They Like Mike
Now Bailey and Rafshoon have latched onto the Bloomberg bubble, and they're hoping to pump it up into a real candidacy. Bailey gave me this rationale for a Bloomberg run: "Particularly with the economy going bad, I think there's a public awareness that the country is in trouble, that we face more crucial and tough issues than at any time we can remember: terrorism, the economy, the entitlement crunch, failing schools, failing parents, immigration, global climate change, inadequate healthcare coverage. On top of that, the political system in Washington is broken and can't come to common ground on any of these issues. I think the public sees that. Therefore I think that they're likely to be ready to consider rational change in the political system in order to find a way of solving all those other problems. That's what Bloomberg represents--an extraordinarily successful problem solver in the political world."
Rafshoon agrees. "After seven years, this country is ready for a competent leader," he said at a January press conference in Washington. "It's ready for a nonideological approach to our problems, and it's ready to stop the partisan bickering that goes on between parties and within parties."
The two men have launched a Draft Bloomberg Committee with their own funds, and say it is completely independent of Bloomberg. Curiously, the group is organized as both a political committee subject to FEC limits and as a 527 independent committee. "We have one committee that divides the funds that we receive," Bailey told me, with the first $5,000 of every donation going to the PAC and the rest to the 527. That's a financial arrangement that gets around a limit that hindered Unity08's fundraising efforts. The Draft Bloomberg Committee has taken over its lease.
Is this an election where competence can beat ideology? Certainly there is something in the air that is militating against the partisanship of the past two decades and buoying candidates like Barack Obama and Mike Huckabee. Apart from the hard-right 20 to 30 percent of the electorate that would be repelled by Bloomberg's liberal positions on gun control, gay rights and abortion, there's at least a plurality in his reach. Current polls show that Bloomberg isn't very well-known nationwide and draws about 12 percent in a potential three-way race. But that's without his running an active campaign; essentially, 12 percent is his floor, not his ceiling.
But I don't think the country is likely to rally to a split-the-difference bureaucratic problem solver. If Bloomberg runs, he has to take some clear stands to position himself in front of the other nominees, not just between them. Bloomberg should pay attention to the factors that helped Jesse Ventura beat two traditional politicians for the governorship of Minnesota in 1998. The key is to be positioned as the one truthteller in the race against two career pols who are too ambitious and beholden to their parties' dominant interests to do what is best for the country. To be sure, Bloomberg has none of Ventura's natural charisma, and I have my doubts about how far his patrician style will get him with the lunch-pail crowd. However, working-class people in New York City seem to like that he is not "owned" by anyone, and he could easily attack the major-party candidates as being too beholden to all the money they're raising.
If he runs as a no-nonsense skeptic of the "war on terror," cautious about unilateralism overseas, for dramatic action to combat climate change, for an end to wasteful government spending and for big changes that make the government conduct its business in a far more transparent and interactive manner, Bloomberg could conceivably draw a plurality made up of independents, moderate Republicans and insurgent Democrats. That's especially the case if the major-party nominees are seen as representing their establishments.
But the failure of Unity08 should give Bloomberg pause. True, it failed because it ran out of money, something Bloomberg doesn't lack. But money cannot replace a compelling message (just ask Presidents Perot, Forbes, Gramm and Connally). The current presidential field is a lot tougher than the candidates Bloomberg has faced in New York. And other than a few consultants and earnest college students, no one seems to be clamoring for an iconoclastic billionaire to get into the race.