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Second to None

Mike Bloomberg, backseat driver.

Though he's never been involved in national politics, the one man with the odd distinction of appearing on both Barack Obama's and John McCain's vice-presidential shortlists has more name recognition than any contender shy of Hillary Clinton. His surname festoons more than 126 offices worldwide, adorns a 24-hour cable news network, is cited in newspapers around the globe, and is credited as a producer on each night's episode of "Charlie Rose."

That name--"ethnic," as he has noted, "and all the more memorable for it"--is Bloomberg. And the candidates have not been shy about their affection for Mike. In March, at Obama's request, the New York mayor warmly introduced Obama at an economic address in the city; Obama, in turn, praised Bloomberg for his "extraordinary leadership." The relationship between McCain and Bloomberg goes back further: McCain endorsed Bloomberg early when he ran for mayor in 2001. "I got elected because of you," the mayor publicly said to McCain before a speech in April. And, just a few weeks ago, McCain enjoyed a private breakfast on Manhattan's Central Park South with Bloomberg and his girlfriend, Diana Taylor, at which the v.p. slot was reportedly discussed.

It's easy to see why Bloomberg--or the idea of Bloomberg--is so appealing to both presumptive nominees. McCain and Obama both believe that the brand of politics Bloomberg has come to represent--intelligent, technocratic, results-oriented, bipartisan, or, variously, post-partisan--is their own. To tap Bloomberg, a Democrat-turned-Republican-turned-independent, would represent a genuine break from the red state/blue state, liberal/conservative binary status quo that both candidates decry. Politically, Bloomberg represents Obama and McCain as they see themselves. He would be, in short, the ultimate vanity veep--and part of that vanity would come in ignoring just how bad a choice he would be.

Michael R. Bloomberg was the first 9/11 politician. When the towers fell, he was treading water in an expensive, quixotic campaign to succeed Rudolph Giuliani. A lifetime Democrat who switched his registration to Republican in order to run in a less crowded primary, his pitch was simple: A spectacularly rich guy cannot be bought. He could, however, spend, and his record-shattering ad blitz centering on the suddenly heroic Giuliani's endorsement was enough to eke out a victory.

As mayor, Bloomberg has been terrific. The New York City crime rate, which began to plummet under Giuliani, went through the floor under his successor, whose inclusive approach ameliorated Giuliani-era racial tension. The city's economy came roaring back after the World Trade Center attacks, and he's cut thousands of employees from the city payroll. The smoking ban that he pushed through essentially by fiat, controversial in 2003, is now a model for such unlikely cities as Paris and Dublin. Even as a restless lame duck, and even as he endlessly toys with a presidential bid, Bloomberg's approval rating remains around 70 percent.

In some ways, Bloomberg would also be good for both Obama and McCain. Neither presumptive candidate has much management experience, while Bloomberg built a thriving business empire from scratch and was mayor of New York for two terms. He also could shore up support for either in Florida, where Jews make up almost 5 percent of registered voters. The economy is expected to be a key issue in the campaign--and who better than a successful entrepreneur and (mostly) balanced-budget steward of our greatest city to put an exclamation point on a candidate's economic plan? And, finally, tantalizingly, there's his money. So ... much ... money. Bloomberg, worth an estimated $20 billion, spent more than $70 million in his first election and $83 million in 2005 against the hapless Freddy Ferrer. What might a guy like that spend in a competitive race? To become vice president? Deputy Mayor for Government Affairs Kevin Sheekey helpfully ballparked the sum at "between zero and a billion."

And yet. The political hurdles in the way of a Bloomberg selection appear insurmountable. Obama's already doing well with the upper-class voters who might get excited by the prospect of a divorced Jewish billionaire on the ticket. Though Mayor Mike was remarkably adept at winning over NYC's salt of the earth, the older women and bitter men of Appalachia are unlikely to be as welcoming, even if he was the first Jew in the Phi Kappa Psi frat at Johns Hopkins. Plus, Obama really doesn't need to team up with another guy who thinks he's smarter than the room. (From his 1997 autobiography, Bloomberg by Bloomberg: "I too think I can do everything better than anyone else.")

A McCain-Bloomberg ticket has its own difficulties. To pick someone who isn't--and never really was--a Republican would signal one of two things: either a lot of confidence in McCain's right-wing support or an absolute, overwhelming need to disassociate from the Republican brand. Neither is very likely. On the first, McCain can hardly take for granted the hard GOP right: Though the Republican race is considered long over, McCain rarely pulled more than 80 percent of votes in primaries since February--a telling sign that he still needs to woo the GOP faithful. McCain is also in no position to turn his back on the party so publicly. (There's a structural problem here, too: The Republican National Committee is paying for McCain's campaign to an unprecedented extent. This isn't really the time for him to stick his thumb in their eye.)

Finally, there's the little matter of how ill-suited Bloomberg is for the job. To begin with, there's been one consistent failing of Bloomberg's tenure as mayor, from the West Side stadium debacle to this spring's congestion-pricing flame-out: his dislike, and disregard, for politics. When journalist Chris Smith asked Bloomberg in 2005 what the biggest surprise about being mayor was, he answered: "The politics. That's the disappointing thing. You try to convince them to vote for something, and there is, 'What's in it for me?' That is depressing. ... [I]t's much more horse-trading than analysis." In Bloomberg by Bloomberg, he confessed he has "no interest in being a legislator. The pace, the focus, and the compromises don't appeal to me. The legislative process is so boring that I'd last for all of five minutes as a senator or congressman." These aren't qualities one looks for in a prospective v.p.

The other trouble is that, as laughably vague as vice-presidential duties are, one thing is clear: The v.p. is not in charge of anything. And Bloomberg hasn't been subordinate to anyone since he was fired by Salomon Brothers more than a quarter-century ago. A successful vice president cajoles, manipulates, infights, worms his way into influence. Dick Cheney was a master at handling bureaucracy after years as a White House chief of staff, representative, and secretary of Defense. This was not a man disappointed by the realities of horse-trade politics: This was a man with a stable full of horses. Bloomberg's former pollster Doug Schoen suggested that Bloomberg would accept the v.p. slot if handed a broad portfolio, maybe "Super Duper Treasury secretary." But then why not make him Treasury secretary?

Bloomberg really should run for a third term as mayor of New York, but he can't (though he has commissioned a poll on undoing term limits). Still, that doesn't mean he should run for vice president instead. He wouldn't do McCain or Obama much good as a running mate. And the vice presidency wouldn't do him any good, either.

Ben Wasserstein is the online editor of The New Republic.

Click for the previous and next article in TNR’s Veeptacular. And for a full index of our 2008 v.p. coverage, click here