Every four years, about a year or so before the presidential election, a crack opens in the two-party road to the White House, and suddenly everyone is talking about the possibility of a serious Independent Candidate for the presidency. Something in our dysfunctional political process seems to conjure the Independent Candidate out of thin air and then keep him or her afloat, at least for a while. Consider: One-third of the electorate identifies with neither the Ds nor the Rs; super-majorities think the nominating process takes too long and is too dominated by big money and special interests; and the major candidates frequently avoid controversial issues. These are conditions that have fostered the election of independent governors in a handful of states (Connecticut, Maine and Minnesota are the recent cases). So the notion of a viable Independent Candidate is not pure fantasy.
Sometimes the major-party candidates are so cravenly bland or neglectful of a constituency that they propel an alienated outsider into making a run for office. Think George Wallace in 1968, breaking with the Democrats on civil rights; John Anderson in 1980, breaking with the Republicans over their rising alliance with the religious right; Ross Perot in 1992, breaking with both parties on their failure to tame the deficit; or Ralph Nader in 2000, breaking with the rightward retreat of the Clinton/Gore Democrats. Unfortunately, these sorts of candidates have either been too ideologically cranky to galvanize the angry middle of the American electorate into a real force, or they’ve just been true cranks.
Sometimes the buzz is about little more than celebrities’ idle comments, or their concurrent need to sell something, like themselves. Think of the second half of 1999, when Warren Beatty, Donald Trump and Cybill Shepherd all allowed their names to be floated as possible candidates for the ill-fated Reform Party’s nomination, or the fall of 1995, when Colin Powell teased the press about his intentions while he hawked his autobiography. Add in the media’s never-ending need to sell papers and attract eyeballs, and you often get a silly season of speculation about the chances of so-and-so to slide into the Oval Office.
In June New York City’s billionaire mayor Michael Bloomberg announced that he was changing his party affiliation from Republican to independent, to “bring…my affiliation into alignment with how I have led and will continue to lead my city,” he said. That was all it took for the crack to open in the 2008 race, and something tells me that this time we are going to see the Independent Candidate gambit played by a pro who knows exactly what he is doing.
An actual Bloomberg effort to get onto the ballot in 2008 is highly unlikely for a number of reasons. As a longtime Democrat who only switched to the Republican Party to leapfrog past a crowded and divisive Democratic primary into the general election for mayor in 2001, Bloomberg is reportedly not interested in damaging the chances of Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama entering the White House. He’s been quoted asking, “What chance does a five-foot-seven billionaire Jew who’s divorced really have of becoming President?” He enjoys his privacy and spends many weekends away from the city, often in Bermuda (where neighbors of his 6,000-square-foot “cottage” reportedly include not only Perot but Italian poli-mogul Silvio Berlusconi). The odds that he would risk all that on an expensive bid for an office he might not win and a job that would drain him if he did are very low, in my view.
But Bloomberg doesn’t actually have to run for President to tilt the race his way, the classic and most beneficial role of any maverick or third-party candidate. That is, at least for the next ten months, when the first hard deadlines for ballot access close (in Texas). All he has to do is talk about his willingness to spend a half-billion dollars on a possible bid, visit some swing states every now and then and make a speech about how it’s more important to deliver effective government than score partisan points, and perhaps put a few consultants on retainer (I know of two people who keep themselves on call for him), and he will have maximized his leverage over the national debate at minimal cost. That is a move worthy of the businessman he is.