BLOOMBERG FOR PRESIDENT. Third Way Out by Ben Smith
On June 11, the shoe designer Stuart Weitzman held a $1,000-per-plate fund-raiser for the local Republican representative, Chris Shays, in the garden behind his Greenwich, Connecticut, home. The main attraction was Michael Bloomberg, the charisma-free media mogul who has emerged as a surprisingly popular mayor of New York; he strolled in with his girlfriend, Diana Taylor, who apologized smilingly that she hadn't worn Weitzman's shoes. But the mayor didn't disappoint. For weeks, he'd been publicly dismissing talk that he might run for president in 2008. At Weitzman's house, his denial took on a more coy tone. "Absolutely not," Bloomberg replied to a question about his presidential aspirations. "And anybody who's running will say exactly that."
This isn't the first time that Bloomberg has privately flirted with a 2008 bid. But what makes a Bloomberg candidacy look increasingly real is that he has also begun to think about the mechanics of running. New York p.r. eminence Howard Rubenstein recalls Bloomberg putting a price tag on his Oval Office ambition at a dinner party in April: "I could easily put up half a billion," the mayor had said, naming a figure over one-third higher than the Bush campaign's spending in 2004.
Perhaps it's no surprise that Bloomberg is making noises about a presidential run. In a heady, recovering city that the World Trade Center attack finally made part of the United States, who isn't? But, unlike Rudy Giuliani, Hillary Clinton, and George Pataki--and like another diminutive self-made billionaire--Bloomberg is thinking of running as an Independent. There's a case to be made that 2008 presents a rare, promising moment. Almost three-quarters of voters would, in theory, like a third-party alternative in the 2008 election, according to a new poll commissioned by Unity '08, a group that aims to create a bipartisan "unity ticket" though an online political convention. But, as Bloomberg steps into this Ross Perot moment, will the enthusiasms of Greenwich and the Upper East Side equal those of America?
The original source of the Bloomberg-for president buzz is a soft- spoken 40-year-old deputy mayor named Kevin Sheekey. Sheekey has been Bloomberg's closest political adviser since the media mogul hired him away from Senator Pat Moynihan in 1997. One of that happy class of Irish-American operatives who never seem to be working terribly hard, yet always win, Sheekey earned Bloomberg's respect with a series of Washington coups, including seizing for Bloomberg LP host privileges of what had been the fabulous Vanity Fair White House Correspondents' Dinner after-party.
Soon after Bloomberg's reelection last fall (a monument of overkill in which Sheekey spent $84,587,319 of Bloomberg's money), Sheekey started telling reporters that he'd be seeing them in New Hampshire. At the time, the line was universally taken as a joke. But, since his reelection, the mayor began seeking platforms to take stands on national issues. In Baltimore, he pressed for stem-cell research and attacked "political science." Back home, he convened a national summit of mayors to press for tighter gun control. He laid out an immigration-reform proposal of his own in The Wall Street Journal, and, in Chicago, he denounced partisan squabbling, adding that "both ends of the political spectrum share the blame. And both seem unwilling to change."
Bloomberg has suggested that, if he runs, it would be on a new party line of his own creation. No cold days in Iowa, no small rooms in New Hampshire. He could afford, like Ross Perot, to set up a petition drive to secure ballot status in late 2007 after the Republican and Democratic candidates were clear. (Bloomberg is unlikely to run if John McCain, who supported him for mayor, becomes the Republican nominee.) Playing to his strengths as a technocrat, he would run on competence and nonpartisan management--the style, over the substance, of his politics.
In e-mail and telephone conversations (conducted, ironically, as he shuttled Democratic Party officials around the city to convince them to hold their 2008 convention here), Sheekey recently gamed out a third-party Bloomberg campaign. A Bloomberg bid, Sheekey explains, could come as the antidote if the candidate with the most appeal across party lines (McCain) has been taken out by the conservative wing of his own party and the Democrats nominate a certain someone with a well-known electability problem. "If John McCain gets beaten to the right--which is possible in a conservative Republican primary-- and, if Democrats elect someone through a primary who Democrats generally view as unelectable, there's a large segment of the American electorate that is looking for something different, and that could be 36 percent of the vote in enough states to give you an electoral win," he says.
Bloomberg's friends--or at least the members of his East Side dinner- party set, who have enjoyed the city's economic resurgence--have been eager to convince the mayor that he has what it takes. "My wife asked a direct question to the mayor about him running for president," recalls Rubenstein of the dinner at his apartment in April. Around the table were the top executives of L'Oréal, Miramax, Pfizer, and Commerce Bank, along with Time Inc. Editor-in-Chief John Huey and News Corp chief Rupert Murdoch.
The mayor hedged, and "people around the table were saying, 'You know, it's a pretty good idea,'" says Rubenstein. "The people that I know, they would welcome his run."
The people who study third parties, however, are skeptical that Bloomberg would resonate with the typical third-party voter--not a New Yorker who likes his mayor but a voter in Utah or Maine (the two states where Perot finished second) who is suspicious of her government. According to Ronald Rapoport and Walter Stone, authors of a new study of Perot's politics, Three's a Crowd, Perot's appeal came as much from his specific positions that had been abandoned by both parties--he was for a nationalistic cocktail of isolationism, libertarianism, budget-balancing, and rolling back free trade--as it did from his outsider, reformist stance. But the kind of third-party discussion that animates Manhattan dinner parties has, oddly, ignored the one issue that candidates actually have failed to address. "The issue of immigration is the issue on which a third party could form," Rapoport says. "The third party on immigration is the party which says, 'Send them back.'"
That's hardly Bloomberg's line. The nativism that helped animate Perot--not to mention his most successful recent predecessor, George Wallace--is precisely the opposite of what made Bloomberg a national figure in the first place: his global financial information business. Writing in The Wall Street Journal last month, Bloomberg called for immigration reform that gives "those already here the opportunity to earn permanent status and keep their families together, provided they pay appropriate penalties." And his political instincts on other national issues are very, well, New York. When Zacarias Moussaoui was sentenced to life imprisonment for terrorist plotting, Bloomberg was not among the Americans outraged that he hadn't been given the death penalty. Sounding presidential only by Upper West Side standards, he told reporters he hoped Moussaoui would spend his life in "as un-nice a jail as the law would allow."
"That's the Bloomberg predicament," says Rapoport. "He doesn't have any real issues." That is to say, Bloomberg's stances may be out of line with his Republican affiliation, but you don't have to leave the two-party system to find politicians who favor stem-cell research, free trade, abortion, gay rights, and gun control. They're called Democrats.
Sheekey insists that a Bloomberg bid could actually help the Democrats. "The truth is there hasn't been a Democratic candidate since Jimmy Carter who's won a presidential race with 50 percent of the vote," he says, arguing that almost anything that alters the electoral playing field is good for the Democrats. But the Democrats who have begun to pay attention to the emerging possibility of a Bloomberg bid are less sanguine, particularly those around Hillary Clinton. "It's insane," says Howard Wolfson, a Clinton adviser, who thinks Bloomberg couldn't win but could spoil. "He would end up doing a lot more damage to a Democrat than a Republican." Wolfson adds that he's starting to think Bloomberg may run.
Rapoport's candidate of choice, meanwhile, wouldn't do quite so well as Bloomberg on the Manhattan social circuit. "If you were going to ask me who represents the Perot voter," he says, "Lou Dobbs comes a lot closer than Bloomberg."
Ben Smith is a political reporter for New York's Daily News.