Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Mr. Bloomberg LLP

I was planning on writing today about the age-old debate of cats versus dogs (which species makes a better pet) because I've had this conversation numerous times in the last few weeks and I want to make absolutely clear that dogs are nice but felines reign supreme. However, I've been in DC now for ten days and I'm starting to feel the politics bug so I'm going to save that topic for another day and write instead about my take on presidential politics (I realize that I'm passing up the opportunity here to make some jokes about cats, dogs and presidential politics).

I recently finished reading Philip Roth's novel Plot Against America, which considers what our country would have become had FDR lost the race for a third election term to Charles Lindbergh, best known for his solo flight across the Atlantic and for having a reputation as a Nazi sympathizer. The book has gotten me thinking about some political what-if scenarios, albeit less fantastical ones than FDR losing an election, and how they might affect the ongoing presidential race. I'm especially interested in the idea of New York City mayor and gazillionaire Mike Bloomberg running for President. (Full disclosure: I've already thrown my "considerable influence" behind the Hillary Clinton campaign, after she came to me and politely requested my endorsement).

Bloomberg is a relatively unique figure in American politics: he's an extremely moderate Republican (some would say a Democratic in Republican clothes), and, because he came into office after funding his own campaign, he's been able to champion his own agenda without having to tailor it too much to special interest groups. Thus, he had enough political capital to enforce a smoking ban in New York city bars, he weathered a city-wide transit strike, he's spearheading a national campaign in favor of gun control (much to the chagrin of the NRA), and he's taken ownership of the New York city public school system. Though many people in New York might argue that he's also done many things wrong, Bloomberg has enjoyed widespread popularity, and is increasingly being mentioned as a possible Independent candidate for the presidency.

I haven't looked at any polls, so I have no idea how a Bloomberg campaign is projected to fare; however, right off the bat, it's clear Bloomberg would have at least one distinct advantage because he has enough disposable income to outspend all the other candidates. Also, while Independent/Reform party candidate Ross Perot's wealth wasn't enough to propel him to the presidency when he ran in 1992 and 1996, Bloomberg is probably seen as more of a mainstream candidate than the eccentric Perot. Lastly, as a technocrat and businessman Bloomberg can make credible claims that he has the experience to fix the fiscal mess that President Bush has made for us.

Despite these strengths, Bloomberg also faces significant hurdles. Most importantly, he's a political neophyte. Being the mayor of New York city has certainly provided him with a significant amount of political acumen, however, Bloomberg is not a career politician, like Rudy Guiliani. If he chose to ran for the White House, Bloomberg would also have greater difficulty sidestepping special interest group pressure, even though he still wouldn't have to rely on them for fundraising. And, his business holdings will come under heavy scrutiny as reporters and competitors try to dig up any dirt that might stick on him.

Ultimately, the main question regarding a Bloomberg candidacy is whether he could generate enough votes to play a political spoiler in the general election or even win the White House. Without a doubt, if he runs, the Democratic and Republican nominees for the general election will have their hands full trying to fend him off. If Guiliani is the Republican candidate, for example, he'll almost certainly lose most of the moderate vote he's already courting by being pro-choice to the Bloomberg camp. Similarly, any Democratic candidate could stand to lose moderate Republican and conservative Democratic votes to Bloomberg's candidacy.

The other main question to ask is whether it would be a good thing if Bloomberg rocked the boat by injecting a third party into the normally staid (and stable) politics of a two-party country. On the one hand, if the vote is split three ways, then the ultimate winner may lack any real mandate to accomplish his or her agenda. On the other hand, it could force candidates to take real positions on issues so that they are able to distinguish themselves from one another.

I'm definitely intrigued by the idea of an Independent running for President, but I think that the present list of candidates already represents a comprehensive range of political viewpoints, from the very liberal (Kucinich) to the very conservative (Fred Thompson, assuming he runs), to the libertarian (Ron Paul), to the centrist (Hillary, Obama, Guiliani, McCain, Romney, etc). If he doesn't add anything to the race, then Bloomberg will simply be playing the role of election spoiler. And, Bloomberg could probably achieve much of his own agenda after he leaves the mayor's office, by serving as a philanthropist or even, potentially, as a cabinet member in the next administration. So, while it's an interesting what-if scenario to consider, my vote for the time being is for Bloomberg to avoid the calls he's been getting to join the race, serve out the rest of his term as mayor and then take a break from elected politics. Mr. Bloomberg - if you're reading my posting - now that I've given such serious thought to your future career, I'll be happy to meet with you and provide additional unsolicited job advice anytime you like (assuming I'm available).