According to the New York Times, Michael Bloomberg, Democratic-turned-Republican-turned-Independent mayor of Gotham, is moving closer to declaring for president of the United States. That would, of course, raise to two the number of candidates whose sole experience in government consists of overseeing five small, overpopulated boroughs wedged in between New Jersey and Connecticut. Aside from trade junkets and the like, about the only time New York City's mayor deals with anything resembling foreign policy is when he travels north of Dutchess County and attempts to negotiate more financial aid from rural upstate legislators. I know Sinatra said that if you could make it in Manhattan you could make it anywhere, but really, guys, that was just a song. Mayors are supposed to run for governor; governors are supposed to run for president.
Still, Mayor Bloomberg does have an ego, a title, and several billion dollars, and that alone gives him more credibility than, say, the governor of New Mexico (sorry, Bill). He also has the good fortune to show up at a time when retired politicians and pundits are counseling bipartisanship as the ideal solution to what ails us. Who better to represent bipartisanship than a lifelong Democrat who switched parties to clear his path to the mayoralty and then abandoned them altogether once he found that his ambitions could not be satisfied within the walls of Gracie Mansion? Opportunism, after all, is just another word for nothing left to lose.
The American people, by and large, like the idea of independence, or at least they like the label. When given a chance, however, they seldom elect independents to office. In large part, this stems from the fact that non-partisan candidates rarely have the name recognition necessary to be taken seriously or the money to buy that recognition. In a few cases, U.S. voters have supported independents at the state level, particularly when those independents bring with them a certain degree of celebrity. Think Jesse Ventura or Arnold Schwarzenegger, who was, despite the GOP label, not really a partisan figure.
The only recent candidate with the wherewithal, guts, and leisure time to mount a serious independent bid for the White House was Ross Perot in 1992 (his subsequent run in 1996 was little more than proof of Marx's aphorism that history repeats itself as farce). There was a moment in the summer of '92 where Perot actually led both Bill Clinton and President George H.W. Bush in the horse race polls. Fortunately for the parties, and especially for Clinton, Perot's dime store Harry Truman act wore thin by the fall, particularly when the Texas billionaire began to concoct weird, paranoid stories about the Republican campaign sabotaging his daughter's wedding. When last heard from, Perot was losing a debate about NAFTA to Al Gore and warning Americans of a "giant sucking sound" (he meant the potential loss of U.S. jobs to Mexico, but maybe it wasn't the best choice of metaphors).
Perot's implosion in 1992 leaves open the possibility that another well-heeled independent with fewer personality quirks might have a shot at upending the two-party monopoly that has prevailed without interruption since the days of kerosene lanterns. It is, of course, impossible to know how Perot would have fared had he turned out to be less loopy, but before Michael Bloomberg hands over a billion or so of his wealth to admen and consultants, he might want to reflect on this simple fact: despite winning nearly one in every five ballots cast for president in 1992, Ross Perot did not receive a single vote in the Electoral College. People remember this, and Bloomberg will not only have to build a national campaign apparatus from scratch, he will also have to break through the psychology of citizens who do not want to waste their votes on a hopeless, if appealing, candidacy.
I am assuming here that Bloomberg's candidacy actually turns out to be appealing. The truth is that we have no idea how Michael Bloomberg will fare in a no-holds-barred presidential campaign. Nor do we know how he will stand after the media—and the parties—conduct the inevitable full body cavity search of his personal and political history. The value of contesting the party primaries is that a candidate can be fully vetted by journalists and opponents prior to taking the big stage in the fall. If a contender, say, has a penchant for escorting women other than his wife to Bimini on a boat called the "Monkey Business", this fact will emerge before it brings down the hopes of an entire political party. It may certainly be the case that Mayor Bloomberg has lived a life so clean as to make Mitt Romney look like Larry Flynt, but if not, we will not learn about it until next summer.
Another difficulty faced by hizzoner is what we might call the Fred Thompson Problem. As Mr. Spock once said, passing up the chance to get laid, "After a time, you may find having is not so pleasing a thing after all as wanting. It is not logical – but it is often true." During the courtship period, candidates appear pristine and desirable; we can assign to them whatever qualities and issue positions strike our fancy. Once they actually enter the ring, however, they're just another piece of meat. They make mistakes, say stupid things, and take unpopular sides on controversial matters. Or, like Thompson, the lifeless reality on the stump simply doesn't match the charismatic fantasy of the mind. Michael Bloomberg has never been tested by anyone stronger than New York Democrat Mark Green, a perennial loser that he defeated by a mere two points less than eight weeks after the September 11 attacks in 2001, even with strong support from temporary hero Rudy Giuliani.
The final problem for Bloomberg involves the choice of a Vice Presidential candidate. By the time Ross Perot got around to picking a potential veep, he had already tarnished himself with strange and bizarre utterances. As a result, successful politicians shied away from him and he was ultimately forced to select the late Admiral James Stockdale. A distinguished American and former Vietnam-era POW, Stockdale was, by 1992, old, hard of hearing, and ill-prepared for the limelight. His star turn at that year's vice presidential debates was humiliating, Stockdale becoming best known for his unintentionally revelatory introductory comments: "Who am I? Why am I here?" Questions about Perot's judgment only deepened after Stockdale's performance.
Bloomberg may think that he can land an A-list nominee for the VP slot, but this may be easier said than done. No successful Democrat or Republican is likely to take on the job, since doing so would almost certainly result in his or her being blackballed from the party, at least in terms of further advancement. Arnold Schwarzenegger would be an obvious choice, but his Austrian birth disqualifies him from the position. In all likelihood, Bloomberg would be stuck with some political has-been (Bill Cohen, anyone?) or another risky outsider. Either way, the result will be to diminish Bloomberg's credibility and standing with the electorate.
(Joe Lieberman would, perhaps, be another possibility, but his turncoat act has so alienated Democrats that Bloomberg would find himself in the market almost exclusively for GOP and independent voters, hardly the bipartisan tone that he is supposed to set.)
My suggestion to Bloomberg would be to save the billion or so dollars he might spend on a presidential race. He can give me $500 million as a consulting fee for persuading him not to run, and keep the remaining $500 million for himself. Maybe he can use it to buy the Knicks and fire Isiah Thomas, a move that would solidify his popularity in New York for decades to come. Regardless, he comes out way ahead. I see it as a clear win/win solution. Drop a line in the comments section, Mike, and I'll tell you where to send the check.