Eight years ago, Michael Bloomberg visited the University of Oklahoma with an august assembly of about a dozen old white ex-lawmakers from both parties. The plan was to convene a list of policies for a “government of national unity,” building a consensus among senators-turned-lobbyists and governors-turned-lobbyists alike. Then, Bloomberg would use his prodigious cash reserves to sweep onto the November ballot, win the 2008 election, and end partisan bickering forever. “People have stopped working together, government is dysfunctional, there’s no collaborating and congeniality,” Bloomberg said that day.
And as we all know by now, this led to the successful two-term Bloomberg presidency, a triumph of the greatest post-partisan problem-solver in American history.
I colorfully described that event eight years ago as “Wankstock” (three days of peace, love, and bipartisanship). It was perhaps the greatest example of the self-deluded fiction that the country is yearning for a centrist savior to bring everyone together through the power of persuasion and good old-fashioned common sense. In reality, this is a cover story for people with lots of money wanting to install one of their own in the White House to get rid of the pesky “public interest” side of political debates now and for good.
The hilarious conclusion to Wankstock came when the participants, at least on the Democratic side, ran away from the idea of supporting an independent Bloomberg candidacy. “I am a Democrat, and I will endorse a Democratic president,” said former Senator Gary Hart. Even the target audience for centrist technocracy wouldn’t commit to it.
I bring up 2008’s Bloomberg for President dalliance—and his 2012 dalliance, for that matter, in conjunction with the post-Wankstock organizations No Labels and Americans Elect—because the diminutive New Yorker is back again, this time publicly making noises about a 2016 independent campaign. And everything that made Bloomberg an impossible, borderline offensive candidate eight years ago and four years ago still exists today.
Bloomberg told the Financial Times, “I find the level of discourse and discussion distressingly banal and an outrage and an insult to the voters.” He professes to give voters a sensible alternative to the extremes of both parties. In reality, Bloomberg’s profile appeals to an exceedingly thin section of the electorate outside the New York/D.C. corridor.
Just cross-reference Bloomberg’s policy obsessions with the issues actually firing up voters in 2016. Republican candidates are appealing to the electorate with basically the same policies conveyed at different decibel levels and with varying infusions of profanity. It’s not like GOP voters are awaiting someone with gun-control plans and a soda tax to take control. Meanwhile, Bernie Sanders is often depicted as an extremist, but his call for additional pieces of social insurance is utterly conventional inside Democratic circles. Sanders and Hillary Clinton have battled one another over who would be tougher on the finance sector. The architect of the paramilitary crackdown on Occupy Wall Street, who saw part of his job as New York City mayor as being the banks’ human shield, makes a singularly unappealing alternative.
An anti-teachers’-union, anti-gun, pro-nanny state, pro-Wall Street, pro-stop-and- frisk, pro-inequality, pro-immigration, pro-surveillance, pro-Iraq War neoconservative is almost surgically designed to repel practically every American voter on some level. Horse-race polls mean little at this point, but every one of them puts Bloomberg far back of the pack. That’s mainly because he’s virtually unknown to anyone who doesn’t write for or read a major media publication in the New York/D.C. area.
If people do ever learn of Bloomberg’s existence, they’ll find that his entire policy profile boils down to benefiting the plutocracy in whose circles he flutters, with the fig leaf of “bipartisanship” as a cover. He supports a giant financial sector in need of Bloomberg terminals, a pool of non-union labor ready for the ruling class to exploit, a deep national-security state with lucrative contracts for its devices, and an authoritarian law-enforcement apparatus. This type of candidate would certainly prevail in a caucus composed of the upper 15 floors of condominium buildings on Park Avenue, but not with anyone in contact with the physical world outside of Manhattan high-rises.
How Bloomberg plans to win the hearts of the nation is arguably even more offensive. The U.S. system of president-picking is rather horrible, but at least it’s nominally predicated these days on the idea that candidates must seek some level of popular support through a deliberative process. Bloomberg would set aside all the union halls in Iowa and diners in New Hampshire in favor of simply buying his way onto the ballot.
Bloomberg reportedly plans to spend $1 billion of his fortune if he enters the race as an independent. Sanders was not far off when he said a Bloomberg run would cement the fact that the country is “moving away from democracy to oligarchy.”
have tended to suggest that he would only enter the race if anti-establishment
types like Sanders and Donald Trump win their respective nominations. But the
topsy-turvy race won’t make that decision so clear-cut.
Bloomberg acknowledged to the Financial Times that, because of ballot-access laws in the states, he would have to begin the process in early March. Sanders’s New Hampshire victory on Tuesday suggests a long-enough slog that the Democratic race won’t be decided by that time. The Republican nomination could take months after that to sort out. Bloomberg would have to make a choice, and begin peeling off millions of dollars, without precisely knowing his opponents.
The winter of every election year can now be properly called “Bloomberg silly season,” so we shouldn’t take these rumors too seriously. But we should note the unbelievable arrogance of the elites that Bloomberg represents, whose ongoing cascade of failures has inspired the backlash we’ve seen in New Hampshire and across the country. The sensible centrist technocrats bear responsibility for the worst economic crash in nearly a century, the subsequent sclerotic growth, and the near-total loss of faith in institutions. For Michael Bloomberg to look at all that and think “Showtime!” speaks to either an epidemic of sycophantic advisers or simply the delusion of mistaking the power that comes with billions of dollars for the ability to lead.