrat who cannot appeal to moderate as well as base voters will be in for a very rough ride. Every survey of the voting public suggests that there is an appetite for a Democratic agenda, but only up to a point: Voters embrace the idea of a “public option” for healthcare, but disapprove of a plan that effectively wipes out private health insurance. They want a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants, but reject what is in effect an open borders policy. They want to preserve access to abortion, but reject the idea abortion on-demand or the government financing of abortion. They like the idea of a “wealth tax”, but are hesitant about aggressively ambitious spending.
All of which is why Joe Biden, despite being attacked from the left by Elizabeth Warren and the right by President Trump—while being plagued by rhetorical stumbles—remains ahead of the pack in most national polls.
But the doubts planted by Biden’s stumbles suggest that there is room for another candidate who projects a sense of competent confidence that Biden, so far, has not. And while Pete Buttegieg is a hugely gifted communicator, governing the seventh largest city in Indiana may not suggest the kind of experience needed in the Oval Office.
Just the fact of having Bloomberg—the man who governed the biggest city in America for 12 years—in the race is a bad contrast for Buttigieg because it highlights one of his larger weaknesses.
And it’s difficult to argue that Bloomberg wasn’t part of an amazing transformation in New York. You could say that the turnaround began under Rudy Giuliani. Or you could complain about stop-and-frisk or Bloomberg’s ban on large sodas. But the results are undeniable: New York City was a better place when he left office than when he came in.
And this raises a broader notion about a Bloomberg candidacy: He may be the most reassuring candidate Democrats have. Throughout Trump’s presidency, the sense has grown of a public that is exhausted by a chief executive with no anchor, no hold on reality, and no sense of restraint.
Some time ago, a lifelong Democratic operative and a right-wing political commentator both told me the same thing: that if the Democrats nominated a calm, reassuring—almost boring—candidate, Trump would lose in a landslide. This is contrary to the notion that a Democratic candidate must mobilize the core elements of the Democratic coalition, lest an unenthusiastic electorate stay home or choose a third-party candidate.
Bloomberg would test the first proposition and while his calm, reassuring, almost boring candidacy might reduce his margins in California and New York, it might bring enough votes back in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Michigan, North Carolina, and Florida, to win the Electoral College.
Indeed, Bloomberg’s very lack of ideological purity might make the progressive planks he does support more palatable to the middle.
When Bloomberg talks about raising taxes on the wealthy, it is clearly not a promise coming from a self-identified “socialist” who resents the rich. INdeed, it’s coming from someone who, as mayor did precisely that.
When Bloomberg talks about climate change, he does so from the perspective off someone who pursued environment-friendly policies as mayor and who literally put his money—tens of millions of dollars worth—where his mouth is.
When he argues for gun safety laws, he does so having sponsored and financed measures at the state level that do not imply confiscation of weapons.
In a sense, to the extent that Bloomberg would argue for center-left causes, it might have a Nixon-goes-to-China quality to his pitch: He could make them expressly because people know he isn’t a progressive.
Now think about what might happen in the fall if—against all odds, I readily acknowledge—Bloomberg somehow emerges as the Democratic nominee.
It is he—not Kamala Harris or Joe Biden or Bernie Sanders—who might well be Donald Trump’s worst nightmare. For all of his bluster, there’s a part of Trump that knows he’s a fraud—that knows that his business “success” is a mix of illusion and delusion.
How would Trump fare on a debate stage, standing across from an opponent who at any moment might say: “You know, Donald, I can buy you and sell you a dozen times and I’ll have enough left over to do it again. And I didn’t get my money from Daddy.”
The contrast between the two businessmen—one fake, one real—might threaten Trump’s appeal to those “weak Trump” voters whose late decisions tipped the 2016 election to him. As much as any factor, his victory came from voters who disliked both Trump and Hillary Clinton, and decided at the last minute to take a chance on the devil they didn’t know. A 2020 voter disillusioned with Trump might find Bloomberg’s lack of ideological passion a feature, not a bug.
Finally, there’s a case to be made that rarely seems to matter during a campaign: What kind of president would Bloomberg make?
Would a President Bloomberg push to break up Big Tech, or impose a wealth tax? Doubtful. But given the likely composition of even a narrowly Democratic Senate, it’s hard to see any president with the capacity to push through such policies, but Bloomberg’s track record as Mayor suggests he could argue for higher taxes on the wealthy in a way that would put Republican lawmakers squarely on the defensive.
it’s also hard to see how the kind of Republican obstinacy that governed the eight Obama years would work as well against a President Bloomberg.
Again, the very fact of where he came from and how he thinks would make it harder for the GOP to brand Bloomberg as a “job-killer” or a left-wing radical. And it’s not clear how Republicans could effectively resist a president who seeks to reconnect America with our allies and the international community; who would not seed his administration with a collection of grifters and sycophants; and who would not feed conspiracy theories. If you supported Trump on all of the above—as congressional Republicans have for three years—exactly what sort of case could you mount against Bloomberg?
As noted at the outset, the Bloomberg candidacy is, to put it mildly, a longshot.
If Biden does not falter in the early going, what’s the rationale for turning to Bloomberg as the Great Moderate Hope?
If Bloomberg were to somehow prevail at a multi-ballot convention, Sanders and Warren supporters might well take a walk. If his strategy of bypassing the early states were to work, would Democrats in Iowa, New Hampshire, and Nevada really work hard to the candidate who rendered their privileged positions null and void? (Disclosure: I find the possibility of ending the Iowa-New Hampshire dominance an argument for the Bloomberg campaign.)
And would voters be repelled by the sheer immensity of his spending, as New York City voters were in 2009 when their discontent with his “purchase” of an exemption to term limits almost cost him a third term?
So instead consider this not a prediction, but a modest notion: Mike Bloomberg’s campaign is a ludicrous exercise. But maybe not quite as ludicrous as we think.