Michael Bloomberg speaks at the Institute of Politics at Saint Anselm College in Manchester, N.H., January 29, 2019. (Brian Snyder/Reuters)Though the pragmatist billionaire angers liberal and conservative partisans alike, he has much to offer both sides.
The troubles with Michael Bloomberg, from the conservative point of view, are obvious enough: He has a terrible record on abortion and on Second Amendment rights. He is a climate-change crusader and is unlikely to install great heaping pallets of Federalist Society–approved judges in the U.S. courts. He is a nanny and a scold whose conception of the proper sphere of government action is broad enough to encompass salt-shakers and soda cups. But while Nurse Bloomberg may be Barry Goldwater in comparison to the silly Sandinista sad-sack who succeeded him, he is not running against Bill de Blasio or Warren Wilhelm Jr. or whatever it is the mayor of New York City is calling himself these days.
Republicans, damn their eyes, are by all appearances more or less satisfied — or much more than satisfied — with President Donald Trump. It is easy to see why they would turn up their noses at Michael Bloomberg. It is less obvious why progressives would.
The Democrats’ objections to him are partly demographic — he is an old, white, male billionaire in a party that increasingly is openly hostile to each of those categories independently and slavers with rage when they are combined — and partly political: In rhetoric and in office, Bloomberg has shown himself to be a bipartisan moderate who if not quite free of ideology at least has the good sense to try to subordinate ideological passions (his and others’) to the pursuit of administrative competence.
While we should bear in mind that much of what passes for “pragmatism” in American politics is ideology dressed up in quantitative drag, Bloomberg’s relatively narrow brief for the presidency should still be music to the ears of old-fashioned, Eisenhower Republicans:
The president of the United States runs the executive branch, with its hundreds of agencies and 4 million employees. The job’s essential skills primarily involve leadership and management, not policy analysis. The country elects a commander in chief, and yet based on the campaign so far, one might think we are electing a legislator in chief — or a prime minister whose party controls a parliament.
Bloomberg also boasts an excellent record in office as mayor of New York City, a job that endows his curriculum vitae with a record of executive accomplishment that is an order of magnitude more substantial than that of Joe Biden, a vice president whom Barack Obama did not think enough of to support for the presidency in 2016, or that of Pete Buttigieg, formerly the mayor of Corn Depot, Ind., or wherever it was. The rest of the Democratic field is dominated by time-serving career hacks and fantasists such as Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders.
There is a governor in the Democratic race (Steve Bullock of Montana, going nowhere) and a billionaire businessman (hedge-fund man Tom Steyer, a hobbyist) but no one with an actual record in executive office that is anywhere near as compelling as Bloomberg’s. There are a couple of Democratic candidates who could conceivably best Donald Trump in a general election; but other than Bloomberg, there is no one who might plausibly make an effective president — “effective” here meaning effective as something more than a partisan mascot and cultural totem.
(A little irony: Donald J. Trump vs. Hillary Rodham Clinton might have made a pretty good election for mayor of New York City.)
When Trump ran in 2016, he touted his billions in personal wealth and his record in business. And a lot of voters bought what he was selling. If I were a partisan Democrat, I might enjoy the spectacle of his trying to pull that in a race against Michael Bloomberg, a self-made quinquagintibillionaire without a string of embarrassing casino bankruptcies on his résumé, a man who could buy and sell Donald Trump a dozen times over by Trump’s own estimate. (The real multiple is probably more like 60.) Democrats might also enjoy the fact that Bloomberg is kind of a jerk — but a cold-blooded one, not a rage-tweeting one. When the newly elected President Trump asked his advice on governing, Bloomberg answered: “You don’t know anything about government. Hire people who are smarter than you.” Good advice, and the country is better off for the fact that Trump took it in many cases.
Anti-Trump Republicans are not a very large constituency, but it is possible to imagine Bloomberg siphoning off some high-profile Republican support in a way that Warren or Biden could never hope to do. If 2020 ended up being a fight over suburban moderates, Bloomberg would have the edge.
A Democratic party sufficiently reformed that it would nominate a sensible figure such as Michael Bloomberg would in itself constitute a significant victory for conservatives. Unfortunately, the Democrats are unlikely to undertake that necessary self-examination without a heavy electoral defeat. It took Ronald Reagan’s 49-state landslide in 1984 to get Democrats started on the de-McGovernization process, and it took until 1992 before they were able to capitalize on it. Losing again to Donald Trump might be what it takes for the Democrats to start thinking again. But if they’d rather not go through that, then they could do worse than Bloomberg.
Unfortunately for them, they almost certainly will, too.